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"Wealth, Success and Poverty in Indian Country,"

by Bambi Kraus May/June 2001 issue of Poverty & Race

When I was growing up, my Tlingit mother often told me something her father had told her. “Before we were civilized, we wore fur and leather. Then, they (European missionaries) put rags on our backs.” What was clear to me as a child was that the outsiders who came to the Tlingit people of southeast Alaska were not passive interlopers, and that they had changed our lives forever in ways that we could never have imagined.

According to the 1990 Census, the poverty rate for American Indians was the highest among the country’s five racial and ethnic groups—31% of American Indians were living in poverty in 1989, compared to 13% of all Americans. Poverty rates for all racial and ethnic groups declined during the 1960s and early 1970s but improved little over the next 20 years.

Social and economic indicators in Indian country are far below what most Americans consider to be acceptable living standards. The 1998 White House Council of Economic Advisors report, Changing America, pointed out that “American Indians are among the most disadvantaged Americans according to many available indicators, such as poverty rate and median income, although comparable data for this group are sparse due to their small representation in the population.” Further, it is generally accepted that American Indians and Alaska Natives living on reservation lands were seriously under-reported in the 1990 Census. One conclusion that can be drawn is that the true scale and scope of conditions on Indian reservations is not known. From the information that is available, a bleak picture is portrayed.

Most Americans are unaware of the special status of American Indian and Alaska Native Nations and the trust responsibility between the federal government and Indian Tribes. Natives are not merely a race of people in America, they are members of nations whose continuing sovereign status is recognized in the U.S. Constitution, federal statutes and numerous federal court decisions. There are over 560 separate and unique tribal governments in the United States responsible for governing their tribal members and managing their own lands. No other population has a government-to-government relationship with the federal government defined by the Constitution, treaties, executive orders, court decisions and acts of Congress; no other group of people in the United States has the responsibility to govern millions of acres of land. The 1990 Census counted an estimated two million Native people, roughly half of whom live on reservations, although this, too, is rapidly changing.

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (of the Oglala Lakota Oyate) and the Navajo Indian Reservation (of the Navajo Nation) are examples of both statistical confusion and under-counting, as well as the sheer enormity of the challenges facing the people who live on or near these reservations. Both reservations are large. The Navajo Indian Reservation is the largest in the country by far; its tribal lands total about 18.5 million acres (over 25,000 square miles), slightly bigger than West Virginia, almost the same size as South Carolina, and larger than ten states. The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is over 1.7 million acres, considerably larger than Delaware.

Statistical Disparities

Although the United States government justifies its poor and limited statistics and Census figures by pointing to the small numbers of Native people among the U.S. population, most Native people don’t see the problem as “small representation.” Rather, they view the lack of reliable data as an example of neglect. The federal government has failed to properly document the extreme social and economic circumstances found on most Indian reservations and to disseminate this information to all Americans.

The following statistics demonstrate and compare: (1) the lack of consistent data for Indian country; (2) the extremely poor conditions on two Indian reservations; (3) conditions on the Navajo Reservation compared to those statewide in Arizona and New Mexico, and on the Pine Ridge Reservation compared to statewide conditions in South Dakota; and (4) conditions for Indian people compared to all residents in two cities located near the Navajo Reservation (Gallup, New Mexico) and Pine Ridge Reservation (Rapid City, South Dakota). Finally, disparities between Indian country and the country as a whole are demonstrated by listing rates for all Americans, as reported by the 1990 Census.

Population: The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) determined in 1995 that the Indian population on and adjacent to the Navajo Reservation was 225,668; for the Pine Ridge Reservation, the figure was 38,426. However, the 1990 Census reported the total population on the Navajo Reservation as only 148,451; for the Pine Ridge Reservation, the figure was 12,215.

Unemployment: According to the Navajo Nation Division of Economic Development, unemployment on the Navajo Reservation was 43.3% in 1998. As reported in the 1990 Census, unemployment on the Navajo Reservation was 27.9%; in Arizona, the rate was 7.1%, and in New Mexico it was 7.9%. In Gallup, the unemployment rate for Indians was 12.0%; for all Gallup residents, it was 5.8%.

The annual survey done by the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the BIA reported that unemployment on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1998 was 73%; in 1995, the BIA reported Pine Ridge Reservation unemployment at 46%, while the 1990 Census reported a 28.9% rate. The unemployment rate for all South Dakota residents was 4.1%. In Rapid City, the unemployment rate was 21.7%; for all Rapid City residents, it was 5.2%. By comparison, the 1990 Census reported that the unemployment rate for all Americans was 6.2%.

Per Capita Income: The 1998 per capita income for the Navajo Reservation was $5,759, according to the Navajo Nation Division of Economic Development. The 1990 Census reported per capita income on the Navajo Reservation as $4,124. Per capita income for all of Arizona was $13,461; for New Mexico, it was $11,246. Per capita income for Indian residents in Gallup was $6,251; for all Gallup residents, it was $10,559. The 1990 Census reported the per capita income for all Americans as $14,420.

Any measure of personal wealth in the year 2001, regardless of culture, race or ethnicity, should include such basic human necessities as a home to live in, running water, electricity, telephone service and plumbing. For far too many Native people in America, these basic amenities are simply not available. For example, 52% of Navajos lack complete plumbing facilities; over 81% do not have telephone service; and 54% of homes on the Navajo reservation are heated by wood (1990 Census). These examples indicate that Indian people, either on-reservation or living in cities nearby their reservations, are not achieving even approximate equality with the economic status of their neighbors.

Defining Wealth and Success

How do we define wealth in a country with such disparate living conditions in a way that makes sense to a variety of lifestyles and cultures? Measures of wealth and poverty in America are dynamic and have been defined most recently by dollars rather than by the cultural values of the people who have lived in this country or immigrated here. In earlier days, the Tlingit of southeast Alaska measured their wealth by accumulating possessions. Valuable assets included foodstuffs, clothing and everyday objects that demonstrated your status in your village. In Tlingit tradition, individual wealth was measured not only by possessions, but also by how those possessions were shared with others.

Dire and depressed living conditions on Indian reservations are a legacy of Native people’s 200 year-old history with the American government. There is no reason to assume that circumstances for Indian people will significantly change in the near future. Most tribal governments face the challenge of reversing failed federal policies of the past, in addition to planning for the future of their children, without the committed help and resources of the federal government or the cooperation of states.

The myth that Indian gaming will solve most of these infrastructure issues is just that. Indian gaming is the first—and only—economic development tool that has ever worked on reservations. But the long-term future of Indian gaming is uncertain and faces continued challenges from state governments, anti-gaming advocates and equivocal support from the federal government (both Congress and the Executive). How can the United States consider itself a success while most first Americans battle against hunger, poverty and deeply institutionalized injustices? What will happen to Indian country with the next economic downturn?

Even though individual Tribes and the federal government differ in their statistical portraits of the same land and people, both still starkly show the need in Indian country for a large-scale review and effort to bring Native people closer to the realm of success and wealth in America. Having a roof overhead, food to eat and the ability to continue practicing ancient ceremonies and traditions in traditional homelands is an indicator of health and personal wealth for many Native people.

We must question the definition of wealth and success in our country. My grandfather caught and hunted food for himself and family, built his commercial fishing boat, and built his own and other families’ homes. He told his children and grandchildren the stories that embodied the culture’s values and showed the places that were important to Tlingit people. He was proud that his children went to college in the lower 48 states, but even prouder that they would one day return to the village of Kake, Alaska, and work to make it a better place for all residents and not just for one individual. This is one value that is lost on most Americans in their drive to achieve wealth.
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