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Johnny Depp plays Tonto in 'Lone Ranger,' but he'll have hard time saving American Indians from Paul Ryan's budget

Dave BaldridgeThe Christian Science Monitor

Johnny Depp is an Indian now – a real one. While filming his new role as Tonto in the upcoming "Lone Ranger" re-make, Mr. Depp was formally adopted by Comanche matriarch LaDonna Harris.

Depp, now filming the Lone Ranger movie in Navajo Nation in the southwestern United States, wants to reinvent the relationship between the crime-fighting Lone Ranger and his iconic sidekick, Tonto, who he says Hollywood has always seen “as the second class...citizen.” Depp says he “wants to take the way Indians were treated throughout the history of cinema, and turn it on its head.”

As hard as that may be, casting Indians as equals will be easier to do onscreen than off.

For example, Republican Paul Ryan’s proposed budget before Congress would deal a major blow to the health-care services of Indian country, which already faces some of the highest rates of diabetes and infant mortality in the US – and the world. Taking away the few health services these Americans have will only make it harder to address the deeper issues American Indian populations face.

Specifically, the Ryan budget would eliminate all of the proposed 2013 increases and slash funding for the Indian Health Service (IHS) by 5.4 percent, requiring the IHS to close hospitals and clinics, reduce medical care referrals, and lay off employees. The IHS, together with the Tribes and a few urban Indian programs, provides the primary health care system for American Indians and Alaska Natives.

As it is, the Indian Health Service (IHS) estimates that it receives an average of only about 56.5 percent of the funding it actually needs to deliver basic medical and public health services to the populations it serves. As a discretionary budget item, Indian health care receives about half the per capita federal funding that Congress provides for federal prisoners.

The former senator from North Dakota, Democrat Byron Dorgan, warned in 2009 that the shortages and poor quality of health care for American Indians has created a “full-scale health care rationing going on on Indian reservations.” He told The New York Times: “We’ve got the first Americans living in Third World conditions.”

If adopted, Mr. Ryan’s budget would eliminate needed health-care services by 14,000 inpatient visits and more than 5,500 outpatient visits for specialized care. It would also deal the IHS its sole deficit in at least the past 15 years. Never before has the federal IHS budget been reduced from the previous year.

Recently, things had been looking a little better. The Obama administration has proposed a moderate 2.7 percent increase in the IHS budget for FY 2013 – a desperately needed $116 million above the previous year’s appropriation. That amount includes $81 million for continued construction of two outpatient facilities in Arizona, home to Navajo Nation, where the new Lone Ranger movie is being filmed.

At his 2011 Tribal Nations Conference, President Obama stated that closing the gaps in health disparities is “not just a question of policy, it’s a question of our values, it’s a test of who we are as a nation.’”

And those health disparities are staggering. American Indians and Alaska natives have an infant death rate 60 percent higher than whites in the US.

The more than 300,000 citizens in the Navajo Nation, the largest US reservation, which encompasses as much land as North Carolina, are 2.5 times as likely than the general US population to have diabetes. The Tohono O’odham tribe, located in southern Arizona, a few hundred miles south of the Lone Ranger movie set in Navajo Nation, has one of the highest rates of diabetes in the world. Throughout the country, American Indian/Alaska Native tuberculosis and alcoholism death rates are five times those of national averages.

These abysmal health statistics are matched by equally morbid socio-economic conditions. On the Navajo reservation, 47 percent of families with children live in poverty, compared to 9 percent nationally. Extreme poverty (families earning less than half of the poverty threshold) affects 15 percent of Navajos, about four times more than the national average of 4 percent. Even more severe, 25 percent of Arizona’s San Carlos Indian Reservation citizens live in extreme poverty, roughly six times the national average.

One community on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, with average earnings of $1,539 per year, has the lowest per capita income in the US.

With a vacuum of socioeconomic opportunities, it’s little wonder that reservation Navajos have experienced 40 to 50 percent unemployment rates for decades. Or that only a third of Navajo high school students graduate.

Would it matter to Republicans who flaunt “American exceptionalism” that men on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations in South Dakota have the lowest life expectancy in the Western Hemisphere, exceeded only by men in Haiti? It appears not, given that the Ryan budget proposes further drastic cuts to Medicaid, Head Start, and other programs for low-income Americans.

According to House Speaker John Boehner, the budget “lays out a vision of what Republicans would do if they were in charge of the legislative branch and the presidency.” Neither Depp’s new Tonto nor the Lone Ranger would buy into such a vision that is guaranteed to make the rich richer and American Indians poorer.

Dave Baldridge is a consultant with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Healthy Aging program and the University of Oklahoma’s Health Sciences Center. He is a member of the Cherokee Nation. The piece was written in association with The Op-ed Project, which seeks to expand the range of opinion voices.