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Hope for a Future: The Downfalls of Rural US Indian Reservations

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The past and current struggles of Native Americans have created nonfunctional and dependent societies on tribal lands across the United States. Native Americans have a desire to live in an independent society that can function while still maintaining their long and vibrant culture. There are many factors that must be accounted for before any steps to better the reservations are put in place. The importance of education on reservations is virtually nonexistent. About 70% of Native American high school students will drop out before their senior year (Walters, 2011). Child abuse, poor living conditions, teen pregnancy, crime and ramped substance abuse are the major traps that reservations have fallen into. The elimination, or at least a decrease in these evils, has the potential to bring reservations to the independent and functional position they desire to be at. As a result of ineffective treaties and contracts between Native Americans and the US government, many Native American reservations face corruption or are already fully corrupt. Therefore, the root of the issues must be identified and given proper attention by both the US government and Indian officials.

In order to identify the causes of corruption and the traps of murderous sins on reservations, one must first understand the history between Native Americans and the US government and how the US reservation system came to be. In 1830, President Jackson signed the Indian-Removal Law beginning the reservation system in the United States. President Jackson is known as a monstrously racist white supremacist and is a large reason why Native Americans are in the position they are today. Andrew Jackson is to blame for the Trail of Tears in 1836. By demanding over 16,000 Cherokee Indians to migrate to Oklahoma or face death. This migration took place in the dead of winter and 1 out of every 4 Natives died. Next, in 1837, the US congress passed a law ending all direct payments to tribes for land bought or forcibly taken by US officials. Rather, the money was to be put in trusts to later “benefit” the tribes, but in 1996, over $2.4 billion in trust account transactions could not be accounted for by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) (Neis, 1996).

In 1885, Indian police units were established by the BIA in 48 of the 60 reservations across the US. The units were paid for by the US government and were used for enforcing BIA regulations. Many of the policemen were either US government informants or assimilationists (Neis, 1996). It was not until 1924 that United States Indians were allowed to vote and made actual US citizens by the Indian Citizenship Act (Cornell, Stephen, Kalt, 2012). This was the beginning of a series of positive progress for Native American rights. In 1964, an office of economic opportunity was created that gave anti-poverty funds directly to Native American tribes (Neis, 1996). This may sound like a positive advancement, but it was the farthest thing from positive. The lack of regulations on this money within the tribe created opportunities for even more corruption within the reservation. This mistake went unnoticed for almost 20 years, but by then it was too late, the seed of corruption in the forms of money laundering and other financial crimes was already planted. One of the last advancements for Native tribes was the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1979 (Neis, 1996).

This stated that Indian religious beliefs are protected by the First Amendment, a colossal step for the security of Indian culture. This string of improvements to Native American rights was short lived and soon could be seen as virtually useless. The creation of gambling on reservations can be traced to the cause of blame for the current level of corruption on reservations. In 1988, Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) with the intent of strengthening Native American economies, but the lack of restrictions on these businesses was nonexistent and in turn caused billions of dollars of profits to be in the hands of a select few Indian officials. As stated by Reed (2011, P. 3), “Gambling, like prostitution, is a social problem with ancient roots.” The decision made by the United States to promote this social ill into communities already struggling with weak self-control was irresponsible and selfish. “The gambling industry is believed to propagate or perpetuate social ills such as gambling addiction, bankruptcy, embezzlement, theft and suicide. Casinos may not create these problems directly, but they exploit people’s vulnerabilities (Reed, 2011). Indian gambling can be directly connected to an increase in alcohol and substance abuse along with an increase in violent and financial crimes.

Alcoholism is considered a symptom of other social, cultural, and personal problems. The destructive nature of alcohol and drugs among Indian individuals, families and communities is inextricably interwoven into all aspects of Native American lives. Alcohol contributes to 75-80% of all suicides and about 90% of all homicides on reservations (French & Horbuckle, 1980). The rate of other alcohol-related offenses is eight times that of any other minority group in the US (French & Hornbuckle, 1980). This fact alone can prove that Native Americans are more genetically susceptible to alcoholism. Alcoholism leads to more than only societal problems, but also is a large contributor to poor health. The top 3 causes of death on rural reservations is cirrhosis of the liver, suicide, and homicide (French & Hornbuckle, 1980). In comparison to the top three killers of non-reservationists, cardiovascular illness, cancer and fatal accidents, Indian causes of death are largely preventable.

