Health & Native Americans



The majority of Indigenous communities today struggle with systemic health problems related to poverty and lack of access to healthy food. Food insecurity, skyrocketing poverty rates, high rates of substance abuse, and lack of access to quality healthcare result in widespread health issues, including heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and Tuberculosis.


Many reservations are known as food deserts, where residents cannot easily buy fresh, healthy, affordable food. Grocery stores are few and far between in these isolated locations. For instance, The Navajo Nation covers 27,413 square miles and has only ten grocery stores. In order to get fresh, affordable produce, some Navajo Nation residents have to drive at least 155 miles round-trip. This lack of access to healthy food is directly correlated to the health issues that are prevalent in Indigenous communities, where over 80% of adults and 50% of children are overweight or obese and 30% are pre-diabetic. Other health issues that result from complications of poor nutrition are tuberculosis and heart disease.


Natives Americans, accounting for only 2% of the population, have the highest abuse rates of alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and hallucinogen use disorders and the second highest methamphetamine in the United States. As a result, high instances of associated health issues such as heart disease and cancer have been reported. Compounding this issue is the prevalence of alcohol and marijuana abuse among Native youth, which begins a cycle of unhealthy living at an early age, drastically increasing health risks for those individuals’ lifetimes.

To read more about the cause of and the state of high substance abuse rates in Native American communities, please see our page on substance abuse.


The federal government is obligated by law to provide medical care to First People. It does so through the Indian Health Service (IHS), an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services. Additionally, there are tribal-run health centers set up on reservations and Urban Indian Health Programs, which receive IHS funding to provide medical services and support to Natives who don’t live on reservations.

Even with federal funding, there are significant gaps in care, both on the reservation and in town. Tribal members cannot get the free medical treatment they are entitled to through the IHS anywhere but an IHS facility and the IHS is chronically underfunded. It receives a set amount of money each year to care for 2.2 million Native people, regardless of the level of care needed. On the reservation, IHS facilities often lack basic services like emergency departments or MRI machines. For Natives living in more the remote areas of reservations, those limited facilities can be hours away. For those living closer to town, clinics may be nearby, but they lack enough funding to meet all of the health needs of the community.


The Red Road offers Indigenous communities the information and the tools needed to connect their people with healthier lifestyle choices. We are also working to bring awareness to the plight of First People and the limitations of the healthcare they presently have access to.