What Health Disparities Do Indigenous Peoples Face?


Indigenous people are those who are native to a region. Throughout history, many of these populations have faced opposition to be able to stay on their original land. (Many were forced to relocate or driven into less space, and some were removed completely.) As more people recognize who Indigenous people are and the social and health challenges they face, society may be able to better support them.

What Is an Indigenous Person?

Indigenous people live throughout the world. They are the peoples — and descendants of the peoples — who lived there before lands were colonized.

While many Indigenous people are still in or near the regions that their ancestors lived, later settlers largely decreased the size of the lands they once had. Some populations of Indigenous people were completely dispersed when others colonized the areas. In some cases, individualsfrom Indigenous populations were removed; some Indigenous populations were removed completely by way of genocide.

Indigenous people have distinct languages and cultures, as well as social and political institutions that can differ from mainstream society.

Where Do Indigenous People Live?

There are anywhere from 370 million to 473 million Indigenous people in about 70 countries today. An estimated 70% are in Asia, but they are scattered all over.

Some Indigenous groups include:

  • The Lakota in the U.S.
  • The Mayas in Guatemala
  • The Aymaras in Bolivia
  • The Inuit and Aleutians of the Arctic region
  • The Saami of Northern Europe
  • The Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders of Australia
  • The Maori of New Zealand

What Health Disparities Do Indigenous People Face?

Like other ethnic minorities, Indigenous people sometimes deal with discrimination, marginalization, and language loss. They may have a hard time protecting their rights as a group. Prior to the lands being occupied by others, Indigenous groups had collective rights over the land. The United Nations recognizes their collective rights, but they may still face unique challenges.

Some health disparities affecting Indigenous people include:

Poor nutrition. Also known as malnutrition, a poor diet affects Indigenous people for a few reasons. Extreme poverty and environmental issues create barriers tmore efforts are being made to respond to environmental health and violence experienced by Indigenous women.

Lower life expectancy. Indigenous people live as many as 20 years less than non-Indigenous people. They’re more likely to have disabilities and reduced quality of life. Specifically, tuberculosis still impacts Indigenous people differently than non-Indigenous people. Programs to combat tuberculosis may not reach Indigenous people; language differences and remote locations can affect the success of these programs. Heart diseases, tumors, and unintentional injuries are leading causes of American Indian and Alaska Native deaths. American Indians and Alaska Natives experience kidney, liver, and stomach cancer, to name a few, at higher rates than non-Hispanic white people. They are more likely to be obese than the general population.

Mental health issues. Losing family members, past trauma, fear of future displacement, food insecurity, ethnic discrimination, and other issues can affect the mental health of Indigenous people. Some Indigenous groups have depression, PTSD, and substance use disorder at higher rates than the general population.

Lack of representation in medical research. People in Indigenous populations are largely underrepresented in mainstream research. The U.S. has efforts to work with Native Americans. Issues emerged with regard to conducting research on Indigenous people, or studies that include them. In some cases, tribes were involved in research regulated by an institution review board that lacked tribal representation.


What Prevents Indigenous People From Improving Their Health?

Indigenous people often have poorer access to high-quality health care.

Many may also be reticent to receive certain types of health care. They may not want to share data, accept medications, or have non-Indigenous people or groups handle their biospecimens. Different Indigenous groups may not agree with principles and practices of modern medicine including vaccination or genetic research.

In the U.S., the Indian Health Service aims to provide health care that integrates tribal involvement. That hasn’t solved all of the issues, but it has opened up access. But not all countries have programs like that. Still, some Indigenous people may not be open to participating in a health system for a variety of reasons.

Some health programs for Indigenous people have been successful. One study looked at how unemployment, education level, and other issues influenced access to health care. Models that provided transportation, lowered costs, and involved community members were helpful to boost access for some Indigenous people around the globe.