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Indigenous Lives and Disability Justice

Indigenous Lives and Disability Justice

Jen Deerinwater

Content notes: genocide, colonization, suicide, death, medical neglect, discrimination, racism, settler colonialism, rape, sexual assault, murder, eugenics, forced sterilization, trauma, intergenerational trauma, historical trauma


I see how many of you put your lives on the line to fight for disability rights and justice. I saw the multiple photos and videos of you all holding it down and being arrested for our healthcare rights. The images of our community members being dragged out of government buildings and arrested in wheelchairs will forever be permanently etched in mind as will my undying respect for each of you.

The amazing work of ADAPT, and people such as Anita Cameron and Carrie Ann Lucas, inspired me to speak more publicly about the intersections of my disabilities and healthcare needs as a bisexual, Two Spirit, Tsalagi, citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. The rage and pain of seeing my people hurt and dying eventually overtook the fear of what would happen if I took a public stand and committed civil disobedience. In those moments of internal panic and self-doubt the words of the ever fierce Zora Neale Hurston often run through my mind, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

I’ll admit though that I’m angry and deeply saddened by how many of you repeatedly ignore the disability and healthcare justice needs for Indigenous people. On January 13, 2019 I tweeted a thread holding each of you accountable to Native disability justice. The U.S. was in the middle of its longest shutdown ever and many Native people, myself included, were going without full healthcare yet I didn’t see much in the way of support from the disability community.

It’s not uncommon for Indigenous people to be overlooked in movement work and life. I never cease to be amazed at how ignorant people are about those whose land they occupy. It hurts to not be seen or valued. I know many of you can relate in some way, but it’s especially problematic that you’re choosing to ignore the needs of those whose lands you occupy. I understand the multitude of reasons that brought you to Turtle Island, and that not all of you are here of your choosing, but the fact remains that this land has been the home of Indigenous people since time immemorial and as guests you need to honor this.  

American Indians and Alaska Natives have lower life expectancies in the U.S. as well as in India, Sudan, and Iraq. Forty-two percent of our population is 24 or younger. Murder is the third leading cause of death for Indigenous women in the U.S. and on some reservations we are murdered at ten times the national average. Our youth have crisis levels of suicide. Native people have the highest rates of incarceration and houselessness which has huge impacts on access to healthcare and the creation of new health issues. The loss and destruction of our lands has left many of us without access to our traditional medicines and remedies. We’re still contending with the backlash of the criminalization of our spirituality which is deeply connected to traditional healthcare.

Our lack of food sovereignty has left many of us to rely on the garbage we receive in what is often called “commodity boxes” through the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. We also rely heavily on EBT which doesn’t give nearly enough funds for people to feed themselves, let alone to purchase healthy food. This is a particularly challenging problem for our relatives in rural lands where food costs are significantly higher. As a result many of us have much higher rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease than the U.S. average.

Many of my Tsalagi family members die in their fifties. I never even had the opportunity to meet my Grandpa Deerinwater and that is an ever lasting loss of not only family, but language and culture. I’ll be forty in June and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of how my life could end very soon due to genocide. I honestly never even expected to make it to eighteen, let alone forty, and that enrages me.  

Indigenous people are sick from the poisoning of our lands and waters by the U.S. government and corporations, such as Energy Transfer Partners. Since the camps opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline  at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation were forcefully closed we have lost at least twenty-one Water Protectors to lung related deaths and suicides. Our people were repeatedly doused with chemicals, shot with rubber bullets and concussion grenades, attacked with fire hoses in subzero temperatures, and so much more than I could possibly write here. As global climate chaos and extractive industries continue to wreak havoc on our lands, and more of us become climate refugees, our health will only become worse.

You can choose any issue from police brutality to road access on our remaining lands and our people have it the worst yet our needs continually go unanswered. I have no interest in playing in oppression Olympics, but this is the reality. We are losing our people at devastating rates from often completely preventable deaths. This is genocide happening in real-time and most of you don’t even see it.

