During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Indigenous Nations across the country, including mine, are experiencing the disproportionate impact it has on our communities. We specifically feel devastated by the loss of our elders, who serve as the keepers of our knowledge and teachings. Losing them is not only frightening but also means the potential loss of our cultures and languages. In response to this crisis, the Oceti Sakowin, made up of the Lakota and Dakota people, prioritize language speakers for vaccination. As a Dakota and Yaqui Indigenous student at Harvard Medical School, I am witnessing the brilliance of this unprecedented public health policy.
Recognizing the real risk of losing our language and traditional knowledge, my Tribe, the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, encourages me and others to return to the Oceti Sakowin territory to spend time with elders and continue learning our language, passing it down to future generations. In support of this mission, Chairman Peter Langkeek of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe writes an official letter to Harvard Medical School.
Eventually, Harvard Medical School acknowledges the importance of Indigenous individuals, like myself, learning our language as a right and also acknowledges the Tribal government's right to take measures that improve the well-being of its citizens. This is seen as a public health measure that benefits not only me and my community but also the planet. It feels like a significant and progressive step for academia in understanding the rights of Indigenous Peoples, including Native students, regarding language and health.
This personal anecdote is just one example of how Indigenous languages play a tangible role in empowering Indigenous well-being and how public institutions can collaborate with us to protect and revitalize these languages. Each language is deeply connected to the land that an Indigenous Nation has occupied for countless generations and holds vast amounts of knowledge. As a result, Indigenous languages are crucial to the ongoing climate health discussion due to their protective benefits for the climate itself.
The loss of Indigenous languages not only affects climate health but also has detrimental effects on the health of Indigenous Peoples. As Indigenous Peoples lose their languages, they also lose the cultural practices and traditional knowledge that contribute to a healthy identity. Unfortunately, Indigenous languages have long been overlooked as a crucial aspect of Indigenous health.
While studying my language in the Oceti Sakowin territory, I also hear stories from Indigenous communities that have no access to COVID-19 information in their languages. Unfortunately, due to the lack of Indigenous representation in the health professions, reliable COVID-19 information in Indigenous languages is scarce and challenging to create. Indigenous Peoples who primarily speak their mother tongues are being left behind in the global public health response.
Amidst these difficulties, I recall an encounter at a Boston emergency room during my medical training. A young Indigenous patient from Guatemala arrives, trying to explain how he hit his head in broken Spanish. It soon becomes clear that his primary language is his Indigenous dialect from Guatemala. After informing my senior resident, we try to find his language on the hospital's translation list, but it is not available. As the tension rises, I can't help but consider the broader implications of this language barrier. The patient's condition is worsened by the lack of linguistic support, making his medical treatment a battle not only against his ailment but also against the limited resources available to the hospital when treating Indigenous immigrants from other countries who speak their mother tongues.To address a significant gap within the global medical field, it is imperative to increase the representation of Indigenous Peoples. Furthermore, the healthcare industry must invest in innovative solutions that draw upon centuries of intergenerational knowledge, including linguistic expertise.
In order to advance, the healthcare sector must actively acknowledge the importance of Indigenous languages in promoting Indigenous health. Although I am currently in the early stages of learning my language, I am deeply committed to meeting the expectations set by the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe. My ultimate vision is to create a future where upcoming generations can access healthcare facilities and converse with Dakota doctors in our native tongue. These doctors would provide culturally sensitive care by combining modern medicine with traditional practices, including the prescription of buffalo as a traditional food source. Moreover, they would ensure that patients receive treatment summaries in our language, enabling effective communication with their families and friends in Dakota upon returning home. Through documenting my experiences as an Indigenous medical student, my aspiration is to contribute to the advancement of Western medicine's support for Indigenous Peoples, ultimately striving for the realization of this vision for all.