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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Red Is a Person - Racism and Native Americans today

This post is longer than normal, however, I felt compelled to write it.  Native American issues have always been dear to my heart.  No I am not a Native American.  Not even a quarter...not that I am aware of at least.  However, I feel a burden for them, a compassion that has sent me seeking to learn more about them.  The recent news reports of high numbers of suicide or attempted suicide at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation has brought this to my mind even more.  I hope you will find this informative...and I hope it will make you reconsider how you view Native Americans.

     Native American populations continue to experience discrimination and racism, and suffer from the socio-economic struggles that arise from continued mistreatment.  While the Civil Rights Movement greatly helped women and African Americans in their plight, the Native Americans have been forgotten.  Native Americans consistently have higher rates of crime, lower rates of education, and higher rates of death from alcohol and suicide (Oswalt, 1973, p.595).  The oftentimes pointed discrimination they suffer because of their race can be seen as the culprit.

An understanding of Native American history is needed to fully grasp the depth of this issue.  Most Americans do not realize how far reaching past acts have been.  Nor do they realize the fact that Indians continue to be set aside as “not part of us” (Giago, 2010).  They live on reservations still, right?  They live in tepees even, right?  This lack of understanding breeds ignorance which breeds racism.

While treaties and reservations seem a thing of the past to the rest of us, it is central to the plight of the Native American still today.  That period of history left many tribes broken and wondering what the future would be for them.  One of the first to brave the “white world” was Comanche Quanah Parker, who through cunning and intellect was very successful at it (Gwynne, 2010, p. 289).  Only 27 in 1875 when he surrendered, Quanah was half-Indian, half-white.  His mother Cynthia Ann Parker had been abducted by Comanches as a child.  Angry and bitter at first, Quanah quickly decided to take the “white man’s road” and began to style himself after the white soldiers guarding the reservation (Gwynne, 2010, p.292).  He cultivated friendships and became the first Principal Chief by permission of the white man.  He eventually became rather wealthy through the cattle business (Gwynne, 2010, p.300).  He was at turns hated and admired by other Indians and one can understand why.  Here was someone who had said they would never assimilate, embracing all of the white ways.

Quanah proved Indians could be successful in this new “white” world; however, successes would prove few and far between for Native Americans over the years.  Despite promises that they would not be asked to move again, they were.  Despite promises of annual annuities and good rations, most annuities amounted to about $10 per person and rations were meager at best (Gwynne, 2010, p.288).  Over the next one hundred years, Indians continued to be moved about as whites grabbed up the choicest land and issued new treaties with more empty promises.  It is no wonder Native Americans came to distrust and even hate whites as they did.  It is also no wonder that despite the distrust, there was a dependency due to the government’s control of what Indians were allowed to do and where they were allowed to go.  This dependency went on for decades with Indians being denied full citizenship until 1924 (Oswalt, 1973, p. 7).  There is much humiliation and resentment that still lingers due to continued mistreatment in the modern era. 

Racism occurs in both covert and overt ways.  Easterners are especially guilty of covert racism as they trek West on vacation to have close encounters with “our Indians”.  As though Indians are property to be possessed by tourists seeking to observe, pity, or praise as “figments of a vanishing race”. (Giago, 2010).  Tribal recognition presents a dilemma as well as petitions must be government approved in order to be federal recognized.  Low approval rates mean many who are Native American cannot obtain federal funds, grants or other assistance that might be available for them as a minority status (Lawson, 2013, p.435).  America does not ask for its’ African Americans or Asian Americans to prove through petition that they are what they say they are.  Why this additional burden for the Native American who was here long before any others were?  Attempts to explain why certain things are racist or offensive to Indians has left many of them bitter and frustrated (Giago, 2010).

Racism has also affected social structures impacting their economic and familial status.  Indians have been indoctrinated for years with the ideology that leaving their “inferior” tribal ways for the more “civilized” white ways was superior (Lawson, 2013, p.493).  Under the Dawes Severalty Act, young Native Americans were removed from their tribes and sent to local white schools to strip them of their language, customs, and religion.  These schools were utilized well into the twentieth century (Lawson, 2013, p.494).  Through bribes, coercion or even ridicule, these vulnerable youth were made to turn their back on their race and nationality.  Slurs and symbols were used to further demean them and continue to be used today as well.  Words like “redskin” and “squaw” keep Indians on those reservations and out of good schools and good jobs.  Symbols like the tomahawk, headdresses and chief caricatures such as those used by some cigar stores belittle and degrade Native Americans (Lawson, 2013, p.495).  These are just a few examples that have held Indians back from equal footing for years.

Education presents another barrier for Native Americans.  Reservations offer mostly “dilapidated, below-standard schools” where students score below the majority of their peers.  The government funds these schools and is tasked with ensuring they meet certain standards, yet many are pre-Great Depression era buildings (Saccaro, 2014).  Does the government simply not care about these citizens?  In addition to children some of these schools house asbestos, mold and mice (Saccaro, 2014).  Were this a white school or even an African-American school this would not be tolerated.  There would be mass protests and the media would show up in droves to ensure everyone knew of the situation.  Instead, Native Americans get platitudes about lack of funding.  Underfunded schools have led to lower than average test scores and ultimately have resulted in dropouts that are double the national average.  This has led to poor job outlooks and higher crime in these communities (Saccaro, 2014).  In 2013, fourth graders scored 23 points below their white counterparts in math, and were 27 points below in reading assessments.  Recent reports from the White House announced a listening tour to gather input from Native communities on improving their status (Richmond, 2014).  This is a great step that will provide meaningful information that hopefully will result in positive resolutions.