Our access to healthcare is the lowest in the U.S. and the quality of care we receive through Indian Health Services (IHS)-a federally funded and operated healthcare system for those enrolled in state and federally recognized tribal nations-consistently remains the worst ranked care in this undeniably wealthy nation. Our ancestors paid with their lives and land in order to negotiate this care into the treaties, yet the U.S. government doesn’t properly meet this treaty responsibility. Those of us who are Native aren’t surprised though. ameriKKKa has broken every treaty it signed with Native nations. These treaties are just as valid and important as those that our politicians enter into with other nations, but because we Native people are disposable to non-Natives very few of you hold ameriKKKa accountable.

The 2018 Presidential Budget funds for IHS (Indian Health Service) breaks down to only $1,634.24 per Native for the entire year. The situation is even more dire for urban-based Natives of which 7 out of 10 of us are. We only receive 23 cents per person annually from IHS. During the 2018-2019 shutdown IHS went without most of its funding leaving many of our people on rural lands without care and working without pay, and urban IHS care went completely unfunded. I am only just now able to refill a chronic pain management medication not covered by Medicare and Medicaid through the IHS reimbursement program.

IHS care is so woefully inept that we often can’t get basic care at IHS facilities. Those in labor or with broken bones are often sent to other facilities that could be several hours drive, boat or plane ride away in good weather. Furthermore, our medical needs as victims of violence are very rarely met. More than one in two Native women in the colonized U.S. have been raped in our lifetimes yet rape kits aren’t even collected at the vast majority of IHS facilities. Despite the fact that primarily white, cis men bring drugs, alcohol, and STD/STIs onto our lands the care we receive is almost non-existent. IHS also has a history of forcibly and coercively sterilizing those with wombs and as such we have a significant trust barrier to care. It’s estimated that in the 1970s anywhere from 25-50% of Native women who received care at IHS were sterilized. The Claremore Indian Hospital in Claremore, Oklahoma, where I received care as a child, has a long history of this genocidal act.

As an urban Native I can’t say that I have fared well in non-Native medical spaces. I’ve had providers assume that because I’m Native that I’m an alcoholic or drug addict. I’ve repeatedly been demeaned, denied care, and mocked by non-Native medical providers and support staff. I’m currently in the middle of filing complaints with The George Washington University Hospital for the racial discrimination, abuse, and poor care I’ve received at their facilities. I honestly expect that nothing will come of this, but I simply can’t stay silent.

I’ve shared so many of these statistics and realities with non-Natives more times than I care to count. This takes a heavy toll on me. I’ve sat crying almost the entire time writing this essay. I could have caught up on rest or spent time with friends, or wrote any other number of articles instead I have to spend my finite time and energy hoping that you all will wake up and stand up for the Native members of our disability and spoonie communities.

I’ve recently decided that I will no longer sacrifice myself fighting for the rights of others if all of my communities aren’t meaningfully included. Your lives are not worth more than me and mine and justice will never occur if the rights of a few come at the expense of others. Leaving anyone behind is egregious, but to leave behind those of this land is unconscionable.

Until Indigenous people have a seat at the table that was made out of our stolen resources and sits on our stolen lands I will hold each and every one of you accountable. I do this with love because we can do better. I do this out of necessity because we must do better. I do this because as Hurston so clearly stated, if I stay silent then you will only kill Native people and say we enjoyed it.

With love, respect, and a demand to do better,




Close up of a light complexion, Two Spirit femme with black glasses, green eyes, shoulder length brown hair, Native style beaded dangling earrings, with bright red lips and a red shirt. In the foreground is a paved path and grass.
Close up of a light complexion, Two Spirit femme with black glasses, green eyes, shoulder length brown hair, Native style beaded dangling earrings, with bright red lips and a red shirt. In the foreground is a paved path and grass.

Jen Deerinwater is a classically trained vocalist vagabond with a love for books, well made martinis, and antique maps. She has several degrees from over priced universities and the student loan debt to prove it. Jen is Bisexual, Two Spirit, Disabled, and is mixed race Tsalagi-a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. After several years spent in the trenches of ameriKKKan politics you can now find her stirring the pot of radical discourse through journalism and grassroots organizing. Jen is also the founder and executive director of Crushing Colonialism, an international, Indigenous, multi-media organization. You can follow her soapbox rants on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.


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