The Reality of Life for Native Americans

Adriana Quinonez Solano, Staff Reporter

Native Americans are the indigenous peoples of the Americas. They have lived in North and South America, including what would become the United States, for thousands of years, well before Christopher Columbus set eyes on the continents. Before being forced by Europeans to endure so much cruelty, Native Americans lived a free and happier life—they had an abundance of land on which they could grow their food and their culture.

Currently, there are about 4.5 million Native Americans and Alaskan natives in the United States, making up about 1.5% of the population. Many of these Native Americans are currently living on reservations, which not only isolate them from the rest of the country, but also force them to live in a completely different environment from that of their ancestors.

While many would think that Native Americans have chosen to stay on their reservations because that’s where they believe they belong, that belief is simply wrong. Many Native Americans have stayed on their reservations because their lands are sacred to them; they’ve grown up on those lands, they’ve raised families on those lands, and they’ve buried loved ones on those lands; their families are tied to those lands, and they value their families very highly.

However, these reservations do not provide the best living conditions for Native Americans: they’re underserved by the government and left to face systemic poverty. Because of high poverty rates, reservations can no longer provide safe environments for young people and families⁠—poverty has caused adults and teens to turn to alcohol, drugs, and violence, all of which force the younger generations on these reservations to endure serious trauma. Less than 50% of Native American high school students graduate, oftentimes due to stress factors that they face as a result of conditions within their communities. Some of these are exposure to alcohol and drugs, poverty, discrimination, the isolation of their culture, and the impacts of the negative and racist treatment their community receives from non-Native Americans.

During the 2018 Senate election, incumbent Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, lost her reelection race due to new statewide legislation that many argue actively seeks to suppress the voting rights of indigenous North Dakotans living on reservations. Around 18,000 Native Americans did not get the opportunity to fulfill their constitutional right to vote in the 2018 midterm election, according to NPR reporter Camila Domonoske.

This was due to the state’s new controversial voter ID law, which requires residents to show an identification card with a current street address. On Native American reservations, however, P.O. boxes are often used in place of mailing addresses, but P.O. box addresses are no longer accepted, meaning that Native Americans who don’t have a street address—which constitutes a large part of North Dakota’s indigenous population—are now prohibited from performing their civic duty to vote. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat who represented a majority-Republican state, largely owed her Senate seat to her Native American constituents. This new law and its implications for Native American communities is one in a long list of examples of the rights of indigenous populations being disrespected by state and federal legislators.

Native Americans don’t only face issues within their community—they also have to deal with racist, stereotype-driven comments made by non-Natives and the cultural appropriation perpetuated by largely-ignorant “Americans” who don’t live on reservations. Many who live in America who are not at least partially Native American make racist comments about indigenous people and appropriate elements of their culture. Some of these racist comments include labeling them as savages, squaws, and Pocahontas. Aside from the racial comments, many assume that Native Americans are violent and illiterate. Those Native Americans who work hard in school and finding jobs do not fit these stereotypical comments, they have contributed so much to our society, from sign language to kayaks to cotton, rubber, and agricultural methods, not to mention the movements to conserve our country’s beautiful lands and the animals that call these continents home.

To this day, many Native Americans, like other minorities in our country, face daily discrimination and racism. Last year, an event that was largely misunderstood by the nation took place in Washington D.C., during the March for Life and the Indigenous Peoples March. Many videos that circulated the internet showed a group of young white males, who had been with the March for Life, surrounding an old Native American man, who had been with the Indigenous Peoples March, who was peacefully singing a native song in the hopes of ending a confrontation between the students and counter-protestors. The video later shows one young male standing in front of the native man, smiling at him mockingly while many others laughed and screamed at him. The mocking comments and actions of the white student demonstrates how unimportant other cultures seem to those who are at the top of the racial hierarchy. The resolve of the Native American man, Nathan Phillips, was powerful⁠—he continued to play his song, focusing on his goal of expressing his culture and keeping it alive.

Update: Native American tribes have been very hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic because many reservations lack the medical staff and resources to test and treat patients. As a result, Doctors Without Borders has dispatched a medical team to the Navajo nation, the first mission of the organization ever sent to the United States. This move has sparked controversy as many both in and outside of the United States question the response of federal and state governments to the coronavirus, especially when it comes to providing for Native American communities. In addition to Doctors Without Borders, many Irish have donated to various GoFundMe campaigns to provide millions in aid for several Native American tribes, a repayment of the $170 several tribes sent to Ireland in 1847 to help feed struggling communities during the Great Famine.