Native American health care seen as lacking

In The Region


Getting sick is risky business for American Indians living in Maryland.

At least, that's the way it seems to Theodore Lindamood, a Cherokee living in Somerset County, which the descendants of half a dozen tribes still call home. He sees no signs of the prosperous American Indian communities that once dotted Maryland's rural landscape.

Instead, he sees people who are too poor, sick or uninformed to find the health care they need.

"If you're native, doctors don't know you exist," said Lindamood, 49. "When you go to a clinic, it's like they don't even see you. You're invisible."

He has never been to a dentist, and until this year he thought a complete physical meant taking his temperature and blood pressure. His injured back sends painful spasms down his legs, dizzy spells knock him off his feet, and he sometimes can't remember what happened only days ago. Recently he discovered a lump in his testicle that he's afraid might be a sign of cancer.

State officials and community health experts agree that many of the 40,000 American Indians in Maryland have a hard time finding adequate health care. There's not enough data about American Indian health issues or funds to address them. Many American Indians are intimidated by the paperwork required to get help, and those who do seek health attention often feel unwelcome in doctor's offices.

"Because they are such a small group, Indians are often overlooked when it comes to addressing minority health issues," said Carlessia Hussein, who directs the Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities, which the General Assembly established last year.

Their numbers may be small, making up only 0.7 percent of Maryland's population in 2003 according to the U.S. Census, but studies show that American Indians have more health problems than many other minority groups.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Native American adults are more likely than their white and black counterparts to be overweight, diabetic, smokers and moderate to heavy drinkers. They are also more likely to have dental problems, heart disease and hearing loss. Their mortality rates from tuberculosis, chronic liver disease and suicide are higher than those of other minority groups.

The lack of preventive care available in Maryland's American Indian communities is perhaps the largest problem, said Claudia R. Baquet, director of the Center for Health Disparities at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Because there is so little data on American Indians in Maryland, she has found that many local health care professionals don't know what to look for when treating them. That makes many patients feel misunderstood by providers, she said.

Since Maryland does not officially recognize any of the state's tribes, they are not eligible for direct federal funding.

Native Americans with Maryland roots, such as the Susquehannock, Cherokee and Piscataway-Conoy, have settled in pockets on the Eastern Shore, but more than half of the state's American Indian population lives near Baltimore and Washington. Many have moved from other states and belong to tribes that receive federal funding, such as the Sioux and Creek tribes.

But Indian Health Services, the federal agency charged with providing health care to recognized tribes, operates clinics only near reservations that are hundreds of miles west of Maryland.

"About 90 percent of the people who come here have never even seen a reservation," said Crystal Godwin, a caseworker at Lifelines Foundation, a nonprofit clinic that provides referral services to American Indians. This year, the clinic received a $150,000 grant from the federal agency to help refer patients to appropriate treatment centers, but it isn't enough to meet the growing demand.

About a third of the 17,000 Native Americans living in the Baltimore area are Lumbees, who migrated from North Carolina several decades ago. Helen Heckwolf is one of them, and she is trying to reinvigorate the Baltimore American Indian Center.

She remembers when it was a thriving organization that provided support to Baltimore's American Indian population, but the center has lost funds in recent years. Working as a volunteer, she is trying to start a smoking-cessation program and a women's support group in an effort to create an anchor for the American Indian community.

"We are just barely keeping the lights on," she said. "My dream is to have a center here to make sure that when people come to our doors they feel comfortable instead of powerless."

Kim Hart writes for the Capital News Service.

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