During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Indigenous Nations across the country like mine began to feel it’s disproportionate impact on our communities. Then, we started losing our most precious resource, our elders. All of our teachings and knowledge are verbally transmitted. With every sentence, our elders share pieces of knowledge worth more than gold. Losing elders was incredibly scary. It meant potentially losing our cultures and languages. For my Tribe, our language was already at high risk of extinction. In response to this crisis, the Oceti Sakowin, made up of the Lakota and Dakota people, designated all language speakers as “essential workers” and gave them first access to vaccination. As a Dakota and Yaqui Indigenous student at Harvard Medical School, I recognized the brilliance in this unprecedented public health policy from our Nations.

Given the very real risk of the loss of language and traditional knowledge, my Tribe, the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, encouraged me and a number of others to return to the Oceti Sakowin territory to spend time with elders and continue to learn our language, so I could pass it down to my future children. In support of this mission, Peter Langkeek, Chairman of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, authored an official tribal letter to Harvard Medical School in which he wrote:

“This is Peter Langkeek, Chairman of the great Hunkpati Dakota Nation, also known as the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe. I am writing to formally notify you on behalf of our Tribe, that Waokiya Mani/Victor A. Lopez-Carmen will be taking one-year of spiritual and religious leave from February 2022-February 2023 to learn our language and participate in sacred ceremoniesThe Dakota, Nakota and Lakota languages are of utmost importance to the health of our people. Every two weeks, an Indigenous language dies. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Oceti Sakowin, also known as the Great Sioux Nation, has lost many elders and language keepers. Our language is at extreme risk. Our language is a fundamental aspect of our mental, physical, and spiritual health The possibilities of a future Dakota medical doctor who speaks our language to improve healthcare is also immense and cannot be overemphasized. Lastly, our languages are also protected and recognized as an integral aspect of our spirituality in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, endorsed by the United States.”

Harvard Medical School eventually honored the importance of my learning my language as my right as an Indigenous person, my Tribal government’s right to take measures to improve the intergenerational well-being of its citizens, and a public health measure that would benefit me, my community, and the planet. It felt like a momentous and progressive step for academia in moving toward understanding the rights of Indigenous Peoples, including Native students, around language and health.

This personal vignette is just one example of how Indigenous languages play a very tangible role in the empowerment of Indigenous wellbeing and how public instutitions can partner with us toward their protection and revitalization. But don’t take it from me. Indigenous Peoples make up around 5% of the world population but represent over 4000 of the spoken languages on Earth. Each language is initmately tied to the land that a particular Indigenous Nation has lived on since time immemorial, and contains vast ammounts of traditional science, knowledge, and practices that promotes a healthy living environment for humans and the entire ecosystem. In this way, Indigenous languages are vital to the growing climate health discussion due to their protective benefits to the climate itself.

Loss of Indigenous languages does not only impact climate health, but is detrimental to the health of Indigenous Peoples, leading to increased suicide rates, mental illness, and drug use. As Indigenous Peoples lose their languages, they begin to lose the cultural practices and traditional knowledge that has promotes a healthy identity. It is in this context that Indigenous languages have long been overlooked as a key aspect of Indigenous health.

While in Oceti Sakowin territory studying my language, I also began to hear stories from Indigenous communities who had no access to COVID-19 information in their languages. Through no fault of their own, Indigenous Peoples who did not speak one of the major world languages could not understand COVID-19 information being disseminated by public health institutions such as the Centers for Diseases Control (CDC) or the World Health Organization (WHO). Unfortunately, due to the lack of Indigenous representation in the health professions, reliable COVID-19 information in Indigenous languages was also sparse and difficult to create. Indigenous Peoples who still primarily spoke their mother tongues were being left behind in the global public health response.

Amidst these challenges, I recall an encounter at a Boston emergency room during my medical training. A young Indigenous patient from Guatemala, was rushed in, trying to explain how he hit his head in broken Spanish. It soon became apparent that his primary language was his Indigenous dialect from Guatemala.

After letting my senior resident know, we attempted to find his language on the hospital translation list, to no avail. As the tension mounted, I couldn’t help but reflect on the broader implications of this language barrier. The patient’s ailment was exacerbated by the absence of linguistic support, rendering his medical treatment a battle against not just his condition, but also the lack of resources available to the hospital when it comes to treating Indigenous immigrants from other countries who speak their mother tongues.

To bridge this systemic gap, and others, we need more Indigenous Peoples in medicine globally. Moreover, we need the field of healthcare to invest in our innovative solutions, many of which are based on thousands of years of intergenerational knowledge passed down through the generations, even linguistic knowledge.

Going forward, the field of healthcare must actively recognize the importance of Indigenous languages to Indigenous health. As I try to do my part and honor the letter the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe wrote so I could learn my language, I envision a day where my great grandchildren can walk into a health clinic and speak to a Dakota doctor in our language. That Dakota doctor might pray for them in our language, treat them with the best that modern medicine has to offer in culturally sensitive ways, prescribe them traditional foods like buffalo, and give them a patient summary in our language before they go home and speak Dakota to their family and friends. I pray that the documentation of my experiences as an Indigenous medical student will help western medicine better support Indigenous Peoples towards the manifestation of this vision for all.



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