November 19, 2020

National Native American Heritage Month is a reminder each year to celebrate Native American people, arts, culture, and heritage. There are 3 million indigenous people in the United States, belonging to 574 federally recognized Indian Nations (variously called tribes, nations, bands, pueblos, communities and native villages) in the United States. (See map) The majority of American Indians and Alaska Natives (78%) live outside of tribal statistical areas, while 22% live on reservations or other trust lands, according to the 2010 US Census. More than half (60%) of American Indians and Alaska Natives live in metropolitan areas.

This year, we want to join our mental health allies in a call to address the health disparities that Native American/Indigenous people are experiencing, particularly during the Coronavirus pandemic. Nearly 3 times as many Native/Indigenous people (14.9%) had no health insurance, compared to non-Hispanic whites (5.9%). Approximately 43% of Native/Indigenous people in America rely on Medicaid or public coverage, according to HHS.

  • Native/Indigenous people report experiencing serious psychological distress 2.5 times more than the general population over a month’s time.
  • Although overall suicide rates are similar to those of whites, there are significant differences among certain age groups. The suicide death rate for Native/Indigenous people between the ages of 15-19 is more than double that of non-Hispanic whites.
  • Access to mental health services is severely limited by the rural, isolated location of many Native/Indigenous communities. Additionally, access is limited because most clinics and hospitals of the Indian Health Service are located on reservations, yet the majority of Native/Indigenous people in America live outside of tribal areas, according to Mental Health America.

We also want to spotlight:

“Yomunnaka Choyyekke/Beautiful Deer” by Michelle Napoli.

“I created Yomunnaka Choyyekke/Beautiful Deer to witness the harm done to my Native community while also honoring our beauty and the fact that we are still here; we still exist. From my worldview regarding historical trauma, what has happened to my ancestors has happened to me: My ancestors’ stories are my stories. Yomunnaka Choyyekke is a personal and culturally informed image of power that teaches me how to witness, grieve, and celebrate with brutal honesty all that is our truth.”


  • A current online exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian by Native photojournalists Russel Albert Daniels and Tailyr Irvine: “Developing Stories: Native Photographers in the Field.” The photo essays aim to break down stereotypes of Native peoples and to portray stories that show the diversity and complexity of their contemporary lives.
  • A profile of Sonseerae Sells, an art therapist and clinical counselor at Family Crisis Center in Farmington, New Mexico.

“Choosing Battles” by Sonsee’rae Sells. Cardboard and Soda Tabs. May 2018.

Artist’s statement: “Art is a way for me to disconnect from reality momentarily and reconnect to myself. I create art to gain insight about experiences, such as trauma, that are challenging to articulate. The type of skills to make this armor promote an attention to detail, patience, and fine motor abilities. I enjoy tedious sequences like beading and repetition. My armor is a symbolic representation of my experience as a training art therapist.

Practicing Western therapeutic perspectives that contradict my Indigenous values felt like I was challenging what was being taught. Once social justice counseling was introduced at my internship site, I fell in love with being an advocate or social justice warrior. The fiery anger that manifests inside me from unjust historical events makes communicating conflict difficult. I want to continue to practice choosing my battles and strengthen my ability to cope with unfair situations. I also want to incorporate action for change as an art activist. This armor is a reminder to stay true to my values as an American Indian, as a social justice advocate, and as a therapist.”