The repercussions of the alcoholism epidemic within reservations are almost unfathomable. Not only does this obsession with liquor cause health defects, but it is the main contributor to the obscene levels of child abuse on Indian lands. As stated in an article from The New York Times, child welfare is a concern on all reservations, especially rural lands. “In May of 2011, a 9-year old girl and her 7-year old brother were found dead, raped and sodomized, inside their father’s home on the reservation, a federal official said. By the time their bodies were discovered beneath a mattress, the children may have been dead for as long as three days” (New York Times, 2012). These two children’s names were Destiny and Travis. Destiny spent her life as a 9-year old child caring for her five younger siblings while her parents were rarely in the picture. I spent a summer on Spirit Lake reservation working with the children and teens of the tribe and witnessed firsthand the terrible abuse that every child endured.

I knew Travis, and Destiny was my daily “bus buddy” on our way to a daily government provided lunch. The state officials within North Dakota are aware of the food insecurity of Indian families in their state and have begun providing one meal per day to any child enrolled in school. Malnutrition, lack of personal hygiene, shortage of footwear and clothing, along with other basic necessities are all causes of maternal and paternal absence and selfishness. Along with parental absences, tribal governments are a large reason why reservations are in the state of distress they are. The Indian officials on Spirit Lake have gone to great measures to conceal the extreme levels of child abuse and neglect within their land (French & Hornbuckle, 1980). As stated by Dr. Tilus of a governmentally funded health care facility on Spirit Lake reservation he claims that he has “no confidence in tribal leadership to provide safe, responsible, legal, ethical and moral services to the abused and neglected children of the Spirit Lake Tribe” (New York Times,  2012).

North Dakota reservations are not the only tribal lands to suffer from under reported child neglect and other abusive social ills. Renee Elsen on Hardin, Montana, teaches Family and Consumer Sciences on a Crow reservation in the Big Sky state. Ms. Elsen has, “witnessed the godless and consciousless acts of many authoritative tribal members and their disregard to the importance of the lives they have brought into the world” (Personal Communications, 12/9/2012). And, Marnie Whitewolf of Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota said in an interview with 20/20 that she believed “children need to be nourished and treated like a beautiful flower garden. Here, they grow up like weeds (Walters, 2011).” The best hope for restoring order within tribal lands is to nurture these children. The children are the future of the Indian population of the US. Education is the main key to raising children who have a chance to change their tribes’ future for the better, but the current state of Native American education is pitiful.

Historically, the purpose of Indian education was has been to facilitate assimilation (Bowker, 2012) and it was not until 1978 that Indian children were finally allowed to learn their native languages within their schools (Walters, 2011). And, currently, many Indian children suffer from racial discrimination from teachers in reservation schools. There are countless cases of abusive and neglective teachers in the form of physical, verbal and emotional abuse. Native children have confessed that a large contribute to the 70% student dropout rate is uncaring and racially biased discrimination from white teachers. Native Americans have the highest dropout rate of all minority groups in the US (Bowker, 2011). The lack of importance placed on education within current Indian culture is inconceivably low. Beside racial biases, many other factors play into the low graduation rates of Native American students.

Teen pregnancy, peer pressure, substance and alcohol abuse, dysfunctional families, untreated mental health issues and trouble with the law have all contributed to a wasteland in Native American societies. According to the Journal of American Indian Education published by Arizona State University, “Indians have highest birth rate of all minority groups in the country, and that American Indian families are three times more likely than whites to live in poverty” (Bowker, 2011). This research is relevant to almost all Native American research in that poverty can be seen in every aspect of Native life. Teen pregnancy is three times the national average among tribal members, and has become the norm for young girls (Bowker, 2011). Many young women do not expect to graduate because there role in society is to please men and procreate. How is a culture supposed to change for the better when their views, beliefs and traditions have turned in a direction of corruption?

The United States Bureau of Indian Affairs believed if they simply gave Native Americans more financial support that problems would “work themselves out”, but that was the farthest thing from a solution. Next, introducing tax free gambling onto reservations was attempted. Obviously, this was an even bigger mistake then direct financial support. Tribes saw an increase in crime, substance abuse, addiction and poverty. Some critics have suggested that the US government should simply be exonerated from past discrimination to tribes and that all past treaties should be deemed illegal (Cornell & Kalt, 2012). There is some reason in this idea in that it would help to decrease the aid reservation receive from the US and cause them to become more independent and functional, but this process is almost is impossible due to the lack of widespread interest in the issue, along with the unreasonable amount of work and governmental time would need to be spent working on such a proposal.

