Our Rhetoric Toward Native Americans is Bad. Our Policy is Worse.
The President of the United States shepherded a group of Native American war heroes into a room that prominently displayed a portrait of one of his personal heroes, President Andrew Jackson. Somehow, inexplicably, painfully, awkwardly, it managed to get worse. A lot worse.
Over the duration of an event honoring Navajo code talkers, the President proceeded to offer little insight other than that the code talkers were "special people," pledged to help with the erection of a new museum honoring the contributions of the code talkers, and bragged about the tax reform bill the Trump Administration is trying to push through Congress. And if that had been all that occurred then, the biggest scandal would have been the lack of taste in holding the event in a room with Andrew Jackson gazing out at a crowd of people who shared a history of suffering and physical similarities with a people who not-so-affectionately referred to him as "Indian killer."
But then Trump ditched the dog whistle and pulled out the bullhorn. "You were here long before any of us were here," the president said, before shifting gears to score a cheap political point against a strong critic of his agenda, Senator Elizabeth Warren (who, Trump claims, pretended to be of Native American heritage to improve her professional life). "Although we have a representative in Congress who, they say, was here a long time ago. They call her 'Pocahontas.'"
Never mind the fact that it would seem implausible for a law professor with endorsements from members of Congress would even need to use her diversity to help her move up. Never mind the fact that she has only been serving in the Senate since 2012. Never mind the fact that when Trump said "they say," he was referring to his own habits on social media. In an Administration that blatantly lies about even the most trivial and minute matters, these are afterthoughts. The real effects of Trump's comments were to denigrate the contributions of Americans who served their country in a time of war by transmitting confidential communications, including strategies and requests for supplies. A group that deserves nothing more than to be recognized as Americans and as heroes was devalued to nothing more than the color of their skin and was used as a prop for the president to attack Sen. Warren.
While it is inarguable that Trump's words (and his decision to say them in front of the architect of the Indian Removal Act) are repugnant, it is beyond time for Americans to take a look at the failures of contemporary American policy toward the first Americans, which are worse. Americans may not be able to control what comes out of their chief executive's mouth, but they have the power to admit that a great wrong has been done to Native Americans.
"How smooth must be the language of the whites, when they can make right look like wrong, and wrong like right."
-Black Hawk, Sauk proverb
The history of legalized suppression of Native American rights is well documented. From President Jackson's 1830 Indian Removal Act to the fact that Native Americans were unable to obtain American citizenship until 1924, the first Americans have long been treated as second-class Americans. Today, this continues to be true even in their own streets.
In fact, Native Americans are more likely to experience police brutality than any other racial or ethnic group. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for every one million Native Americans, an average of 2.9 of them were killed per year in "police interventions" between 1999 and 2015, with most of them resulting from police shootings. For comparison's sake, an average of 2.6 African-Americans, 1.7 Hispanics or Latinos, 0.9 whites, and 0.6 Asians or Pacific Islanders per one million per year were killed in police altercations between 1999 and 2015. The scariest part is that experts like Matthew Fletcher, the director of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center at Michigan State University, testify that Native deaths by police may actually be under reported and the number may in fact be twice what the CDC estimates. This could be due to any number of factors, among them the fact that both law enforcement and the media often do not correctly identify people mixed race who are part Native American and the relatively large homeless population in the Native American community.
More than five centuries after the European explorers brought diseases that would decimate the Native American population, the community faces another epidemic: police brutality. To paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, many indigenous youths are learning an un-American truth: that they can get killed just for living in their (Native) American skin.
The failure in applying "equal justice under law" to Native American populations is exacerbated when federal and tribal jurisdictions intersect. This creates a loophole that allows for Indians who commit crimes on tribal lands to be tried twice for their crimes: once under federal jurisdiction and the other in tribal court. Adding to the insanity that is this seemingly inherently unfair system is the fact that effectively powerless tribal courts are not permitted to try major crimes (with the sole exception of domestic violence cases) as defined by the Major Crimes Act of 1885. Therefore, in most felony cases, Native suspects are tried in federal courts, where sentencing is traditionally more severe.
"Force, no matter how concealed, begets resistance."
When Americans think of the ugliest moments of the second half of the 20th century in America, Bull Connor's Birmingham comes to mind. In 1963, Connor had nearly a thousand children between the ages of 6 and 18 arrested for marching to City Hall in a single day, then the very next day, unleashed attack dogs and fire hoses against anyone who dared to show up. Those who experienced the horror of those days likely never thought they would see them take place again before their very eyes in a 21st century America.
Yet half a century later, those fears would become reality. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe objected vehemently to the approval of the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which they claimed would threaten their clean water and traditional burial grounds if it were to cross the Missouri River. They protested peacefully and gained a following, and their protests, as well as the police response to them, ratcheted up in late 2016. In sub-freezing weather, against unarmed combatants (if they can even be called that), the police deployed water cannons and security forces deployed tear gas. While the valiant efforts of the tribe helped delay the pipeline's construction, it did not stop it, and the same types of government policies and indifference that helped put over 40 percent of the tribe in poverty and almost three in five members unemployed continued to ignore their concerns. Meanwhile, a similar phenomenon was occurring with natives protesting the similar Keystone Pipeline.
A year after the Standing Rock Sioux tribe spent their Thanksgiving being subdued by police water cannons in the cold, their fellow Native Americans were cleaning up the mess of the very pipeline they suffered so much protesting. In November 2017, the Keystone XL Pipeline was approved by the Nebraska Public Service Commission, despite the fact that just three days earlier, 210,000 gallons of oil leaked in South Dakota in a position to contaminate the water supply of a nearby tribe.
