As we prepare to commemorate Native American Heritage Month and Veterans Day this November, it’s an ideal time to delve deeper into two intertwined narratives—the service of Indigenous veterans and the pressing issue of their oral health. The Southern Plains Tribal Health Board (SPTHB) and the Native Oral Health Network (NOHN) in partnership with The American Institute of Dental Public Health (AIDPH) are proud to host Indigenous Veteran Oral Health Week, a campaign from November 13th to the 17th dedicated to raising awareness, promoting culturally responsive care, and advocating for improved oral health for Indigenous veterans. In this blog, we explore the rich history of Indigenous people and their military service, delve into the unique oral health challenges they face, and highlight the critical importance of addressing these disparities.
A Legacy of Service
Indigenous people have a long history of service to the United States, spanning over two centuries. Their commitment to protecting the nation has remained steadfast through both peacetime and war. Today, there are over 24,000 active duty American Indian and Alaskan Native service members and more than 183,000 veterans proudly identify as Indigenous. In fact, Indigenous people have served with distinction in every major conflict, from the Revolutionary War to the present day, and serve in the US Armed Services at a higher rate than any other group.
Indigenous People and Military Representation
Nearly 20% of Indigenous service members are women compared to 15.6% in other ethnic/racial groups. To date, 27 Indigenous veterans have been awarded the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest recognition of service. However, despite their significant contributions, Indigenous veterans face significant disparities in income, education, and employment compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts.
Addressing Disparities in Healthcare
Indigenous veterans are more likely to report needing medical, dental, and vision care but not being able to access necessary care compared to non-Indigenous veterans — with dental and vision care rating among the highest needs. The lack of access to dental care is often compounded by the increased likelihood of living in poverty for Indigenous veterans, an unconscionable result of historical exclusion from healthcare systems and culturally responsive care environments.
Our Call to Action
Indigenous veterans deserve equitable oral health that is inclusive and culturally responsive. During the campaign week, AIDPH, SPTHB, and NOHN invite the oral health community to learn more about the intersection of veteran and Indigenous oral health as we seek ways to expand culturally responsive care to underserved and disenfranchised communities. The primary goals of Indigenous Veteran Oral Health week are:
- Raise Awareness: Our mission is to inform the public, healthcare providers, oral health professionals, and those that serve Indigenous communities about the unique oral health needs and challenges faced by Indigenous veterans. These challenges often lead to disparities in oral health outcomes within this community.
- Promote Culturally Responsive Care: We emphasize the importance of providing oral health care that respects and integrates Indigenous cultural values, practices, and preferences. We encourage oral health providers to adopt culturally responsive approaches in their practice, ensuring that Indigenous veterans receive care that aligns with their cultural backgrounds.
- Advocate for Improved Oral Health: Indigenous Veterans Oral Health Awareness Week serves as a platform for advocacy. We aim to mobilize individuals, organizations, and communities to take action to address the disparities in oral health care faced by Indigenous veterans. Our advocacy includes efforts to secure expanded access to care and greater support for oral health initiatives tailored specifically to this population.
Indigenous Veteran Oral Health Week is a vital step towards recognizing and addressing oral health disparities while celebrating the contribution of Indigenous veterans to our nation’s history. Join us during this week as we elevate community voices and action for Indigenous veterans.