|Life on the Rez: Pine Ridge|
by Ray Jones
Most people in Britain will have become aware of Native American Indians via Western films – from the out and out racist to the patronisingly liberal to the progressive.
They will know something of the wars when white settlers came to take their tribal lands, and their eventual defeat and forcible removal to Reservations on land the Whites did not want, and the horror and pain caused. But what about the situation of Native Americans today?
Today there about three-million people who register as Native Americans (NA) and about 2.25 million who register as partly of Native American origin, with about a million living on Reservations widely spread about the country, according to Federal Government stats based on census reports that missed a further 82,000 Native Americans living in remote areas when it was last taken in 2010.
The Native American population is made up of 574 tribes recognised by the Federal Government. Tribes are sometimes said to be “sovereign” but, if so, it is extremely limited. They do not own their land. The Federal Government owns the land, which it manages through the US Bureau of Indian Affairs, and all development of land must be authorised by the Government.
The Federal authorities deal with any relations between the tribes, and between the tribes outside countries; and in some ways, for better or worse, they stand between the tribes and the US States that surround the Reservations.
All Native Americans are subject to US laws, as are all US citizens. The tribal courts only deal with ‘minor’ matters, ‘major’ things go to Federal courts. Tribal courts only have jurisdiction over Native Americans and the only remedy they have to bad behaviour by non-Native Americans is to expel them from the Reservation.
Reservations differ widely in size and type of land, but life is not easy for the Native Americans who live on them.
The Pine Ridge Reservation, for example, covers 2.1 million acres and includes Oglala Lakota County and half of Jackson and Bennett counties in the State of South Dakota. It has a population of roughly 19,000 with a median age of 25.4 years (which is younger than the rest of the State).
The official poverty rate is 53.75 per cent (other sources say it’s up to 80 per cent) compared with the US average of 15.6 per cent. It has the lowest per capita income in the USA and the school drop-out rate is 70 per cent.
Health on the Reservation is poor. The TB infection-rate is 800 per cent higher than the USA as a whole; infant mortality is 300 per cent higher and teenage suicide is 150 per cent higher. Around 50 per cent of adults have diabetes and 85 per cent of families are affected by alcoholism.
Homelessness and overcrowding are such a problem that things are said to have reached a crisis point. What is the cause of this poverty?
John Koppisch writing in the US business magazine Forbes claims he has the answer. It is not, he says, about the poor education, the long travelling distances to jobs or the poor quality of the land. It’s about property rights. If the land was owned by individuals rather than the Government, or the tribes, he thinks, they could raise capital on the strength of it. They could then invest in businesses and thus give jobs to others and make themselves wealthy – problem solved!
But the residents of the Reservation have no money. They would have to be given the land by the Government and, presumably, equally; so, lots of people would be vying for capital from outside sources. The outcome would surely be that a lucky few would make a living in the grip of big capital. Others would try to sell their land to outside investors and the tribal lands would be broken up, with the majority left even worse off sitting on worthless plots with less tribal solidarity to help them.
Another alternative for Native Americans is to uproot and move to the cities. This is not a new idea of course. Since the early days when there was forced apartheid, some of the White ruling class have favoured this approach – which they hoped would lead to assimilation into the rest of the population.
In the 1950s the Government launched a 20-year programme to solve the “Indian problem”. Native Americans were offered a one-way ticket, a small amount of money and made a lot of promises, to get them to move out of the Reservations in the hope that the Reservations would crumble away.
Some took the offer but, as usual, many of the promises were not kept and they ran into a wall of racism. Over half of Native-American women have suffered sexual violence and 70 per cent of the attackers have been White. According to the Center on Juvenile Crime and Justice, Native Americans are the group most likely to suffer police violence in the USA.
You could argue that the programme has worked to a degree because two-thirds of Native Americans now live in cities, although the Reservations continue to survive.
In the cities, some of them have achieved ‘middle class’ levels of living but many of them have merely exchanged rural poverty for urban poverty. In the Bay Area of California, for instance, 18.5 per cent of Native Americans live below the poverty line compared with 10.4 per cent of Whites. Housing and homelessness are still at the top of the problem list.
Native Americans have fought back. They have formed tribal and cultural groups, and political organisations such as the formidable American Indian Movement (AIM), which have even taken up the gun when necessary to protect lives and rights. But few would claim that living in the cities has solved their problems.
Another route some tribes have taken to improve their situation is the gambling business. In 1970 the US Supreme Court ruled that States did not have the right to tax Native Americans on Reservations nor regulate their activities – only the Federal Government could do that. This opened the way for tribes to open casinos and bingo halls whilst the States that surround them continued to severely restrict gambling.
For a few tribes this has meant a massive windfall. In some very small tribes, every member has become wealthy. But for many other tribes it has not been successful. On the Pine Ridge Reservation the casino has only created 80 jobs and has not done very well, quite possibly because the nearest major city is 350 miles away.
Location seems to be the major factor in success or failure, and many Reservations are, of course, in remote parts. Digital gambling has adversely affected profits and the local States are constantly attempting to undermine their activities, so Native-American gambling ventures only bring in 17 per cent of all gambling revenue in the USA.
Sadly, there is little doubt that Native Americans will continue to face problems and there seems to be no easy solution. They are in the grip of an imperialist America that has been trying to destroy them as an entity for over 150 years – the fact that it has failed speaks volumes for the strength of their culture and tribal system.
Their best defence, as many of them know, is increased unity around that which unites them and solidarity with other groups and communities that face the same enemies – US imperialism will not last forever.