In other words, because their government refused to weigh the cultural and public health concerns of the Native American community alongside the economic concerns of energy companies, Native American tribes spent the past two Thanksgivings (a holiday that honors a momentary pause in the slaughter of the first Americans by white men) being overpowered by water cannons for exercising their right to protest and then cleaning up the mess from the very thing they were protesting. This is what modern-day oppression looks like.
"Remember that your children are not your own, but are lent to you by the Creator."
– Mohawk proverb
The traditional values of most Native American tribes prioritize the role of families and the tribe as a whole in helping their children develop happy, healthy, and with an opportunity to live a better life than their parents. Unfortunately, for too long the federal and state governments have not done as much as they could to help.
Perhaps the most striking example of the struggle of Native American communities to provide quality education for their students with limited resources and funding is the Yup'ik community in Alaska. The Yup'ik people suffer from unusually high illiteracy rates because public education was not available in the region until the 1980s. In other Native communities, underfunded schools are literally crumbling and are equal in quality to pre-Brown v. Board schools for people of color in the South. As a result, fewer people in these communities are able to vote (in many communities, this is further complicated because they are many miles from the nearest polling place) and fewer still are able to obtain college degrees and higher paying jobs.
When people do not see a way out of seemingly endless cycles of poverty, they lose hope and they lose their drive. This is why the suicide rate is so high among Native Americans. In fact, Native Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 are two and a half times more likely to commit suicide than the general population and suicide is the second most common cause of death for that demographic. That is a dangerous trend partially attributable to the lack of funding for Indian schools, but also due to the lack of funding for health services for Native Americans, including mental health services.
In the realm of mental health, the prevalence rate of PTSD in Native American children is roughly 22 percent, or more than three times the national average, according to a Department of Justice advisory committee. Put another way, indigenous children are as likely to experience PTSD as combat veterans in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The same advisory committee recommended that Congress allow tribes to prosecute non-Indians who abuse children, but due to Republican backlash, Congress left the issue untouched.
As a whole, Native Americans suffer from abnormally high rates of diabetes, obesity, substance abuse, and sexually transmitted diseases. Despite the fact that Native Americans are eligible for health coverage through Indian Health Services, many local providers lack sufficient basic services like contraceptives and the program is so grossly underfunded that its supply usually runs out by midsummer. This is especially a problem in indigenous communities because they tend to live in overcrowded areas far from hospitals or treatment centers. It is a damn poor world that these people have to live in when they have to worry about their teenagers being shot by overzealous cops and are left without basic help if the day they get sick happens to be in the second half of the year.
"It is better to have less thunder in the mouth and more lightning in the hand."
What does it say about the wealthiest nation in the history of the world when it cannot provide quality healthcare, safety, and education for its earliest inhabitants?
That is a question that is all too real for too many Native Americans, who have seen their communities gripped by poverty, their rights trampled upon by corporate interests, their land taken by a government that thinks they are too clueless to notice or too hopeless to care. It is all too real for mothers who have seen their sons taken from them far too soon in tragic police interactions and suicides. It is all too real for fathers who have seen their daughters physically and emotionally scarred by domestic violence by their partners and struggling to find a job to escape it all with the substandard education they received. It is all too real for indigenous children who have to walk miles for drinking water that is not contaminated and for whom drugs are more easily accessible than dental care. It is a question that grips at the soul of America and defines what kind of country it wants to be, and a question that challenges America to do more for its most vulnerable whether they be children, seniors, or Native Americans.
Fortunately, there has been progress in recent years toward extending a helping hand to the indigenous communities. In 2013, as part of a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, Congress finally granted tribes the right to prosecute non-Natives who commit domestic violence. This is a monumental step in the right direction to ensuring that Native Americans can get the equal justice they are promised under the law. This November, during Native American Heritage Month, Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) led an online movement spreading awareness of the issues faced by Native American women, who are murdered at ten times the national average and 84 percent of whom experience violence. This movement led to Sen. Heidi Heitkamp's introduction of a bipartisan bill called Savanna's Act calling on the federal government to increase tribal access to federal crime information databases and to update said databases more accurately with regards to Native Americans, create standardized protocol for responding to missing or murdered Native Americans, and require an annual report to Congress on data on missing and murdered Native Americans.
The bill, if passed, could more effectively address the epidemic of violence against women in these communities like never before and would be a symbol that Congress believes Native American issues to be the national issues that they truly are. It would be a positive first step, but would not singlehandedly rebuild struggling Native American communities.
For that, more action is needed. Therefore, Congress should build upon the progress of 2013 and authorize tribes to prosecute non-Indians who commit other heinous crimes, like sexual abuse. It should increase funding for Indian Health Services, because as long as a third of Native Americans cannot get healthcare coverage, communities will continue to struggle with disease and with sustainable development due to high mortality rates. The Department of Justice should reopen closed cases of missing and murdered Native American women because justice has been denied to so many and safe communities ensure prosperous ones. The federal government also ought to refuse to sign any pipeline deal that would risk rendering the drinking water of an indigenous population unsafe because no corporation's profits should come at the expense of the basic necessities of a population.
America has made recent progress in extending a hand to its indigenous brothers and sisters, but these actions cannot be mere lip service and must demonstrate an actual commitment. The ultimate measure of America's success has always been what it has done for the many who have little, not the few who have it all, and one of the greatest tests it faces today is restoring justice and opportunity in Native American communities. I call upon activists everywhere and Congress to confront this challenge head-on, with compassion and commitment to justice.
Photo credit Voice of America, public domain