By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
When kids visit the Chickasaw Nation Medical Center, they’re greeted with two questions: Are you hungry? Have you eaten today? If needed, a healthy meal is served on the spot.
It’s a visible and compelling display of the Chickasaw Nation’s efforts to improve the health of the nation’s 12th-largest tribe, which last year became the first to partner with the federal government’s Healthy Meals for Kids program designed to feed at-risk kids.
Bill Anoatubby, the tribe’s governor for nearly 30 years, has led numerous efforts to improve the tribe’s health, including the establishment of its own healthcare system.
“We make it a point to listen to the people we serve and to look for opportunities to improve and expand our services,” he said.
Anoatubby was honored in June with the American Heart Association’s Louis B. Russell award for his leadership with the AHA’s Heart Walk, which raises funds for heart and stroke research and education. Oklahoma City had the No. 9 Heart Walk team in the nation last year, which raised $330,000 last year and $1.2 million over the past eight years.
“It is difficult to overstate the importance of the work of the American Heart Association,” Anoatubby said. “We are pleased to support them because their research and education efforts save thousands of lives and help thousands more live longer, healthier lives.”
Anoatubby is Chickasaw on his father’s side. He was born in Denison, Texas, and moved to Tishomingo, Oklahoma, the tribe’s capital, after his father died when Anoatubby was 2.
He began working for the Chickasaw Nation as its health services director in the mid-1970s. A few years later, he was elected lieutenant governor, serving two terms before being elected governor in 1987.
“What started as a career has become a calling to serve the Chickasaw people,” said Anoatubby, who learned the importance of a strong work ethic at a young age as his mother worked multiple jobs while raising him and his five siblings.
He is responsible for administration of more than 13,000 employees, more than 200 tribal programs and services, and over 100 businesses that serve more than 62,000 Chickasaws living around the world.
“We have a strong sense of community that helps keep us connected to other Chickasaws,” he said.
In 1994, the Chickasaw Nation became the first tribe to work with the U.S. government’s Indian Health Service to operate its own healthcare system.
More improvements followed. In 2010, the Chickasaw Nation opened a $150 million medical center built with tribal funds. The tribe’s department of health also operates four health clinics, last year serving more than 800,000 patient visits and filling more than 1.2 million prescriptions.
More than 80 percent of Native American adults are overweight or obese, according to the Indian Health Service Clinical Reporting System. Four-year-old Native American children are twice as likely to be obese compared with their white counterparts, according to a 2009 study.
A report commissioned by the American Heart Association found that the way food is produced, accessed and funded on tribal lands needs to be reworked to fight obesity and diabetes. Feeding Ourselves analyzed American Indian and Alaska Native food systems and found that Native Americans are twice as likely as the rest of the U.S. population to have a nutrition-related health problem. Most tribal lands are in food deserts, areas that lack access to healthy food.
Offering health care services tailored to Chickasaws and other Native Americans is key to improving health, Anoatubby said. So is raising awareness about the importance of healthy lifestyle choices.
“We believe quality healthcare goes beyond treating illness and disease in hospitals and clinics,” Anoatubby said. “It is just as important to promote healthier lifestyles by helping those we serve understand the vital role diet and exercise play in preventing heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and other devastating diseases and debilitating conditions. That is why we are making a significant investment in services to raise awareness of the impact of embracing healthier lifestyles.”
Photo by Tim Sharp