American Indians Today/Current problems

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Current problems

To get a realistic impression of an ethnic community, it is absolutely necessary to look at its seemy side and to analyze its problems. Due to the fact that the reservations in the USA are on a different level of development, their problems are varying and of different graveness. But in many cases one problem produces the next, so there is definitely no shortage of worrying aspects among the American Indians in the reservations as well as outside.

Bad job conditions at the reservations, exploitation and environmental destruction

Today there are only 52 million acres left from the original American Indian homeland of the about 6.1 billion acres that form North America and this trust land is mostly of inferior quality: the BIA took an investigation about the erosion on American Indian tribes land and considered the state of 12 million acres crucially, 17 million gravely, 24 million gently affected as to that. So for many Native Americans there is no possibility to make a living by farming without the use of chemicals and in some reservations commercial hunting and fishing are prohibited.

Furthermore the lack of infrastructure (e.g., often no electricity, telephones or Internet connectivity) makes life difficult in the reservations and these drawbacks and the insufficient or partly missing links to the traffic system keep most foreign industry from installing sites in the reservations. The bad conditions complicate the foundation of American Indian businesses like casinos and tourism for some tribes, too, because they are not within easy reach from the next big city and the potential customers.

Considering these circumstances, it is not surprising that the rates of unemployment are between 50 and 70% (in some reservations they are higher than 80%), and that the American Indians have the lowest average income in the USA.

The government in the 1990s promised high financial and economic rewards to the tribes who would agree to the storage of toxic and radioactive waste on their reservation land for several decades. Many American Indians (mainly those of the poorer reservations like the Mescalero-Apache) were tempted by the money and were not aware of the consequences for their health, their environment and life base, which makes the barriers to the reservations' development even more unbreakable.

Lack of education and poverty

The percentage of citizens with less than a High School graduate was leveled 19.6% among the total US population, about 10% higher for the American Indians outside the reservations and again by 10% more for those in the reservations. The rate of students with more than a Bachelors' degree also proves the underdeveloped state of education among the American Indians, for it ranges between 8 and 13%, with an total USA average of 24%.

Furthermore the reservation schools have the highest rate of teacher turnover and they often lack the means for school supply and sufficient staff. Even those Native Americans students who could attend secondary education are inhibited by bureaucracy and the great distances to the universities.

This lack of formal education fuels other social problems like unemployment, poverty, teenage pregnancy, criminality and drug abuse and it forces the Native Americans to accept badly paid jobs. Therefore an improve of their life standards is not easy since they are also inhibited by the costs for food (which in reservations are absurdly enough higher than outside the reservations) and the financial burdens especially on City Indians, such as high rents and taxes (which they have to pay in full amount, unlike the Native Americans in the reservations).

As a result there are 24 to 25% of all American Indians who live below the poverty line and in the reservations the figure sometimes exceeds 40% of the residents. Especially poverty among children is an urgent problem, because for example in the Pine Ridge reservation (South Dakota) 46% of the American Indian children are considered poor, which is higher than the poverty rate among adults.

Social challenges

In the reservations but also outside the Native Americans have to deal with further worrying social developments: of all ethnic groups in the USA the American Indians have the

  • highest rate of school drop outs (about 54%),
  • highest rate of child mortality,
  • highest rate of suicide
  • highest rate of teenage suicide ( 18.5 per 100,000),
  • highest rate of teenage pregnancy,
  • lowest life expectancy ( 55 years)

Drug abuse and alcoholism have become mass problems among the American Indians (in some reservations eight families out of ten have problems with alcoholism) and unfortunately among their children, too. For those the confrontation with unemployment, environmental destruction, the decay of the reservations and the lack of positive future prospects and leisure time activities to distract them situation, are probably hard to bear.

Caused or at least promoted by drug abuse, there is a lot of crime in the reservations and outside of which the American Indians (especially children) are victims and offenders (especially young adults) at the same rate: Domestic violence, rape, child abuse and child neglect are reported to take place very often in the reservations, with the estimated number of unknown cases being very high.

Furthermore in the recent years gang violence in the reservations has increased, fueled by weak law enforcement, youth unemployment and the lack of activities for young Indians and with the results of vandalism, theft, assaults (also sexual) and street fights.

Shortage of housing and health problems

Homelessness is considered a subject of no public interest in the US society and therefore there is little information about the homeless American Indians in the USA, but it is estimated that there are “90,000 homeless or under housed Indian families”, especially in the reservations where the shortage and decay of houses is an omnipresent challenge: old shacks (often left army buildings) and council flats which often lack of electricity, running or warm water and in more than 50% of all cases of public sewer and are in need for repair are common housing conditions.

