FREDERICKSBURG, Virginia — Since the arrival of the European colonizers, indigenous people in the U.S. experienced a long history of living in extreme poverty, lack of access to adequate healthcare and education, harmful stereotypes and many other violent injustices which continue to debilitate indigenous communities. While efforts to highlight and dismantle dire issues afflicting indigenous communities, more efforts are needed to raise full awareness of the profound historical nature of indigenous problems.
Understanding Indigenous Issues in the United States
When addressing indigenous issues, it is essential first to address colonization. Colonization is a long process of establishing dominance over foreign territory and its inhabitants for economic gain. Colonizers conquer lands and assume control of vital resources and economic revenue while institutionalizing their cultures, religions and laws, which disproportionately affect indigenous peoples. The repercussions of the extensive and demonizing colonial practices leave indigenous people heavily reliant on their colonizers.
The issues that persist today are direct consequences of centuries of colonization and institutionally discriminatory practices which stripped natives of their land and resources. The aftermath of this oppressive history resulted in prolonged centuries of adversity. Indigenous people in the U.S. face higher poverty rates than their non-indigenous counterparts, at 25.4% as of 2022.
Native Americans are more likely to experience malnutrition, exposure to illnesses, violence and discrimination. In addition, limited indigenous infrastructural systems exacerbate these dire conditions due to inadequate access to education, protective social services, and economic resources and opportunities. As a result, indigenous people in the U.S. live 20 years less than other minority groups.
For indigenous people in the U.S. residing on reservations, living conditions are not the utopia stereotypes depict. The U.S. government implemented the reservation system in the late 19th century to allow colonial settlers to seize land without indigenous interference. Under federal mandates, countless tribes were coerced into these inhospitable zones, leaving them in extreme poverty and unable to sustain themselves. Their traditional methods of food acquisition were discouraged and were instead given subsidies from the central government. New foods that hadn’t been a part of their traditional diet would negatively affect their health. Today, indigenous people in the U.S. are 2.5 more likely to suffer from diabetes than other races in the U.S.
Housing and infrastructure on reservations present significant barriers to indigenous advancement. On-reservation residents face dire housing needs. Indigenous people in the U.S. are five times more likely to live in poor housing conditions, lack basic plumbing and as of 2021, 1,200 times more likely to live with heating issues.
The Red Road Project estimates thousands of Native Americans are homeless due to the growing wait list for the drastically underfunded tribal housing system. Indigenous health care services also lack adequate funding from the federal government and often lack crucial resources and services to treat the mental and physical needs on the reservation.
Violence against indigenous people in the U.S. is another major issue. On November 15, 2021, the Biden Administration issued an executive order addressing the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous people. Since 2016, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) reported that 84.3% of indigenous women and 81.6% of indigenous men in the U.S. experienced violence during their lifetimes. The CDC reports that murder is the third leading cause of death for indigenous women living on reservations. Despite the alarming rates of violence against indigenous people in the U.S., the Bureau of Indian Affairs estimates that over 4,000 cases go unsolved due to inadequate resources and underfunding to investigate these cases effectively.
Addressing Historical Trauma
Before taking action to solve indigenous issues, one must first dive into the notion of historical trauma. Historical trauma is “the accumulative emotional and psychological pain over an individual’s lifespan and across generations as the result of massive group trauma.” The trauma manifests as poor physical, emotional or mental health states, internalized oppression, substance abuse, elevated rates of suicide and a deep-rooted sense of distrust/mistrust in “outsiders and government.”
Stereotypes play a significant role in the continuation of historical trauma. Chloe Tarbell, a member of the Mohawk indigenous community, identifies stereotypes as a core barrier to indigenous advancement. These stereotypes include the notion that indigenous people in the US are “lazy, criminals, rapists, alcoholics, drug addicts and uneducated.” Stereotypes such as these are detrimental to indigenous communities because “if you are constantly told you would only amount to this stereotype, you are going to meet that expectation,” Tarbell told The Borgen Project.
Decolonization: The Path to Reconciliation
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) defines reconciliation as “establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples [or a given country].” The TRC emphasizes that before a society can achieve reconciliation, there must be an awareness or historical sensitivity of past events and the damage done. In addition, reconciliation requires an “atonement for the causes and action to change behavior.”
Moreover, the TRC highlights that reconciliation is an active, continuous and multifaceted effort. The process emphasizes everyone’s responsibility to honor, respect, teach and learn indigenous history and their rights. Furthermore, the TRC states that reconciliation is not a spurious trend or singular action carried out by a single group or individual nor assigning blame or guilt.
Representation and education are crucial in empowering indigenous people in the US, especially indigenous youth. “Educated children bring opportunities into their community and become community leaders. If more indigenous children see indigenous leaders, actors, engineers, etc., it can show them that it is possible for them to follow their dreams and be successful. Representation opens up a marginalized community to a world of new exciting possibilities that could have never been imagined and gives communities hope for the future,” Tarbell told The Borgen Project.
Indigenous people in the U.S. remain resilient as they face tremendous adversities from a violent colonial past. Education and public awareness of historical indigenous trauma play crucial roles in decolonizing discriminatory institutional practices. The federal government and activists continue to make significant efforts, pushing indigenous communities toward stronger and brighter futures.
– Ricardo Silva