Native Americans and First Nations
“Native Americans” is a phrase used to describe a diverse array of Indigenous peoples in North, Central, and South America. Additionally, “First Nations” is a term that refers to any of the many groups of Indigenous people of Canada, though it may also be used to refer to the Indigenous peoples of any country or continent. Though referring to Native people by their specific tribal name is preferred, the terms “Native American,” “First American,” “American Indian,” “Native,” and “Indigenous” are considered acceptable and are used interchangeably to describe Indigenous communities in what is now the continental United States. Generally, Alaskan Natives and Native Hawaiians are named explicitly. Because racial and ethnic identities are deeply personal and are constantly evolving, terminology is a matter of individual preference and should be treated as such.
Native Americans have contributed to society in countless ways, including the invention of 21st century necessities like baby bottles and syringes, and military service in World War II. However, Native American people have also been consistently oppressed, exploited, and excluded since European colonization of the Americas began in 1492. In the time since colonization began, Native people have been subjected to biological warfare, forced sterilization, and genocide—among other atrocities—at the hands of white colonizers. Ideas central to the American zeitgeist, like “manifest destiny,” are rooted in the erasure of Indigenous people and culture. The belief that white, Christian people were entitled to all land between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans resulted in as much as 99% of Native land being stolen. As a result, Indigenous people have been forcibly removed from their homes and relocated, either onto low-resource reservations or assimilated into cities. Ongoing trauma from historical and modern injustices have left many Indigenous people with poor mental health and substance dependency. Native people who are economically poor, disabled, and/or LGBTQ+/Two Spirit are even more likely to struggle to thrive due to the compounding marginalizations they experience.
In recent years, the practice of forcibly separating Native children from their families and requiring them to attend residential schools has gained attention through discovery of mass graves at former residential school sites in Canada and the United States. Native children endured physical, psychological, and sexual abuse at such schools, where their culture and language were prohibited. Indigenous people have also been on the forefront of the environmental and climate justice movements, though they remain the most under-represented in the scientific and academic communities.
Achieving health equity and racial justice for Native Americans requires deeply uprooting racist systems that perpetuate their exploitation and abuse. Institutionalizing and operationalizing equity and justice throughout all leadership levels of all sectors will require organizations, allies, and systems to genuinely center and follow the leadership of people with lived experience. Community-led processes, self-representation, and centering the voices of Native people are a few effective tactics that communities can leverage to advance equity and well-being for Native Americans and First Nations.