Building a Space for Indigenous Healthcare in New York City

The Urban Indigenous Collective heard an overwhelming need for a physical space for community healthcare and other services. After three years of work, that space is now open in Midtown Manhattan.

The Urban Indigenous Collaborative's new Manhattan space will be a home for direct health and wellness services. (Photo by Dylan Henderson)

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For the launch of the Urban Indigenous Collective (UIC), the co-founders set up a booth on Randall’s Island, in New York City, for an event in honor of Indigenous People’s Day. They arranged their booth comfortably, with tables, cushions and shade, and asked Indigenous folks to fill out a survey about their mental and physical health priorities.

“It was really a community-based needs assessment to be able to inform the direction of our programming, services and advocacy,” says Sutton King, one of the co-founders and UIC’s president. “What we identified was the need for a community space to offer services, a space that is both accessible and safe.”

That was 2019. This June, on the summer solstice, the UIC held a blessing ceremony for its new physical center in Midtown Manhattan. Their long-term goal is to operate an Indigenous-centered health clinic from here, but they’re also filling a short-term need for safe space in a city with one of the largest urban Indigenous populations in the country.

The disparity between New York City’s Indigenous population — which was 180,866 according to the 2020 census — and the services specifically offered to them was the impetus for UIC’s founding. A recent analysis by NYC Health found 16% of Native Americans and Indigenous people in the city did not get needed medical care in the prior year – double the 8% rate for white New Yorkers, and higher than the city’s overall 10% percent average.

“There are not a lot of services for Natives in New York City,” says Jarrad Packard, UIC’s co-founder, vice president and secretary. Packard is Oglala Lakota and grew up in South Dakota, where he is enrolled in the Yankton Sioux Tribe. “I grew up around direct service, Indian health service,” he says. “When I moved to New York, I was surprised by the lack of comprehensive healthcare services and programs directed for Native people.”

At the solstice opening for the Urban Indigenous Collaborative's new Manhattan space. (Photo by Dylan Henderson)

Packard studied healthcare management and policy and received a master of social work before becoming a mental health specialist. King, a descendant of the Menominee and Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, is a Indigenous rights activist, social entrepreneur and researcher who also focuses on Native health. UIC’s third co-founder and its co-director, Ariel Richer, is a doctoral candidate at Columbia University School of Social Work who focuses on intimate partner violence and access to relevant services for Black and Indigenous women. She is a descendant of the Carib Indians, the Indigenous people of Trinidad and Tobago as well as Venezuela.

When the trio came together to figure out how to fill New York City’s gap in Native health services, they prioritized inclusivity to all Native-identifying people — not just those enrolled in a federally-recognized tribe, but also state-recognized and other Indigenous peoples. “Some of the health services are geared to federally-recognized Indenous people,” says Roberto Múkaro Borrero, a leader from the Guainía Taíno Tribe who is on UIC’s board of directors. “This is important and not to be downplayed, but there are others who also need services.”

When the pandemic hit less than a year after UIC’s launch, the collective switched to online forums and focus groups around health needs. They also poured their energy into their MMIWGT2S NYC+ project, which brings awareness to missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, trans and two-spirit people through supportive resources and healthcare.

The new Manhattan community space will anchor this growing initiative. Though the project, UIC has already developed a database in partnership with Sovereign Bodies Institute to capture the scope of violence committed against Native and Indigenous People in Lenapehoking, the New York Tri-State area. They have spearheaded a MMIWGT2S NYC+ Policy Tracker to overview the current state of legislation and policy introduced around this crisis. The UIC is also working to assemble a taskforce of survivors and relatives, while continuing to build awareness through social media and public campaigns. This December, UIC facilitated a mural in Bushwick, Brooklyn, to draw New Yorkers’ attention to the crisis.

Members of the Urban Indigenous Collaborative in New York City mark the annual National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. (Photo courtesy of Urban Indigenous Collective)

Throughout this early work, data sovereignty has emerged as an important value.

“Community-based research is about doing it on our own, disseminating it how we want to, in a way that makes sense to us, and maintaining data sovereignty and ownership of the data,” explains Richer. UIC has a current partnership with Columbia University for data review, but a long-term goal is to establish an Institutional Review Board through UIC “so that we can be a safe space for Indigenous researchers,” says King.

The physical space will be a testing ground for these larger visions. UIC selected the Midtown location for its proximity to Grand Central Terminal, meaning easy access to public transit across the Northeast.

UIC’s goal is to hire a case manager that can work out of the space. “It’s an initial direct service program we can offer to help people access resources, navigate the healthcare system and whatever else they need assistance with,” Packard says.

Next, they’ll build up culturally-tailored mental health services by bringing a mental health practitioner into the space. Packard is currently a mental health specialist at the Seattle Indian Health Board and hopes to return to New York to practice out of the space. “Starting with mental health is really important because there’s a huge need for it,” he says, “And also the barriers will be less intense to start a mental health clinic than a full health clinic.”

In the meantime, UIC has a microgrant from Columbia University to pilot an app connecting Indigenous people to Indigenous therapists. “We’re hoping to begin raising money to create the actual app, which would be used through Facebook Messenger because it’s one of the most used platforms by Indengenous peoples,” says King. “It can serve as a tool to support that gap until we’re able to be a clinic.”

The end goal, King says, “is to be a full, ambulatory care clinic, inpatient and outpatient, as well as establishing our Institutional Review Board.”

Her hope, she adds, is to increase visibility of the urban Native population in the Northeast and the need for resources and support.

“New York City has such a robust healthcare infrastructure but serious gaps considering there’s an entire population that’s being overlooked,” she says. “We need resources and funds to meet our community where they’re at and whenever they’re on that spectrum of Indigeneity.”

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Emily Nonko is a social justice and solutions-oriented reporter based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers a range of topics for Next City, including arts and culture, housing, movement building and transit. 

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Tags: new york cityindigenous peoplemental healthhealth access

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