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ADA 30: No Justice for Disabled Native People

ADA 30: No Justice for Disabled Native People

Jen Deerinwater 

Content notes: genocide, sexual assault, eugenics, suicide, suicide attempts, intergenerational trauma

Plain language summary

Waking up has been increasingly difficult as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on in the year 2020. My trauma-related anxiety and chronic pain have skyrocketed, making it almost impossible to function in any way, including writing this piece.

I fear not only for myself, but for my Indigenous relatives. On April 7th the Zuni Pueblo published a press release that they’re now facing extinction due to COVID-19. On April 12th People published an article that the Navajo Nation had more confirmed COVID-19 deaths than thirteen states combined. Given the abysmal lack of testing and facilities to process tests, many in the Native community will never know an accurate contraction and death rate. 

The first person to die of COVID-19 in my home state of Oklahoma was a fellow Cherokee Nation citizen. Oklahoma has one of the largest Native populations in the U.S. and despite our vulnerabilities to the virus, Governor Stitt never issued a stay-at-home order and even “reopened the economy” on April 24th

I worry not only for Native people, but all of my fellow Okies. Oklahoma has one of the lowest access rates to COVID-19 testing in the U.S. and a highly vulnerable population. We have a high rate of minimum wage workers earning only $7.25, with the exception of waitstaff, who earn $2.13 an hour plus tips. Oklahoma has had the highest rates of incarcerated women in the U.S. for over 25 years and is now the world’s prison capital. The pollution is miserable as well due to the free-for-all the government has given the oil and gas industry. Cushing, OK even boasts that it’s the “pipeline crossroads of the world.” If you can’t afford adequate housing, medical care, are able to social distance, or access clean water or breathe the air then COVID-19 becomes even more deadly.

Preparing for this piece, I’ve had to think critically about what the ADA means to me as a disabled and chronically ill Indigenous person. Honestly, it means very little to me. I’d rather the ADA exist than not, but as we’re seeing under COVID-19 it means very little for Native lives. Writing an article on the ADA at 30 feels trivial yet crucial at this time. 

American Indians and Alaskan Natives (AI and AN) have the highest rates of disabilities and chronic illness of all other ethnic groups in the U.S. yet we are consistently left out of conversations and policy regarding disability justice. While many in the disability community were swooning over Senator Warren and her bid for presidency, I, and many other Native spoonies, were enraged how our lives were yet again deemed unimportant by one of the communities that should stand with us. 

Unlike non-Native people in the U.S., AI and AN people have a treaty guaranteed right to healthcare through the federally funded and operated Indian Health Services, yet IHS is grossly underfunded and isn’t accessible to the vast majority of AI and AN people. Seventy-one percent of AI and AN people live in urban areas yet there are only forty-one urban Indian health centers serving only 25% of urban Natives. Many of us live in and travel to Washington D.C. on a regular basis, but there isn’t a single Native health center here. Meanwhile I’m assaulted with a daily onslaught of vile, racist mascot imagery that threatens my mental and emotional well being. Even the roads here ooze of Native genocide. Maryland Route 210 is also known as “Indian Head Highway.” 

IHS is consistently ranked the worst healthcare in the country and it’s often where medical providers go when they’re not welcome in other facilities. Dr. Stanley Patrick Weber worked for IHS for decades despite the known fact that he was sexually assaulting his young patients. He was even transferred from a facility in Montana to the Pine Ridge Reservation facility in South Dakota in an attempt to cover up the abuse.

As so often happens with disabled, Black, and Brown womxn, the federal government used IHS to sterilize anywhere from 25-50% of womb carrier patients in the 1970s. Despite the devastatingly high rates of sexual assault and violence that our women, children, and Two Spirits face the majority of our IHS facilities lack sexual assault nurse examiners, birth control, abortion, and STD/STI prophylactics.

The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) appropriates more money per incarcerated person than IHS does per Native. In 2016 BOP allocated  an average of $6,973 per inmate for healthcare versus only $1,297 per AI and AN person for IHS care. It’s truly a pathetic state of affairs when Native people could potentially get better healthcare in the BOP system than IHS. 

Disability access to buildings is another barrier for us. Many of our Native advocacy organizations, such as the National Congress of the American Indians and the National Indian Gaming Association, aren’t located in accessible buildings. Even some of the federally-owned and operated buildings on our tribal lands aren’t ADA compliant. How can we be expected to find jobs, resources, help, or community when we can’t even enter a building? 

The lack of access to our traditional foods, as well as the pollution of our lands, have also greatly increased our rates of preventable illnesses. AI and AN people have astronomically higher rates of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure than all other ethnic groups in the U.S. We also struggle with higher rates of suicide and drug and alcohol abuse. But how could we not be suicidal or abusing substances when many of us are struggling with historical and intergenerational trauma and the blatant discrimination we still face? The first time I attempted suicide I was eight years old. I was shocked when I made it to eighteen and even more stunned when I lived to see thirty. I know that every day I’m living on borrowed time. I vacillate between being thankful for each day and wondering if it’s even worth continuing the fight to survive. 

Adding to these pressures is knowing I can’t often count on my communities to stand with me. The discrimination and erasure I suffer in mainstream society as a bi, disabled, Two Spirit, Native womxn is also present within my communities. Outside of my apartment I don’t have any safe or welcoming space. I used to have some hope and optimism that if I, and others like me, spoke out we’d be supported by other marginalized people, but that’s not often the case. I went from being a social butterfly who searched for community to feeling alienated and enraged. 

While I want to recognize and honor the amazing spoonies out there that stand as accomplices to disabled and chronically ill Native people I can’t ignore that the disability justice community has done very little for us and often treats us just as disposable as the abled treat them. The same “great white father” that brought this genocide to Turtle Island is the same entity many in the disability justice community tell me I should appeal to for my rights. I refuse to beg and bargain for my life. 

Justice and freedom won’t come for me or any other Native spoonies until this colonialist system is destroyed and our tribal sovereignty is respected and protected. This means that we must stop looking to our oppressor to save us through policy such as the ADA and instead stand together in solidarity and become co-conspirators in the fight for our people’s lives. I thank those who came before me who worked so tirelessly and put their lives on the line for the ADA to reach its thirty-year anniversary, but I refuse to lie and paint a picture of freedom that simply doesn’t exist. We can, and must, 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.


Read all 13 essays from the #ADA3oInColor series 


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