A Proud History Cut Short
Centuries before the first European settlers reached North America, American Indian communities were thriving. Indian communities built highly advanced systems of tribal government, developed sophisticated methods of engineering and farming, and nurtured cultures of astonishing depth and beauty. American Indians revered the natural world around them, treasured their elders, cherished their children, and passed their values from generation to generation.
But when the white man arrived, the lives of American Indians were changed forever. Whole nations vanished, decimated by disease, warfare, and environmental destruction. Millions upon millions of acres of tribal land were taken away. Treaty upon treaty was broken. Centuries of language, culture, and learning disappeared.
It is estimated that there are approximately five million Native Americans in our country today, only about 1.7% of the U.S. population. About 23% of that number lives on one of the 310 Indian reservations; some 48% of the Native American population live in four states—Alaska, New Mexico, Oklahoma and South Dakota.
3-Minute American History Quiz
Question 1: Why did the United States government establish Indian reservations?
Answer: The government’s objective was to rid the country of its “Indian problem” and open land for white settlers.
Beginning in 1830 with the Indian Removal Act, the official policy of the United States was to forcibly remove Native Americans from their ancestral lands and relocate them to far-away regions “reserved” for Indians.
Question 2: How did the government decide where to locate the reservations?
Answer: Typically, the government put reservations in areas it regarded as being unfit for white settlers—isolated and arid places unsuitable for agriculture and far from towns, transportation and the growing economy.
As the nation’s population expanded westward, the government took back most of the lands and forced Native Americans to relocate again—this time to even less-desirable lands. Today, the land reserved for Native Americans has shrunk to just 2.3% of the land originally promised.
Question 3: It I were to visit, what should I expect to see on an Indian reservation today?
Answer: You would see a proud people—strong in tradition and values—living in near third-world conditions. Poverty is extreme. Drive around the reservation and you’ll see many people living in dilapidated houses and trailers, many of which are without electricity, telephone, running water or a sewage system.
Today, Native Americans are the poorest population in the entire Northern Hemisphere.
Question 4: How can these conditions exist in the richest and most powerful country in the world?
Answer: Most reservations are so isolated that the added costs of transporting supplies and products into and out of the reservation make local production impractical.
Nearly half of the Native Americans who live on the reservations are unemployed. To find work, many must move away from the reservation and leave their families behind. (Nearly half of the children living on reservations are being raised by their grandparents.)
Even the most basic services—healthcare, stores and schools—are often an hour or more away and families are forced to choose between using the little money they have to buy gasoline for the car or food for the children.
Question 5: Haven’t Native Americans benefitted from the growth of Indian casinos?
Answer: Yes, to some extent, but not as much as you think. There are 586 recognized tribes—246 sponsor some kind of gaming facility in 28 states.
Less than 20% of the employees of these facilities are Native American. Many tribal facilities are nothing more than trailers offering bingo. Profits in almost all cases go to the tribes for general welfare, not to individuals.
The average life expectancy for Native Americans has improved yet still trails that of other Americans by almost five years.
Due to underfunding, Indian health service facilities leave a wide gap in adequate and preventative health care for many Native Americans on the reservations. Pharmacies and doctor’s offices outside of hospitals are completely non-existent in some communities.
The pressure to shift from a traditional way of life toward a Western-oriented culture has created a terrible epidemic of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, tuberculosis, and cancer. The statistics are alarming:
- Heart disease is the leading cause of death for American Indians
- Due to the link between heart disease, diabetes, poverty, and quality of nutrition and health care, 36% of Natives with heart disease will die before age 65 compared to 15% of Caucasians.
- American Indians are 177% more likely to die from diabetes
- 500% are more likely to die from suicide
- Infant death rates are 60% higher than for Caucasians
Today, the historical traditions of learning that distinguished American Indian cultures have nearly been lost. Few American Indians on reservations have the means or encouragement to attend college. Government-funded schools are in disrepair, and teachers are scarce. But education is the only way for young American Indians to break the cycle of poverty and despair caused by our nation’s oppression and neglect of their ancestors.
Sixty-two percent of American high school graduates attend college; only 17% of American Indians who graduate from high school will go on to college.
All in all, as you can see, it is not a very happy or pretty picture. The plight of our Native American population is somewhat desperate.
Would You Like To Help?
American Indian College Fund*, 800/876-3663
Futures for Children*, 800/545-6843
Opportunities to mentor an elementary school child
*Rated “A” by Charity Watch