Racism adversely affects job opportunities thus negatively impacting economic situations.  Certain professions seem to exclude Native Americans entirely, history being one of them.  Very few professional historians exist, which is a shame as these are the very ones who could tell the history from the perspective of those who have lived it (McCallum, 2009,p. 529).  Double digit unemployment is the norm for Native Americans and 1 in 4 live in poverty (Saccaro, 2014).  Scores of reports from 1985 through 2013 are available on the Bureau of Indian Affairs website, each illustrating the persistent “higher unemployment and underemployment than national averages” of the Native Americans (Bureau of Indian Affairs, n.d.).  On average only about 49% of those able to work are employed.  Of those working about 21% are employed by the government (Bureau of Indian Affairs, 2013).  Thus the dependency cycle continues.  Whether employed or not, Native Americans are reliant on government handouts in some shape or form.

Many negative outcomes exist due to racism and discrimination with child removal being one of the most abhorrent.  “Operation Relocation” they called it.  Society was critical of the "extended family unit" that was such an integral part of Indian life.  The nuclear family was seen as the best ideal for children and extended family arrangements were seen as inferior. Thus began the “Indian Adoption Project” in which appeals were made to white families to “rescue” children from their unfit parents (Jacobs, 2013, p.147).   Indian families were subjected to very different standards of child welfare despite all the liberal talk about objectives of "equalizing" and "normalizing" the Indian people.  Virtually all documentation by state welfare agencies spoke negatively about the Indian birth family and extended family.  There was an implicit bias against the Native American being fit for the role of parent for their own flesh and blood.  This bias stemmed from discrimination against the Native Americans as a whole.  Through coercion and outright lies or threats, these welfare agencies forced Indian women to relinquish rights to their children (Jacobs, 2013, p143-144).

Forced removal of Indian children brought additional shame and humiliation on people already downtrodden from years of mistreatment.  Many were scared to talk about their experiences, yet finally in 1968 an investigation began because of one Sioux woman who was brave enough to speak up.   From this initial investigation, the Association on American Indian Affairs broadened their scope finding twenty-five percent of all persons in that tribe to have had children forcibly taken from them (Jacobs, 2013, p.137).  Little research exists on the topic due to controversy as well as shame and trauma.  Many who are contacted by Indian activists to question them about this period decline to talk stating they do "not want to relive or discuss those years" (Jacobs, 2013, p.149).  This so-called social service was supposedly to help Indians become more normal, yet in truth it did nothing but undermine social growth of these children within their traditional family units, disrupting families with long lasting consequences.  While studies have shown that children can be integrated into two vastly different cultures, it should take place by mutual consent as a gradual process (Polgar, 1960, p.224).

Continued racism and discrimination led to increased violence among Indians in ways they had never experienced before.  Struggles with depression, suicide, domestic violence and homicide were practically non-existent prior to Indians interaction with whites.  Their naturally stoic nature, led to the internalization of the anger, bitterness and hatred they were feeling (Poupart, 2003, p. 88).  This internalized oppression was very unhealthy obviously.  Aggressive feelings of this nature cannot be buried forever.  High rates of alcoholism fueled the increased violence as well (Poupart, 2003, p.89).

The “Red Power” movement in the late 1960s to early 1970s saw Native Americans fighting to reclaim their identity.  Those identifying as “American Indian” tripled in number between 1960 and 1990 (Nagel, 1997, p.947).  It was as if they had had enough of the mistreatment and were ready to take a stand against it.  There is no doubt the Civil Rights movement helped them feel they could finally have a voice again.  Native Americans felt a return of pride about their ethnicity and a sense of nostalgia in preserving their heritage (Nagel, 1997, p.949-950).  Yet, despite this resurgence, they were still stifled in many areas because of the persistent racism that still exists.

Native American populations continue to experience discrimination and racism, and suffer from the socio-economic struggles that arise from continued mistreatment.  Discrimination against Native Americans is “ingrained into the American way of life” (Giago, 2010).  More must be done to educate about this minority group as has been done for others.  While many strides have been made over the years, much is yet to be accomplished.  Deplorable school conditions, unusually high unemployment and the resulting poverty cry out for justice for these people.  A Comanche proverb says that “All who have died are equal”, yet the hope is this neglected group does not have to wait that long.
Bureau of Indian Affairs. (n.d.). American Indian Population and Labor Force Reports. Retrieved from http://www.bia.gov/WhatWeDo/Knowledge/Reports/index.htm
Multiple reports are available from 1985 forward to 2013.
Giago, T. (2010, March 18). Racism Against Native Americans Must Be Addressed. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tim-giago/racism-against-native-ame_b_309017.html
Gwynne, S.C. (2010). Empire of the Summer Moon. New York, NY: Scribner.
Oswalt, W. H. (1973). This Land Was Theirs (2nd ed.). New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Polgar, S. (1960). Biculturation of Mesquakie Teenage Boys. American Anthropologist, 62(2), 217-235. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/667897
Poupart, L. M. (2003). The Familiar Face of Genocide: Internalized Oppression among American Indians. Hypatia, 18(2), 86-100. Retrieved from http://www.webpages.uidaho.edu/engl504trauma/18.2poupart.pdf
Richmond, E. (2014, October 13). Columbus Day and the Native American School-Achievement Gap. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/10/columbus-day-discovery-native-american-students-still-lag-behind/381384/
Saccaro, M. (2014, October 20). This Is What Modern Day Discrimination Against Native Americans Looks Like. Retrieved from http://mic.com/articles/101804/this-is-what-modern-day-discrimination-against-native-americans-looks-like

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