The Segregation of Reservations

Women work on the Cheyenne reservation at Lame Deer, Montana, on Jan. 24, 1945. (AP) ( )
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader, Sorn Jessen, responds to an earlier one who invoked Native Americans in his concern about the “very real possibility that white America would simply turn its back” on African Americans if reparations were enacted:

As someone who was raised on two different reservations, who joined the military out of high school, went to college afterward and even got a graduate degree before moving back, I must say I am tired of hearing Native Americans invoked as political footballs in the debate over reparations.

Seriously, I am absolutely tired of this. People mention indigenous poverty on the reservation as if somehow that means that social justice is a zero sum game. It’s not and it never has been. To most Americans, indigenous people are an abstraction, reservations are places they go to gamble, and unless they have a piece of frybread at the American Indian Museum, they wouldn’t ever think of indigenous folks as actual political actors. All of this makes me rather sad. The folks I know, love and care about are actual people. They have voices, they can speak for themselves, and they are still around to tell you about their stories of segregation and civil rights.

Look, for a long time I was rather angry at that line in “The Case for Reparations” where Ta-Nehisi says: “African Americans still remained—by far—the most segregated ethnic group in the country,” when he’s never been to a reservation in his life.

I still wish he had qualified his statement to include native folks living on the reservation, but hey, he didn’t and so that means the story of indigenous segregation still has to be written. Coates said repeatedly that he’d love to read a work on indigenous folks and housing segregation. Maybe someday there’s a story that way.

To be honest, despite the wonderful work of more than two generations of activists, despite Alcatraz and Wounded Knee and all the wonderful work of AIM, of Russell Means and Idle No More and so many others, we still lack a language for indigenous civil rights in these United States. So, in retrospect, maybe I shouldn't have had such a knee-jerk reaction to that line in “The Case for Reparations.” Coates’s amnesia mirrors the amnesia of the rest of the nation as a whole.

Yet with all of that being said, his ignorance of indigenous civil rights in no way excuses other folks who talk about Indians as if their ongoing struggles mean that somehow the nation shouldn’t pay African Americans anything. Justice is not something that the majority of Americans get to deny to one group of people because they can point to another group who had it worse.

The institutionalized racism of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, where BIA police often lack jurisdiction to arrest white folks who commit crimes on the reservation, in no way invalidates the horrors of sharecropping or lynching. Just because a bank used to red-line in Lame Deer in the 1990s doesn’t mean that when it happened on the South Side of Chicago in the 1960s that it was somehow ok. The 90 percent unemployment on the Pine Ridge reservation in no way invalidates the higher-than-average unemployment rates among African Americans.  

If anyone wants to have a real discussion how segregation and voting rights on the reservation mirrors the Jim Crow south, send them my way. It’s an important topic and it desperately needs a full exposition.

The address is hello@theatlantic.com. (FYI, I ran this email by Ta-Nehisi and he gave me the go-ahead to post with reply.) For more on the theme of Native Lives Matter, see this previous note from Caty, who served up a lot of statistics in an email from Nolan Hack, an African American activist involved in social justice for Native Americans.