One branch of the Trail of Tears ended in what is now a quiet cemetery on the western outskirts of Stilwell, where the federal government set up a “disbandment depot” in the early months of 1839 to hand out food and supplies to the newly arrived Cherokee families.
Those with resources quickly moved on to settle across the rest of Indian Territory. But the sickest and poorest stayed close to the safety of the depot. And that’s one theory of how Stilwell, in the Ozark foothills 90 minutes east of Tulsa, became so deeply impoverished.
Eighteen decades later, it still has one of the highest poverty rates in all of rural Oklahoma. And the small town attracted national media attention over the weekend as the Washington Post reported that its residents now have the lowest life expectancy in the entire country.
“I wish I could say that surprises me,” said Larry Nettles, a retired teacher and school superintendent who serves as the city clerk in Stilwell. “We have a lot of poverty, and we’ve had it for years and years and years.”
The average age at death for Stilwell residents is just 56.3 years, 22.5 years earlier than the national average, according to new local health data released by the National Center for Health Statistics.
Globally, that makes Stilwell comparable to some of the poorest countries in Africa, where Congo has a life expectancy of 57.7 years and Uganda 55.9 years, according to U.N. statistics.
Life expectancy tracks closely with poverty. And in Stilwell, more than 1 out of 3 residents are low income, according to Census data.
“But I honestly believe that things are starting to go in the right direction for us,” said Nettles, who taught high school music for 28 years before going into city government. “We’re putting a lot of work into our schools, and it’s paying off. But it’s not an overnight solution. It’s generational.”
With a population of roughly 4,000 people, Stilwell is a tight-knit, family-oriented community, he said. And more than 40 percent of residents have Cherokee citizenship, with the tribe taking a lot of responsibility for health care in the area.
The Cherokee Nation recently doubled the size of its health clinic in Stilwell and is planning a second phase of construction that will basically double the size again, making the town a major hub in the tribe’s health-care system.
Mere access to health care, however, won’t improve life expectancy enough, said Dr. Charles Grim, executive director of Cherokee Nation Health Services.
“If you want to understand why one population is sicker than another, it’s complex,” Grim said. “There’s education level. Smoking habits. Diet and the availability of healthy foods. And there’s a whole range of social issues that people have to deal with.”
For a long-term solution in Stilwell, the tribe is working to increase college scholarships and vocational training for Cherokee citizens, Grim said.
“We know that education affects your socioeconomic status and that affects your life expectancy,” he said. “So when we talk about scholarships, it may not sound like it has anything to do with health care. But it does.”
Federal officials worked with the nonprofit Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information in a three-year effort to calculate life expectancy for 65,662 Census tracts nationwide.
Only three states — Alabama, West Virginia and Mississippi — have lower life expectancy than Oklahoma, but at 75.7 years, the state is only three years behind the national average of 78.8 years.
Hawaii has the longest life expectancy at 81.3 years.