The Plight of Native Americans

Generations of plague, genocide, and oppression continue to take their toll on America’s indigenous people. The subsequent marginalization has made them the most victimized group when it comes to encounters with law enforcement. As The New York Times reports:

American Indians are more likely than any other racial group to be killed by the police, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, which studied police killings from 1999 to 2011 (the rate was determined as a percentage of total population). But apart from media outlets like Indian Country Today, almost no attention is paid to this pattern of violence against already devastated peoples.

When it comes to American Indians, mainstream America suffers from willful blindness. Of all the episodes of police violence listed above, only the killings of Mr. Williams and Mr. Goodblanket received significant news coverage outside Indian circles, the latter only in an article for CNN.com by the Oglala Lakota journalist and activist Simon Moya-Smith. The Williams shooting, which was the subject of public outcry, was covered by a major local news site, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, as well as by The New York Times.

The lack of public outcry towards this problem, and indeed towards pretty much all the issues affecting American Indians, has much to do with their low population and consequent lack of presence.

Native Americans and Alaska Natives in the country now total about three million, or 5.2 million if you include mixed-race individuals, compared with about 45 million African-Americans. Perhaps equally important, their population densities off the reservation tend to be low. They have a small urban presence; New York, with about 112,000, and Los Angeles, with about 54,000, rank first and second among cities with American Indian populations. Phoenix, Oklahoma City and Anchorage come next. About one-fifth of American Indians still live on reservations.

Not only are indigenous people invisible for demographic and geographic reasons, but they lack the cultural, social, and political weight of other minority groups, which might otherwise give them some sort voice or platform, or at the very least attract sufficient attention from the public. This hiddenness isn’t helped by the poor state in which most native people live:

Indian youths have the highest suicide rate of any United States ethnic group. Adolescent women have suicide rates four times the rate of white women in the same age group. Indians suffer from an infant mortality rate 60 percent higher than that of Caucasians, a 50 percent higher AIDS rate, and a rate of accidental death (including car crashes) more than twice that of the general population.

At the root of much of this is economic inequality: Indians are the poorest people in the United States, with a poverty rate in 2013 that was about twice the national average at 29.2 percent — meaning almost one in three Indians lives in poverty. So it doesn’t come as a complete shock that members of these disadvantaged communities encounter law enforcement more often than, say, middle-class whites. But the rate at which native people die as a result of those encounters is nonetheless deeply disturbing: Though “single-race” Indians make up slightly less than 1 percent of the population, they account for nearly 2 percent of police killings.

There are many complexities surrounding Native American interaction with the dominant culture, whose Declaration of Independence refers to them as “merciless Indian Savages” and whose history of mass killings has taken a staggering social toll. But the fact is that today’s avoidable tragedies of oppressed Indian lives and troubled deaths remain far too often in the shadows.

The complex and punishing intersection of factors goes a long way to explain why indigenous Americans suffer some of the worst outcomes in health, financial security, and law enforcement interactions. Not only do all of these issues exacerbate one another, but they are deeply rooted in centuries of disease, forced migration, repressive assimilation, political and social disenfranchisement, and discrimination. The consequent trauma and despair endures to this day, and manifests in the high rate of suicide, alcoholism, and poverty that further add to the woes of one of the world’s most ill-fated groups.

I am not even sure how we can even begin to improve the prospects of indigenous Americans; no doubt it would require a concerted political and social effort. But a good place to start would be by recognizing their existence, and their plight, to begin with.

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