Most of the recent headlines about indigenous Americans have had to do with a certain D.C. football team, or a surpassingly dumb Adam Sandler movie, or casinos of the kind operated by the fictional Ugaya tribe on “House of Cards.” And we’re not saying these issues don’t matter. But beyond the slot machines, the movie sets and the football fields, there are other problems facing Native communities — insidious, systemic, life-or-death problems; the kinds of problems it takes years and votes and marches to resolve — that aren’t getting nearly as much attention.
There are 567 tribes, including 229 Alaska Native communities, currently recognized by the federal government. The Bureau of Indian Affairs — the primary federal agency in charge of relations with indigenous communities — is also considering extending federal status to Native Hawaiians.
Each of the federally recognized tribes is a nation unto itself — sovereign, self-determining and self-governing — that maintains a government-to-government relationship with the United States. In addition, the rights of all indigenous peoples, including Native Hawaiians, have been affirmed in a 2007 United Nations declaration. Each indigenous nation has a distinct history, language and culture. While many face concerns that are specific to their government, state, or region, there are certain issues that affect all Native communities throughout the United States — from Hawaii to Maine, and Alaska to Florida. Here are 13 such issues that you probably aren’t hearing enough about.
Native Americans face issues of mass incarceration and policing.
Thanks in large part to the Black Lives Matter movement, which has insisted that demands for justice and equality for the black community remain part of the national conversation, there is now growing momentum to address the issues of policing and mass incarceration. But while the brutalization of black Americans at the hands of police, and their maltreatment within the criminal justice system, have garnered national headlines, similar injustices against Native Americans have gone largely unreported.
Earlier this month, Paul Castaway, a mentally ill Rosebud Sioux tribal citizen, was shot and killed by Denver police. His death led to protests in the Denver Native community, and has shed light on the shocking rate at which police kill Native Americans — who account for less than 1 percent of the national population, but who make up nearly 2 percent of all police killings, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Native peoples are also disproportionately affected by mass incarceration. In states with significant Native populations, Native Americans are wildly overrepresented in the criminal justice system. In South Dakota, for example, Native Americans make up 9 percent of the total population, but 29 percent of the prison population. In Alaska, Native people account for 15 percent of the total population and 38 percent of the prison population. And Native Hawaiians are only 10 percent of the state’s population, but 39 percent of the incarcerated population.
The issue of mass incarceration in Native communities is complicated by overlapping and unresolved conflicts between tribal, federal and state jurisdictions. If a crime is thought to have occurred on a Native reservation or within a Native community, it’s not always clear which agency is going to be in charge of prosecution. That’s determined by a complex set of factors, including the severity of the charges and the races of the victims and alleged perpetrators. The overlapping jurisdictions of federal and tribal sovereignty also mean that Indians who commit crimes on tribal lands can be punished twice for the same offense: once under federal jurisdiction and again in tribal court. Lastly, aside from cases of domestic violence, tribal courts are not allowed to try major crimes as defined under the Major Crimes Act. This means that suspects in most felony cases are prosecuted in federal courts, where sentencing tends to be more severe.
In February, building off the momentum of Black Lives Matter, the Lakota Peoples’ Law Project released its “Native Lives Matter“ report, which gives an overview of the inequities faced by Native Americans in the criminal justice system. The report, like the voices of Native peoples in general, has been largely ignored in the growing national conversation about policing and criminal justice reform.
Native communities are often impoverished and jobless.
Native peoples suffer from high rates of poverty and unemployment. Seventeen percent of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders and 27 percent of all self-identified Native Americans and Alaska Natives live in poverty, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
However, the national figure distorts the prevalence of poverty on Indian reservations and in Alaska Native communities, where 22 percent of Native people live. In 2012, three of the five poorest counties in the U.S., and five of the top 10, encompassed Sioux reservations in North and South Dakota.
Last year, President Barack Obama visited the Standing Rock Sioux on the border of North and South Dakota, where the poverty rate is 43.2 percent — almost three times the national average. The unemployment rate on the Standing Rock Reservation was over 60 percent as of 2014.
The federal government is still stripping Native people of their land.
The U.S. was built on land taken from Indian nations, and indigenous peoples across the country are still living with the reality of dispossession. Right now, members of the San Carlos Apache Nation in Arizona are fighting the sale of their sacred Oak Flat site to foreign mining conglomerates.
The Kanaka Maoli in Hawaii are fighting to protect their sacred mountain Mauna Kea from the construction of a 30-meter, $1.4 billion telescope. Many Hawaiians are now questioning the legality of the state’s annexation, which took place after a group of business interests, most of them American, overthrew of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893.
And in the heartland, the Great Sioux Nation has refused a $1.3 billion settlement as payment for the government’s illegal seizure of their sacred Black Hills in South Dakota in 1877. The faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt are etched into the Black Hills at Mount Rushmore.
Exploitation of natural resources threatens Native communities.
