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Life Expectancy for Indigenous Americans Drops by 6.6 Years

An Indigenous person born today can expect to live to age 65, according to the new figures.

A doctor consults with a Navajo Indian woman with symptoms at a COVID-19 testing center at the Navajo Nation town of Monument Valley in Arizona on May 21, 2020.

Life expectancy declined for Americans overall over the past two years due primarily to the coronavirus pandemic. But for Indigenous Americans, the decline was far worse, exacerbated by conditions and inequities that existed prior to the virus’s emergence.

Native Americans and Alaska Natives saw their life expectancy rates drop by 6.6 years over the past two years. Their life expectancies — which were already low compared to the rest of the U.S. population before the pandemic began — fell to 65 years old in 2021, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Experts say there isn’t a singular cause for the dramatic decline, which was more than twice the decline for Americans overall (a 2.75 years drop over the two-year period).

“The suffering is inextricably bound to a long history of poverty, inadequate access to health care, poor infrastructure and crowded housing, much of it the legacy of broken government promises and centuries of bigotry,” The New York Times reported late last month.

Researchers were initially surprised at the precipitous drop.

“When I saw a 6.6 year decline over two years, my jaw dropped…I made my staff re-run the numbers to make sure,” said Robert Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch of the National Center for Health Statistics.

But for Indigenous people throughout the country, the numbers — though horrifying — weren’t shocking.

“This is simply what happens biologically to populations that are chronically and profoundly stressed and deprived of resources,” said Ann Bullock, former director of diabetes treatment at federal Indian Health Services, and a member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, in an interview with The Times.

In fact, it’s highly probable that the decline is even worse than what researchers have discovered.

“It is not uncommon for a Native person to be identified as Native on their birth certificate but listed differently on their death certificates, usually listed as white,” noted Jennie R. Joe, a professor emerita at the University of Arizona’s Wassaja Carlos Montezuma Center for Native American Health. “It is therefore safe to say that the current life expectancy reported for Native Americans is probably a case of undercounting.”

“Discrimination is deadly,” noted Cindy Blackstock, a Canadian Gitxsan activist for child welfare and the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. “With unequal public services and colonial traumas, COVID took a shocking toll” on Indigenous populations, she said.

Notably, life expectancy rates were not uniform across Native American communities, Spiro M. Manson, director of the Centers for American Indian and Alaska Native Health at the University of Colorado, told Boise State Public Radio News.

“These rates of lowered life expectancy vary enormously by region, and they vary enormously by tribes,” said Manson, who is Pembina Chippewa.

But it’s clear that institutional racism and the ongoing effects of colonialism played a role, experts say.

“I was perusing the recent CDC Vital Statistics report on life expectancy, and one thing struck me this time as a clear indicator of structural racism: On average, white people live *a whole decade* longer than Indigenous people,” said Joseph M. Pierce, a Cherokee Nation Citizen and associate professor at Stony Brook University.

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