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Opinion

Johnny Depp will have a hard time saving American Indians from Paul Ryan's budget

Johnny Depp plans to remake Tonto as an equal in the film 'The Lone Ranger.' Equality is harder to find in the real world. Paul Ryan’s budget would drastically cut health services for American Indians – a population with some of the highest poverty, disease, and mortality rates in the world.

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And those health disparities are staggering. American Indians and Alaska natives have an infant death rate 60 percent higher than whites in the US.

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The more than 300,000 citizens in the Navajo Nation, the largest US reservation, which encompasses as much land as North Carolina, are 2.5 times as likely than the general US population to have diabetes. The Tohono O’odham tribe, located in southern Arizona, a few hundred miles south of the Lone Ranger movie set in Navajo Nation, has one of the highest rates of diabetes in the world. Throughout the country, American Indian/Alaska Native tuberculosis and alcoholism death rates are five times those of national averages.

These abysmal health statistics are matched by equally morbid socio-economic conditions. On the Navajo reservation, 47 percent of families with children live in poverty, compared to 9 percent nationally. Extreme poverty (families earning less than half of the poverty threshold) affects 15 percent of Navajos, about four times more than the national average of 4 percent. Even more severe, 25 percent of Arizona’s San Carlos Indian Reservation citizens live in extreme poverty, roughly six times the national average.

One community on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, with average earnings of $1,539 per year, has the lowest per capita income in the US.

With a vacuum of socioeconomic opportunities, it’s little wonder that reservation Navajos have experienced 40 to 50 percent unemployment rates for decades. Or that only a third of Navajo high school students graduate.

Would it matter to Republicans who flaunt “American exceptionalism” that men on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations in South Dakota have the lowest life expectancy in the Western Hemisphere, exceeded only by men in Haiti? It appears not, given that the Ryan budget proposes further drastic cuts to Medicaid, Head Start, and other programs for low-income Americans.

According to House Speaker John Boehner, the budget “lays out a vision of what Republicans would do if they were in charge of the legislative branch and the presidency.” Neither Depp’s new Tonto nor the Lone Ranger would buy into such a vision that is guaranteed to make the rich richer and American Indians poorer.

Dave Baldridge is a consultant with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Healthy Aging program and the University of Oklahoma’s Health Sciences Center. He is a member of the Cherokee Nation. The piece was written in association with The Op-ed Project, which seeks to expand the range of opinion voices.

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