But, no matter one’s  view on the best solution, it can be agreed that tribes must “break away from the one dimensional way of making a living (2012)” through casinos and other types of Indian gambling. The poor financial statuses of reservations lead to other issues in their societies including the lack of importance placed on education. Once again, the US government believed they could simply throw more unregulated money into Indian education systems, but this approach backfired. Corruption within school administrators, teachers and Indian officials caused the money to be spent in every other way than education of reservation children. Another obvious past solution to “aide” the poor status of Indian education was assimilation; the idea that one must “kill the Indian, but save the man” (Walters, 2011) was an accepted way of thought all through the late 1800s and into the early 1900s. This approach included ripping Indian men, women and children out of their homes and placing them in assimilation schools all across the country. Assimilation is an approach that would never work due to its immoral and unethical nature.

Truly there are many ways to fix this issue, but they all come down to three necessary parts: caring teachers and administrators, specialized teaching methods that include Native American culture and, most importantly, a desire for change from the entire tribal community (Bowker, 2012). The desire for change is a vital necessity that many Native Americans possess, but many have trouble putting this desire into action due to the corruption within their societies. Along with difficulty managing finances and creating new businesses on reservations, plus the lack of importance placed on education, there are two other major contributors to forming a wasteland out of tribal communities. Crime, abuse, and poor living conditions combined with excessive abuse of alcohol are atrocious evils that have also funded to tribal “wastelands”. Some reservations have declared their lands “dry” and do not sell alcohol on tribal lands. But, often times, surrounding towns have more than enough liquor to go around. On the dry Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, there are 4 off site liquor stores that combined sold over 4 million cans of beer a year. This fact is obviously linked to the 17,000 alcohol related arrests that take place annually (Walters, 2012).

Prohibition was also tried on reservations, but also failed just like it did in the rest of the US in the 1920s. It is important to address the fact that it has been scientifically proven that Native Americans are more likely to become addicted to alcohol due to their genetic makeup (French & Hornbuckle, 1980). There is hope for a cure, or reduction in alcoholism, in this fact alone. With combined efforts between doctors, tribal authorities, businesses and tribal members, there is a large possibility of not only reducing alcoholism, but in turn reducing crime, child abuse and neglect and increasing educational importance. The last major evil that needs elimination on reservations is child abuse, combined with the poor living conditions of rural Native American families. The level of abuse on reservations has become such a large issue that many tribes are being faced with changing their ways or losing all federal financing. Thomas F. Sullivan called on the government to “declare an state of emergency” on Spirit Lake reservation and not only cut off federal funding, but also charge the tribe’s leader with child endangerment charges.

This approach would eliminate food-commodity and nutritional assistance programs that many people on the reservations rely on (Bauer, 2011). Many rely on these programs because they do not have access to reasonably priced food (Bauer, 2011). Poor nutritional importance is an issue that also needs attention, but in order for a new, affordable meal system to be introduced, Native families, parents in particular, must begin to act as healthy parents should. This includes sobering up, being involved in their children’s lives and being overall good role models to their kin. Indian communities can begin to cut down on child abuse by better monitoring abuse reports and regulating foster care programs within their reservations. By placing attention on these four major areas (creating a functional and independent society, increasing educational importance, decreasing alcoholism and substance abuse along with better monitoring in regards to child abuse and child neglect), Native American tribes have hope for a better future.

When focusing on troubled minority groups within the United States, it is crucial that their traditional culture remain intact. Also, history has shown us that every action must be thoroughly analyzed before put into action. Lastly, it is essential that we realize that all Native American struggles are interconnected and they affect each other in an almost direct fashion. The introduction of immoral businesses has led to an increase in immoral behavior, including obsessive drinking and abuse, which has sent Indian communities spiraling downward toward full blown destruction. Now, more than ever, Americans in combination with their government, Native American tribes and tribal authorities must come together and fix the destructive communities we helped to create hundreds of years ago. The power of American citizens has been displayed throughout all of history by coming together to defend the greater good. In order to save a vital piece of this country’s history, Americans must come together now. Tribal communities need their help.

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