Most people in the United States seem to believe that the “Indian problem,” as the Western settlers of the 1800s had called it, was solved years ago. With the turn of the 21st century, progress relegates the “Noble Savage” to displays at the Smithsonian, immortalizes Native names in the forms of states and landmarks and even celebrates the hospitality of indigenous cultures during our annual holiday bonanza. Popular culture has gone a long way to make the problems of Native Americans seem a thing of the past.
But serious problems still plague many, if not most, Native communities in the United States. Native peoples often suffer from a lack of financial security. Upwards of 27 percent of self-identified Native Americans and Alaska Natives, as stated by U.S. Census data, live in poverty. Native languages and culture are difficult to preserve without adequate resources and education, and Native youths are especially prone to committing suicide at higher rates than any other ethnic group.
All of these issues are exacerbated by the ambiguous and complicated legal relationship that the tribes must constantly navigate with the federal government and major U.S. institutions. Native land is still being sold by the federal government without consent from the tribes who live on it. Trying to pursue solutions through legal means, such as voting, is incredibly difficult. Voting booths are sometimes located over a hundred miles away from reservations.
There is a bright side, however. With the increasing relevance of groups like Black Lives Matter and the resurgence of what many call The New Civil Rights Movement, now is a prime time for Native issues to enter the conversation as well. Issues like mass incarceration disproportionately affect Native communities as well, with the Lakota People’s Law Project report detailing the extensive injustices faced by Natives in prisons and abuses by law enforcement.
Needs for health care, education, and safety reforms are also shared by other minority populations in the United States. Social media, too, remains a powerful communicative tool. Native peoples are able to utilize social media in order to zero in on more unique problems, such as the effect of environmental degradation on Native lands. Gaining enough traction on mediums like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram can actually have a real life effect. For example, the #AmINext campaign, created on behalf of the missing First Nations women in Canada, has catapulted indigenous issues into the Canadian national mainstream.
In the United States, it is clear that steps must be taken to educate ourselves and each other about the obstacles that Native peoples must traverse every day. No citizen of this country can, in good conscience, remain ignorant of one of the greatest ongoing tragedies in all of human history.
Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, January 25 print edition. Email Emily Fong at [email protected]