As a result of the shortage of housing American Indian houses have to offer home for big families and their acquaintances, so that 30% of the American Indians live in overcrowded homes and sometimes “25 people [have] to live in a two-bedroom home” which promotes a lack of hygiene and the spread of diseases.

In fact the health conditions in the reservations are deplorable, anyhow: Native Americans are suffering of diabetes, alcoholism, tuberculosis and other health conditions and are dying at shocking rates. The cases of asthma, heart failure, cancer and AIDS are also noticeable accumulated within American Indian communities (unfortunately mostly among the elders and children) and are out of all proportion to the inadequate health care system: Especially the malnutrition based diseases such as rickets and diabetes require expensive medical treatments like for example dialysis and therefore the federal health service in many reservations is overburdened.

Furthermore the consequences of pollution and contamination in some areas threaten the American Indian's health and life because toxic and radioactive traces are discovered in the drinking water, the soil, the nutrition and the bodies of the American Indians themselves. American Indian farm workers also get in touch with the “1.2 billion pounds of highly toxic pesticides sprayed on our food every year” because the safety measures such as protective clothing often are insufficient or missing. So an increase of cancer and deformity based deaths are caused by contacts with these dangerous substances.

A widespread epidemic of which children suffer when their mothers drank a lot of alcohol during pregnancy, are the “Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders” (FASD) and they appear in many different degrees of gravity: In general the central nervous system is affected and therefore these children suffer from epileptic attacks, speech disorders, learning difficulties, inhibited growth and deformed bodies and organs. These symptoms can be suppressed by medical treatment, although there is no complete remedy.

Mental health

In many books and films about American Indians we are shown the sins and crimes committed by the white Immigrants, which are often hard to believe. Hence it appears likely that the present generation of American Indians are still full of sadness and horror about the past, like the descendants of the Jews, whose fate seems almost comparable to the American Indians'.

Although we cannot look into the Native American heads, except if they write or talk about their feelings, it is known that the experiences for example of the boarding schools have caused traumas among the former pupils. The high rates of mental illness, alcoholism and suicide may also give evidence of the American Indians' mental condition.

A further aspect, which affects many poor Native Americans, is the dependency on federal welfare and the US government's generosity concerning health care and social benefits.

Discord between the American Indians

Other Americans sometimes talk about “the American Indians” as a compact group of tribes, which is a completely wrong impression: the Native American tribes have never been united altogether and even today they still behave detrimentally to each other. For example the crimes and abuses, such as corruption of Native American responsibilities to their fellow Indians' disadvantage, prove the discord between the single tribes and American Indians.

The US policy had encouraged this conflict throughout many decades, for they often placed the borders of a reservation in such a way that it surrounded another tribe's area. This policy has been quite effective and the Navajo, as an example, sold the mining rights for the area of Black Mesa without the agreement of the Hopi who worship the area as a spiritual center.

It would be interesting to know what would have happened, if the American Indians had stood solidly against the European immigrants...

The relationship between the American Indians and the USA

In the past discrimination has been the common reaction towards American Indians and was in no way inferior to the experiences of the African Americans, except that it is less known to the world. Similar to the Black Americans the civil rights activists who supported the Native Americans as well as Native Americans who stood up for their rights in public had become victims of social disadvantage or even political assassination.

Today the discrimination of American Indians is not as omnipresent and publicly expressed as in the past, probably because of the Native American resistance movement in the past century. Its traces, however, are still there: for example in the names of many US sports teams like “Cleveland Indians” or “Washington Redskins”, in commercial television or advertising using the image of the strong Indian for their purposes, or in the suggestions of some politicians to terminate the self-determination or existence of single tribes.

The ignorance and indifference towards the American Indian problems and concerns is the more important strain on the relationship between the USA and the Native Americans, today (besides the memories to past injustice). Conflicts between the government and Native Americans are often solved by actions of the US army and other American Indian affairs are often treated without the adequate political sensitiveness as well: the decision whether an Indian tribe should be recognized as such is within the scope of duties of the BIA, a non-Indian organization with only partly Indian staff, which appears difficult to be cohered.

Furthermore the US government takes its time to realize a mistake and to apologize for it (e.g. the USA has not signed yet an official state resolution of 2004 to “offer an apology to all Native Peoples on behalf of the United States [for past] ill-conceived policies”).

The US government's obstinacy combined with the tribes' pride makes the removal of old misunderstandings between the government and the American Indian tribes such as the erroneous belief that federal compensation payments for holy tribal land would be accepted by the Native Americans and (in return) that there would be another choice for the American Indians than coming to terms with the past. An even more important obstacle to the removal of the American Indian problems is the indifference among other people, such as fellow citizens who only have a vague understanding of the problems facing Native Americans today.