Tomorrow during Thanksgiving, many of you will gather around the dinner table with your loved ones and express gratitude for your friends, family and good fortune. Many of you will feel warm fuzzy holiday cheer, think of the meal associated with the inception of this holiday, and gloss over the real history surrounding the relationship between those who attended the first “Thanksgiving” dinner. After eating a second helping of Grandma’s famous pie, few will be concerned about the side of historical oppression or racist colonization offered with this dinner because well, that isn’t so palatable.
Why should a health care professional care about the circumstances regarding the original “Thanksgiving?” What does that even mean and why is it relevant?
Before we arrive at Thursday’s meal, let’s start with the beginning of this week.
On Monday morning, official reports on behalf of the North Dakota police defended their decision to use water hoses, rubber bullets and tear gas on activists of Standing Rock. This was in spite of the possibility of inducing hypothermia in the protesters who had peacefully assembled in sub-zero temperature. Not surprisingly, seventeen individuals were rushed to the hospital soon after.
Over the past few months, thousands have gathered at Sacred Stone camp to stand in solidarity with U.S. citizens defending their homes and livelihoods threatened by the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The Dakota Access Pipeline is 3.7 billion dollar project intended to traverse four states, the Missouri River and Lake Oahe, a major source of water for the nearby reservation. It was initially set to pass through Bismark, but the majority white city was able to prevent the construction on their land after expressing concerns that the route was too close to an important water supply and passed through a “high consequence area” which would suffer detrimental consequences in the event of an oil spill.
Although an underground pipeline is a safer option for transporting oil in comparison to trucks or trains, there is no question that it places the Standing Rock Sioux’s sole water supply at great risk of being contaminated should a spill occur (which is quite likely). A recent interview quotes the CEO of Energy Transfer Partners repeatedly saying that because their project is to be completed with “brand-new steel,” there is minimal risk, but his statements are not supported by any evidence. As health care professionals, we know that we attempt to ensure the health of our patients by providing therapeutic services that meet the standard of care according to evidence-based medicine. The same standard should be met when developing and constructing projects that have the potential to cause significant harm to both the surrounding environment and its inhabitants.
Unfortunately, for many years, our government has allowed corporations to exploit the economic disadvantage of American Indians and transform their lands into sewage dumps. We have all seen the Thanksgiving school play in which American Indians eagerly hand over their fall harvest to the new settlers of their land. This play conveniently ignores how American Indians were eventually evicted from their own homes, forced to live on poor quality land and subjected to mass killings at the hands of their new friends. The justification? The false superiority of the white race. A superiority complex which would survive through racist policies and government. In 1970, a group of American Indians deemed Thanksgiving an official day of mourning to remember the bleak history surrounding the event. As evidenced by DAPL, the consequences remain tangible today.
The Standing Rock Sioux and more than 100 American Indian tribes have rightfully declared that they do not wish for DAPL to be built on their territory as it is undeniably a threat to health and well-being of their reservation. American Indians, like other historically oppressed U.S. minorities, have been subjected to disproportionately poor health outcomes when compared to their white counterparts. Studies have shown that compared to the white citizen, the American Indian and Alaska Native has a lower life expectancy and higher chronic disease burden. American Indians face a significant number of barriers to care, such as poor education, overwhelming poverty and discrimination in the delivery of health care. With such a complex history, American Indians also have a suicide rate that is more than double the national average. The Indian Health Services has made an effort to improve the health of this population but has frequently been underfunded and understaffed in order to carry out this mission. Medical schools are quick to support white-saviour-like programs enabling medical students to live on reservations and assist with medical care — however these institutions make no effort to recruit American Indian students, who would be more likely to spend their careers serving their community, into their undergraduate medical programs.
This Thanksgiving, as you sit in the comfort of your home possibly cheering for a football team that has mocked an entire culture and made a people group its mascot, protesters at Sacred Stone Camp will be huddling together in freezing temperatures. This Thanksgiving, families will attempt to hold onto their dignity as they fight for a piece of their heritage they have managed to withhold from the American bully. This Thanksgiving, citizens will be demanding justice from a government that is supposed to protect them but has failed yet again, because “we the people” was not written with the intent to include people of color. Trump’s election was a blatant reminder that mindsets held by European immigrants circa the inaugural Thanksgiving are still firmly possessed by today’s citizens and politicians. In the wake of Trump’s election, many liberal health care professionals have suddenly become distressed by the burdens that people of color have endured for centuries. They are suddenly weeping over their parents’ votes, their passive allowance of voter suppression, and their failure to act as true allies. Here lies an opportunity to show that you are actually committed to advocating on behalf of people who have been forced to deal with the short end of the stick throughout the entire history of U.S. politics.
As a future physician, I intend to use my professionally privileged voice to help minority citizens as they plead for their right to drink clean water and breathe fresh air. How can the field of medicine claim to help people and improve their health when we make no effort to prevent their illness in the first place? How do we remain silent knowing that corporations and local governments take advantage of the poor and communities of color by intentionally dumping pollutants in their neighborhoods? How dare we participate in the condonement of systemic injustice by turning a blind eye? Physicians must be willing to discuss the history and current nature of racism; it permeates the foundation of so many aspects of society and if ignored will prevent true health and healing for our patients.
As a medical student committed to health equity I hope to stand in solidarity with those at Standing Rock today. The Free Thought Project has drafted a list of simple actions of support. We all have access to telephones. Take a few minutes to call the North Dakota governor Jack Dalrymple at 701-328-2200 and voice your opposition to DAPL. Call the White House at 202-456-1111 or 202-456-1414 and tell President Obama to rescind the Army Corps of Engineers’ permit allowing this project. Gather a group of students and organize a donation drive for the protesters; you can find an official list of suggested supplies here. Call Paul Ryan at 202-225-0600 and voice your support of the Affordable Care Act, which permanently reauthorized the Indian Health Care Improvement Act in order to facilitate health care to American Indians and Alaska Natives. Join White Coats for Black Lives in its fight for racial justice in medicine. Finally, if you are financially able to support them, the official Standing Rock website is currently accepting donations.
May our conversations during next year’s holiday dinner give thanks to the opportunity of not only declaring allyship and wearing safety pins, but also actively working to dismantle oppressive systems. Happy Thanksgiving.