More than 60,000 refugees relocate to the United States every year, fleeing ethnic, religious, gender, and political oppression and persecution. Organizations throughout the country welcome them, providing shelter, clothing, food, and employment opportunities to aid them in building new, safer and happier lives. While we welcome these new Americans, we continue to perpetrate the same crimes refugees are fleeing from against indigenous communities within our borders.
The U.S. government works with other governments, international organizations, and nongovernmental organizations that provide protection and assistance to refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs), victims of conflict, and other vulnerable migrants to address a variety of needs. These include the legal and physical protection needs of refugees as well as their basic assistance needs for water, sanitation, food, health care, shelter, education, and other services (emphasis added).
Yet, the internal displacement of indigenous communities throughout the Americas is ignored within the discussion of global displaced populations and within our own national conversation. At most it gets an awkward footnote. Nevertheless, our policies and practices, whether formal or informal, can be traced back to the first European footprints in the western hemisphere. The first formal reservations were established in Oklahoma in 1851 by way of the Indian Appropriations Act, followed by the Dawes Act of 1887 which sought to dismantel traditional communal land tenure. From that point forward in our history, legislation built upon legislation that systematically and institutionally eroded indigenous communal knowledge, rituals, language, traditions and teachings. While Howard Wheeler Act of 1934 attempted to reverse the damaging effects that privatization of land tenure had on indigenous communities throughout the United States, tribal sovereignty was continually breached by the government, particularly the US military. I still find it difficult to comprehend (well not really) that citizenship wasn’t extended to indigenous communities until the Citizenship Act of 1924 and fully implemented until 1948.
Pine Ridge “Indian” Reservation
Over the last three or four months I have come across several articles discussing the effects of the “recession” on indigenous communities throughout the United States. The story of one particular community – the Oglala Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the 8th largest indigenous reservation in the United States, made me pause. The reservation spans 2,000,000 acres and more than 40,000 individuals call it home.
The families and individuals of Pine Ridge are truly living out the consequences of history in ways that are invisible to mainstream society. Pine Ridge is the poorest reservation in the United States, as well as among the poorest communities across the country in general. With an unemployment rate on the margins of 80%, more than 49% of the community is (barely) surviving under the federal poverty line with an income of less than $10,000 per year per person. Homes are hard to come by at Pine Ridge.
Portable trailers make up the majority of dwellings at Pine Ridge, with two or more families calling each trailer home. Electricity, landlines, running water, and a working sewer system, all basic needs according to the State Department, are hard to come by.
What kind of legacy are we leaving?
We are leaving an active legacy, a present-day living narrative that is ignored. The United States continues to internally displace more than 600 indigenous communities – more than 2 million men, women and children – communities that suffer some of the most crippling levels of poverty due to policies and practices institutionalized in the name of manifest destiny. The impact of this is disturbing:
562 indigenous tribes recognized by the US Bureau of Indian Affairs *
4.9 million indigenous people living in the United States, more than 400,000 live on reservations *
less than 40% of 562 recognized indigenous tribes operate casinos *
tribal communities experience barriers to economic development at 4 times the rate as other minority groups, including: lack of access to capital, lack of human capital and the means to develop it, lack of effective planning, poor natural resources and control over the resources they do have, and governmental corruption. *
ratio of indigenous people living below the official poverty level to that of all people was more than 2 *
31.7% lack health insurance coverage and lack to health care access *
32% of those living on reservations live at or below the federal poverty line (that’s 1 in 3 people) *
30% of homes on reservations are overcrowded, compared to 5.7% of homes of the general U.S. population. *
indigenous people, whether they live on reservations or not, experience the highest rates of poverty indicators compared to other Americans across the board including *:
- highest teen suicide rate 72% higher, 1.7 times the national average)
- highest teen pregnancy rate with the steepest increase in the teen birth rate of any racial or ethnic group
- highest High School drop out rate of 54%
- lowest per capita income ($13,000 versus $16,000 for blacks and $14,000 for latinos)
- highest unemployment fluctuating from 50-90% (and that is without taking the current economic situation into consideration
- 519% more likely to die of alcoholism
- 500% more likely to die of tuberculosis (a treatable disease)
- 195% more likely to die of diabetes than any other ethnic group
What’s Missing from our Thanksgiving Narrative?
Thanks-giving requires remembering. We can’t give thanks without remembering why we have the many blessings in our lives and where they came from. You can’t have one without the other. Remembering and giving thanks are good and necessary, thins we are all called to on a daily basis. We need to live thanks-giving often and not relegate it to conveniently named holidays throughout the year.
What I am saying is that while we are engrossed in the turkey and trimmings, the parade, the game (s), the Black Friday madness, and spending time with family and friends, we need to remain cognizant of the fact that this holiday was constructed on the legacy of oppression and displacement. It requires us to look for the truth behind the story. For, we have because others do not, and that is not by accident.