Throughout the history of North American settlement, the territorial dispossession of indigenous peoples has gone hand in hand with natural resource exploitation. In the 1800s, Indian nations in the West clashed with miners pouring into their territories in search of gold.
Today, from the Bakken formation in North Dakota to the Tar Sands in northeastern Alberta, Canada, Indian nations often stand on the front lines of opposition to hydraulic fracturing and pipelines that pump oil out of indigenous communities — violating treaty rights, threatening the environment and contributing to climate change in the process.
Other groups, however, such as the Ute Tribe in Utah and the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation in North Dakota, have tried to make the most out of the economic opportunities presented by oil and natural gas extraction. For the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, the rush to cash in on oil has resulted in a mess of inadequate regulation and corruption — including allegations of murder for hire.
Violence against women and children is especially prevalent in Native communities.
Native American communities — and particularly Native women and children — suffer from an epidemic of violence. Native women are 3.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted in their life than women of other races. Twenty-two percent of Native children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder — a rate of PTSD equal to that found among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
Often, this violence comes from outside the community. The nonprofit Mending the Sacred Hoop, citing 1990s data from the CDC and the Department of Justice, reports that “over 80% of violence experienced by Native Americans is committed by persons not of the same race,” a rate “substantially higher than for whites or blacks.”
However, some progress has been made. This year, despite staunch GOP opposition, tribes won the right to prosecute non-Native men who commit crimes of domestic violence or dating violence or who violate orders of protection against Native women on Indian reservations. Tribes have continued to push for control over justice systems on sovereign Indian land, in spite of resistance from state, local and federal lawmakers and law enforcement authorities.
The education system is failing Native students.
Only 51 percent of Native Americans in the class of 2010 graduated high school. Native Hawaiians fare better, but still underperform compared to their peers — as best we can tell from the limited data, anyway. In the mid-‘00s, about 70 percent of Native Hawaiians attending Hawaiian public schools graduated in four years, as compared to 78 percent of students statewide.
For Native Americans, at least, these disparities are in large part the result of inadequate federal funding, to the point where some schools on Indian reservations are deteriorated and structurally dangerous.
Native families live in overcrowded, poor-quality housing.
Forty percent of Native Americans who live on reservations are in substandard housing. One-third of homes are overcrowded, and less than 16 percent have indoor plumbing. Housing on reservations is funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and administered and augmented by tribes, and has been historically underfunded, despite treaties and the trust responsibility of the federal government.
Native patients receive inadequate health care.
Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians face massive disparities in health as compared to the general population, suffering from high rates of diabetes, obesity, substance abuse and HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Although Native Americans and Alaska Natives are eligible to receive health care through Indian Health Services, nearly one in three are uninsured. Like many other federal agencies that serve Native people, IHS has historically been underfunded. Local IHS facilities often lack basic services like emergency contraception, in some cases forcing Native patients to travel hundreds of miles for treatment elsewhere.
There’s a dearth of capital and financial institutions in Native communities.
Indian nations do not own their reservation lands. Rather, the lands are held in trust by the federal government. This prevents Native Americans who live on reservations from leveraging their assets for loans, making it difficult for them to start businesses or promote economic growth in the area.
Compounding this problem, 14.5 percent of Native Americans are unbanked, and therefore lack the basic financial resources needed for economic prosperity.
Native Americans have the right to vote… but that’s not always enough.
Native Americans and Alaska Natives are often unable to vote because there are no polling places anywhere near them. Some communities, such as the Duck Valley Reservation in Nevada and the Goshute Reservation in Utah, are located more than 100 miles from the nearest polling place.
These problems are compounded by high rates of illiteracy in some rural Native communities, such as the Yup’ik in Alaska, who primarily speak and read their native language because public education was not available in their region until the 1980s.
There is an epidemic of youth suicide in Native communities.
Suicide is the second most common cause of death for Native youth ages 15 to 24 — two and a half times the national rate for that age group. In February, following a rash of suicides, the Oglala Lakota Nation in South Dakota declared a state of emergency.
Native languages are dying, and the U.S. government is doing little to help.
Native languages are struggling to survive in the United States, with 130 “at risk,” according to UNESCO, and another 74 “critically endangered.” While some communities, such as the Native Hawaiians, the Anishinaabe and the Navajo, have had success preserving and revitalizing their languages, Native communities face obstacles from the testing and curriculum requirements of No Child Left Behind. And educators who want to teach young people about Native languages and cultures have to contend with a general lack of funding and resources.
Many Native communities do not have their rights recognized by the federal government.
Native Hawaiians, and members of many other Native communities throughout the U.S., have never received federal recognition of their rights as Native peoples. This deprives them of basic services, and even of the limited rights of self-governance available to other Native communities. Many tribes spend decades wading through Bureau of Indian Affairs paperwork, only to lose their petitions for recognition.
Recently, however, the Obama administration announced that it would be streamlining the federal recognition process, making it easier for unrecognized Indian nations to secure their rights under the law.