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AIDS Threatens to Wipe Out American Indian Tribes

AIDS, HIV Spreading in New Mexico Pueblos

Summer 2002

Sometimes Peter Haloo IV wishes he'd wake up and his battle with AIDS would be nothing more than a dream. The Zuni Pueblo member was diagnosed with AIDS on November 26, 1996. Today Haloo, who takes 18 pills a day to fight the disease, is working to open the eyes of his tribe. He said he has already given several presentations to various groups, including high school students, about his experience. "It could wipe us out," he warned. Native Americans represent 6 percent of New Mexico's total cases of HIV infection. And, as in other parts of the country, there is concern that the number of cases will climb higher, according to Yvonne Davis, AIDS Program Director for the All Indian Pueblo Council, which helps provide prevention services to all 19 New Mexico pueblos. Many Indians believe they are safe. "The biggest misconception is that it's not affecting our pueblos and communities," she said. Figures released last fall by the CDC showed the rate of AIDS is higher among American Indians than among whites -- 11.3 per 100,000 people compared to 9 per 100,000 for whites. This has prompted the U.S. surgeon General to call HIV/AIDS a "time bomb" among Indians. The growth in New Mexico is difficult to document accurately because of a change in reporting. In 1998, the state began to require doctors and clinics to report HIV infections as well as AIDS. Jill Gatwood, HIV surveillance coordinator of the Department of Health, said that while three new AIDS cases were reported among American Indians in 1990, there were 22 new cases of HIV and AIDS in this population last year.

Davis said a major contributor to the infection rate is alcohol, which reduces many inhibitions. She said she's helped more than 100 HIV/AIDS patients, and with the exception of one person, each said his or her exposure to the virus started with alcohol abuse. "Alcohol impairs driving abilities, impairs judgment or the decision to use a condom," Davis explained. San Ildefonso Pueblo Governor John Gonzales said it is evident people still aren't taking proper precautions. "People think it won't happen to them," Gonzales said. "There is teen pregnancy here, which means no protection is being used."

When a deadly virus such as HIV spreads among Indians, the potential of wiping out a tribe to extinction is a very real threat. Many tribes (of the ones that survived historic oppression and genocide, including germ warfare with small pox-infected weapons) are small in number. A disease such as AIDS could easily eliminate entire tribes of the Americas.

A UCLA study reveals that under-reporting and racial misclassification are well documented issues facing Native Americans. The government uses the classification of AIAN (meaning American Indian and Alaska Native). The major explanation for racial misclassification is the use of Spanish surnames to determine a person's race, and the subjective use of personal observation in documenting race. Another problem is that national surveys are too small to report tribe-specific information and for some of the smaller tribes' breaches in confidentiality is a real concern. Urban Indians are often left out of the picture entirely. In addition there are 554 federally recognized tribes, numerous state recognized tribes and countless self-identified tribes that are not "registered" with governments. All of these Native Americans: "do not now, nor have they ever belonged to one 'pan-Indian' group." Over-generalizing is inappropriate and reinforces the pan-Indian myth; this mislabeling is not culturally competent.

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Once again government-defined categories fail to capture a true picture of the AIDS epidemic and further fail to identify populations at high risk.




  
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This article was provided by Women Alive. It is a part of the publication Women Alive Newsletter.
 
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