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Ignoring the epidemic

Contemporary Native American issues neglected

By Alexandra Waite, news editor
On August 31, 2011

  • Culinary arts student Patrick Abelman (right) pours sauce on top of seared salmon with roasted vegetables during the Culinary Arts Club Cook-Off held in the Three Seasons Restaurant on Monday. Abelman and his team won first place. George Morin / The Advocate

United States history classes may teach the injustices brought upon Native Americans by Europeans hundreds of years ago, but most do not take the initiative to find out how those acts are still largely affecting Native Americans today.

Native Americans living on American Indian reservations experience some of the highest rates of poverty, unemployment, disease, teen pregnancy and the worst housing conditions in our nation. Poverty is a recurring problem for Native Americans, but especially for those living on Native American lands.

An Indian reservation is an area of land managed by a Native American tribe under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs. Although the federal government recognizes more than 550 tribes in the country, there are only 326 Indian reservations.

Federal officials said violent crime rates on reservations are more than twice the national rate and epidemics of domestic and sexual violence exist, along with high instances of child abuse, teen suicide and substance abuse. There is also a proliferation of gang activity on reservations, yet law enforcement recruitment and retention across reservations lag far behind the rest of the nation.

These conditions Native Americans must endure hit close to home for me.

This July, I traveled by myself to Denver to meet my biological family, which is full Native American, for the first time. During that trip, my mother introduced me to the Native American culture within the city and opened my eyes to a problem not visible from the Bay Area.

Driving along the streets, one could identify the large presence of homeless Native Americans asking for assistance. Like my mother, many of these Native Americans left reservations at a young age to go to large cities, escape poverty and better their lives.

My mom and older sister live in Denver. My three younger siblings live a couple states away on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota while my mom tries to collect enough money to provide for them.

The Pine Ridge Reservation, located in Shannon and Jackson counties, is one of the poorest regions in the country.

The population of Pine Ridge suffers from health conditions commonly found in Third World countries, including high mortality rates, depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, malnutrition and diabetes. Reservation access to health care is limited and insufficient compared to urban areas.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, unemployment on the reservation ranges from 80 to 85 percent, and 49 percent of the population lives below the federal poverty level. Many families have no electricity, telephone access, running water or sewage systems; many use wood stoves to heat their homes, reducing limited wood resources.

Gang-related violence is also an issue that plagues Pine Ridge with nearly 5,000 young men from the Oglala Sioux tribe involved in at least 39 gangs.

The gangs at Pine Ridge, along with many reservations in the Midwest, Pacific Northwest and Southwest, are blamed for an increase in vandalism, theft and violence and the growing fear of a changing way of life.

Court decisions involving serious crimes on reservations are investigated by the federal government, usually the FBI, and prosecuted by U.S. attorneys of the U.S. federal judicial district in which the reservation lies. These crimes have a low priority both with the FBI and most federal prosecutors, according to the Tribal Law and Order Resource Center. Serious crimes are often either poorly investigated or prosecution has been refused.

Tribal courts were limited to sentences of up to one year until July 29, 2010, when the Tribal Law and Order Act was enacted, which aims to reform the system and permits tribal courts to impose sentences of up to three years.

However, Indian Law and Order Commission Chairperson Troy Eid said most tribes determined they cannot afford to enact the law or are content with their current systems that do not always determine a winner and loser, instead focusing on collaborative or "restorative" justice.

Native Americans are by no means to blame for these issues they face and it is up to the federal government, the institution that forced them into this situation, to make long overdue reparations.

Finding resolutions to reverse the crime and poverty among reservations is a difficult task, but that does not mean the government should not do so at once, before Native Americans lose grasp of what diminishing culture they have left.

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