HIV and Indigenous Peoples: In the Aftermath of Trauma

—Suzy Subways

December 2008 • Issue 9

When stigma is attached to HIV, people’s vulnerability to the virus is discussed in terms of individual behavioral choices, and a community with disproportionately high HIV rates is blamed for its supposed failures. The injustice that drives HIV is covered up. But when we take the stigma away and look at history, we see that homophobia shapes the epidemic among gay men to a devastating degree, and that sexism makes women vulnerable. In Native American communities, homophobia and sexism also drive the epidemic, but in ways that are deeply rooted in racism, colonialism, and genocide.

“When conducting research among Native Americans, dispossession must be considered as the underlying cause of the many existing health disparities, including those that result in HIV/AIDS,” according to a 2007 research brief by John Lowe for the Journal of the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care called “The Need for Historically Grounded HIV/AIDS Prevention Research Among Native Americans.” Lowe continues: “The policies enacted by the United States government that enforced the dispossession of Native American Indian lands and termination or assimilation of Native American culture have resulted in a trauma of catastrophic proportions with destructive outcomes. Aside from disease, these include disenfranchisement; extermination of tradition, language, and land rights; broken treaties; sterilization of women; placement of children in Indian boarding schools; and other strategies of colonization.”

Lowe explains that many generations have endured this trauma – and it has many symptoms. A Center for AIDS Prevention Studies fact sheet states that HIV in Native communities is linked to high rates of poverty, ill health, family violence, and drug and alcohol use, which are among the symptoms of the intergenerational trauma that Lowe discusses. According to the National Native American AIDS Prevention Center, HIV rates among American Indians and Alaska Natives rank third after those of African Americans and Latinos, and Native peoples’ life expectancy after diagnosis is the shortest of any ethnicity. High imprisonment rates and substandard health care contribute to the problem. The numbers of Native people living with HIV in the United States are significantly under-reported for many reasons, including the misclassification of individuals as white or Latino.

In this issue of Solidarity Project, we look at innovative ways that Native communities are organizing to heal from the intergenerational trauma that has increased their vulnerability to HIV. The Boarding School Healing Project is not only documenting the abuses Native people experienced at government-sponsored Christian schools, but also creating space for community healing and fighting for reparations.

In Oaxaca, Mexico, muxhes, whose assigned sex at birth was male and gender expression is female, celebrate their traditional roles in indigenous culture and lead AIDS activism in their communities. Indigenous rights activists in Oaxaca are challenging massive government corruption, which has crippled AIDS services there, and helping farmers keep their land so they won’t have to seek jobs in the United States, where HIV risk is greater for them and for their partners when they return home.

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Filed under displacement and gentrification, economic justice, immigration/migration, imperialism/colonialism, Mexico, Native Americans/Indigenous peoples, Solidarity Project

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