November is Native American Heritage Month. During this month, the United States “celebrates the rich and diverse cultures, traditions, and histories of American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/AN).”
According to the CDC, AI/AN have a lower life expectancy, a lower quality of life and a higher prevalence of many chronic conditions. As the state’s health and environmental agency, DHEC takes seriously our mission to improve the quality of life for all South Carolinians by protecting and promoting the health of the public and the environment.
This includes a focused effort on working with our partners to ensure that everyone has an equal and equitable opportunity to attain optimal health and live in safe communities free of environmental hazards. This includes working with our Native American communities both locally and nationally.
Catawba Indian Nation
One the communities that DHEC partners with is the Catawba Indian Nation, South Carolina’s only federally recognized tribe. DHEC works with the Catawba Indian Nation in a couple of ways.
DHEC’s Division of Diabetes and Heart Disease Management works with In It Together SC to help raise awareness of diabetes and prediabetes as well as providing resources to help address the health condition. A recent airing of the docuseries “In It Together: Preventing Diabetes with Confidence” featured some of this work with the Catawba Indian Nation. You can see the docuseries by clicking here.
In addition, our Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program partners with the Catawba Indian Nation to identify and address lead risks for tribal children. Accomplishments from this partnership include:
- Developing a data-sharing agreement so that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) certified Catawba Indian Nation staff can respond to a tribal child’s residence if successfully matched against a reported elevated blood lead level in DHEC’s electronic surveillance database.
- Identifying pre-1978 homes where tribal children reside so that targeted outreach can be provided to prevent lead exposure.
- Holding multiple community outreach events (e.g., back to school bashes, community health fairs) and other outreach to educate about lead risks to children.
- Supporting the EPA certification of Catawba Indian Nation Environmental Health staff to conduct environmental investigations designed to identify lead-based hazards.
Other Native American Communities
While the Catawba are the only federally recognized Native American tribe in our state, South Carolina recognizes other tribes as well.
One of those is the Edisto Natchez-Kusso Tribe in the Lowcountry. DHEC is working with the Natchez-Kusso Tribe to connect members with resources to access fruits and vegetables and providing oral health education. Hyacinthi Mwangu, DHEC’s Lowcountry Health Educator, is also a board member of the tribe’s free clinic helping find grants available for funding operations.
Additionally, Keisha Long, DHEC’s Environmental Justice Coordinator, recently took an EJ Strong project to the Pee Dee Indian Tribe Fall Feast where Chief Pete Parr, Vice Chief Randolph Small, and their wives participated in the project. EJ Strong is an initiative where DHEC works collaboratively with low-income and minority communities in South Carolina to understand, promote and integrate approaches that provide meaningful and measurable improvements to public health and the environment.
Keisha has also engaged with Cheryl Cail, Vice Chief of the Waccamaw Indian People, as the vice chief works nationally to address PFASand as Cheryl advocates for communities locally through the American Rivers nonprofit.
As a former co-chair and current member of the E-Enterprise Leadership Council, Myra Reece, DHEC’s Director of Environmental Affairs, also participates in shared governance with the EPA, states and tribes to deliver better results, often with lower costs and less burden, for the benefit of the public, the regulated community and government agencies.
These are just a few examples of the work DHEC is doing with partners in Native American communities to help address health disparities.