The Forgotten People

by Terry Davis

The United States faces many issues today and we are bombarded with them through news and social media outlets. However, we no longer hear about the plights and struggles of the Native Americans in our country.  They are the forgotten ones of our society. You hear the words Native American today and many of us liken that to history or sport’s mascots. It is almost as if we forgot that they are reservations of Native Americans throughout this country. They should not be remembered for failed assimilation attempts or even their forced journey to undesirable land in the Midwest. They should be seen as an important cog in what makes the country great and not some group that we read about in history books.

Growing up as a kid, my initial introduction to who Native Americans are was through playing cowboy and Indians and through old western films that portrayed them as the uncivilized savages. After that, in grade school we learned how peaceful early Pilgrims were to the Natives during the first American Thanksgiving, and how great of a gesture it was for these people to invite “friends of the wilderness” to a meal. Later on in school you begin to learn of early Native American conflicts with settlers: siding with the British based on promises to keep their land, the Trail of Tears, assimilation, The Indian Wars ending the late 19th century. Beyond this, Native American history ends for most of us. History does not end there for Native Americans. Since that time they continue to push for further recognition and sovereignty in a country where they’ve lived longer than those who seek to control their rights.

The best place to start in understanding the state of the Native American race in relation to the rest of the United States and where they stand in our society today is to look at their history briefly. The Native Americans were in the United States long before settlers arrived from Europe. They interacted with settlers creating a variety of alliances with some countries and opposed by others. Diseases massively decimating their numbers ravaged much of the population in the 17th and 18th century. With the conclusion of American independence, many Native American tribes attempted to assimilate into American culture while others sought to remain secluded. Their decision of seclusion would ultimately be made for them with Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830. This allowed him to send all Native Americans East of the Mississippi to territory in the West by giving up their lands. Native Americans had went through this ever since Europeans set foot in the United States where they were slowly shoved further away from the coast.

Native Americans had simply been given land that no other settler currently wanted.  As time progressed into the middle of the 19th century land was being claimed more and more in the west as settlers made their great exodus. This created tension as settlers wanted land Native Americans now possessed. Once again the Indian Wars would resume where Native Americans battled for freedom and protection of their property. These skirmishes only slowly decimated the Native Americans who were once again succumbed by defeat. This led to many Native Americans living on reservations that are still in existence today.

Native Americans yet were still not done with the United States government intervening in their lives. Throughout the late 19th century and early 20th century many youths would be taken from their reservation lives to be sent to trade and industrial schools to be educated like Americans at the time. Notably an Indian industrial school was opened up in Carlisle, Pennsylvania to serve this purpose where the current Barracks is located. Many of these children were successful in becoming “Americanized,” but many would never see their parents from the reservation again. It was the United States intervening based on what they found to be the right thing to do.

Today, Native American reservations consist of 22% of our country’s 5.2 million Native Americans. The rest live amongst us. They are in the same boat as other minorities in the United States who typically struggle with economic issues. The conditions on reservations are even worse. There is a large scarcity of economic opportunity and jobs for citizens of these tribal lands. While they seek self-sufficiency, they are also reliant on government assistance that may never come. Four of ten Native Americans on reservations are unemployed.  Of those who are employed, many are making below poverty wages. Coupled with that is the frequency of drug and alcohol addictions that many suffer from to cope with their lives. These people are in no better condition than the homeless in our streets.

With these harsh living conditions and limited success of reservation life, why are these individuals forgotten? They are forgotten because America has already wiped their hands clean of them. People struggle to relate to someone that they have seldom if any interaction with. How often do we come across Native American’s on a daily basis? I am willing to bet the number is very little. How much news representation do Native Americans receive? The only story I can remotely remember are the protests of Native Americans who were being removed from their reservations or suffering poor drinking water due to oil drilling on reservations. Beyond this story, Native Americans receive very little media attention. We know that they exist on some remote areas of the United States, but we do not necessarily relate to their plight. They are very similar to the homeless we witness in our cities on a daily basis that we view, but turn a blind eye to. The only difference between the two is they are not in our face. We are confronted with the homeless routinely so we are always reminded that they are there. However, unless you live close to a reservation you are unlikely to be confronted with their struggle.

How do we then make a difference and better the lives of our Native Americans? First, we educate the masses regarding their struggles and understanding of their culture. This is not easy, as America today suffers from the same hatred towards other minorities that continues to get attention in our society. An open forum does not change the lives of the Native Americans, but it changes the lives of us as outsiders who become just a little bit more accepting of others even if they differ from us.

The largest change must come within our Federal government to address the problems within the reservation life of their citizens. The economy of these tribal lands is the first issue that needs to be reviewed. The United States has made efforts in many geographical regions of the country to provide economic relief. For instance inner cities have received additional funds in efforts to rebuild homes, bring back businesses, and improved the visual appearance. These are things that reservations have been neglected from receiving by the federal or local governments. This decision must be based on the fact that outsiders do not visit reservations and the only ones who see them are Native Americans unlike cities that are seen by all. This again indicates my earlier point that America has turned a blind eye to the plight of Native Americans to the point that there is no concern to help reservations succeed. This is the worst kind of attitude to have because it prolongs a barrier between Native Americans and success. More importantly it prolongs a barrier between Native Americans of reservations and the rest of the United States citizenry.

Native American reservations are in need of economic growth in order to succeed in today’s civilization. As indicated, the unemployment rate shows that the lives of these people suffer greatly as a result. Many may argue that Native Americans have lavish casinos that help their reservations prosper. This is an inaccurate statement. Casinos are not a fact of life on every reservation. Those reservations that do have them are ones that are relatively close to other economic markets or larger populations. Even these casinos fail to employ many members of the reservation and those that are employed only benefit greatly if they are at the top of the company’s hierarchy. Finally, often times the presence of casinos results in outside investors who are granted access to reservations and are the ones who truly profit from the creation of casinos.

For an economy to grow, banking institutions must be available to help provide individuals with standard loans, and provide small businesses and industries with the necessary amount capital to page for wages, materials, and other developmental costs. These are simple things that a small business owner outside of a reservation takes for granted, but is a barrier to those on a reservation. Banks must be made available to help Native Americans begin any successful business venture that can improve life standards.

In order to help reservations succeed financially, direct capital investments into reservation businesses, housing, and infrastructure. Lending standards from banks must be based on tribal needs and conditions and not the bank shareholder demands. It is not feasible for reservations to meet this requirement without lending institutions willingness to be adaptable to tribal needs. We must embrace a culture of creativity and innovation in financial products and technology the same way other parts of the United States are embraced. Allowing and supporting a culture of economic development and funding by the government and lending institutions is a pivotal way for the forgotten to become members of the known.

 

Sources:

  1. G. Guedel, Capital, Inequality, and Self-Determination: Creating a Sovereign Financial System for Native American Nations, 41 Am. Indian L. Rev.1 (2016). 
    http://digitalcommons.law.ou.edu/ailr/vol41/iss1/1
  2. Danielle Delaney, The Master’s Tools: Tribal Sovereignty and Tribal Self-Governance Contracting/Compacting, 5 Am. Indian L. J. 2 (2017). http://digitalcommons.law.seattleu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1165&context=ailj