Alcohol-use disorders are more likely among American Indian youths than among any other ethnic group. Involvement in gang activity is more prevalent among Native Americans than it is among Latinos and African Americans. Native American women report being raped two-and-a-half times as often as the national average.
The rate of child abuse among Native Americans is twice as high as the national average. And each of these problems is worse among the half of Natives who live on reservations.
Many say the federal government is not giving American Indians enough money to combat these problems. As Cecilia Fire Thunder, the former chief of the Lakota tribe on the Pine Ridge reservation, told me, “We are held back by inadequate funding.” When it comes to education, health care, and various other problems on the reservations, she said, “all Congress has to do is honor its treaties.”
Others—often researchers in the academy—argue that American culture does not give Natives enough respect, continuing to traffic in stereotypes when it comes to sports teams and mocking those who claim to have Indian heritage. The American Sociological Association, for instance, passed a resolution calling for sports teams at all levels of competition to cease using American Indian nicknames, logos, and mascots. It read, “The continued use of Native American nicknames, logos, and mascots in sport harm Native American people in psychological, educational, and social ways.”
Neither view is entirely right.
The economic devastation in American Indian communities is not simply a result of their history as victims of forced assimilation, war, and mass murder; it’s a result of the federal government’s current policies, and particularly its restrictions on Natives’ property rights.
Reservation land is held “in trust” for Indians by the federal government. The goal of this policy was originally to keep Indians contained to certain lands. Now, it has shifted to preserving these lands for indigenous peoples. But the effect is the same. Indians can’t own land, so they can’t build equity. This prevents American Indians from reaping numerous benefits.
Instead, Washington continues to send checks and micromanage these communities. The two primary agencies charged with overseeing the activities of Indians who live on reservations—the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or BIA, and the Bureau of Indian Education, or BIE, both part of the Department of the Interior—together have a total of 9,000 employees. That’s one employee for every 111 Indians on a reservation. According to a report from the Cato Institute, federal funding for these agencies’ various programs—which support education, economic development, tribal courts, road maintenance, agriculture, and social services—was almost $3 billion in 2012. About $850 million of this goes to BIE to provide for its 42,000 students, although most children on reservations don’t attend BIE schools. This amounts to about $20,000 per pupil, compared to a national average of $12,400.