At this point, calling the Dakota Access Pipeline a national headline is an understatement. The cause of preventing the pipeline from passing through sacred land of the Standing Rock Sioux and disrupting their water supply has galvanized activists and journalists all over the country. Thousands made the trip to Standing Rock to stand alongside the Native people there, and the protest has resulted in a work stoppage and potential rerouting of the pipeline. Though no final decisions have been made, the #NODAPL protest has brought attention to Native issues in a way we haven’t seen in many years.
As the fight against the pipeline continues, this is a good time to consider other pressing issues in Native communities. From police brutality, to addiction, to pollution, Native Americans are dealing with a host of challenges for which they can likely expect little support from the incoming administration. Though these are just a select few of the many political issues that are deeply important to America’s indigenous communities, let’s look at what lies on the horizon for Native groups in the age of Trump.
Stories of police brutality from Standing Rock shocked the nation. Reports of water cannons in freezing cold weather and anti-riot weapons being deployed on peaceful protesters are shocking, but for Native Americans this is nothing new.
A report from labor publication In These Times dug deep into police brutality against Native Americans, who are killed by police officers at a higher rate than any other group. It found case after case of police overreach and abuse that went largely unreported by national media outlets. According to a study of data between 1999 and 2014, Native Americans are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people, and yet, these communities have not been a focus of the national dialogue on police brutality.
Like other minority groups, Native Americans are disproportionately imprisoned: In Hawaii, Native Americans make up 39 percent of the prison population while comprising 10 percent of the population, and in Alaska, the numbers are similar (38 percent: 15 percent).
A Native Lives Matter (@NLMcoalition) movement has emerged to address these issues on a national level.
Health Care, Mental Health, and Addiction
Native American groups are not allocated the same level of federal health care support as other peoples, and as result, issues of mental health and addiction often spiral out of control in these communities. In 2013, the Indian Health Service allocated $2,849 per person for health care spending while the national average was $7,717 for other groups. Many reservations are left with health care systems that run the gamut from lackluster to non-existent.
At a February senate hearing, Wyoming Senator John Barrasso called reservation health care administration “horrifying.” This gap affects mental as well as physical health. Suicide and addiction rates are far higher among Native populations than the average American. Tragically, many reservations have dealt with periodic youth suicide epidemics.
Addiction is a long-standing issue in Native American communities. Reservations have had a high level of alcoholism for decades, and recent years have added heroin and meth to their list of demons. Making matters worse, Mexican cartels have begun to specifically target reservations, as their high addiction rates and poorly supported law enforcement make reservations prime targets. Drug use among Native Americans is far higher than the national average, and is often a motive for violent crime within the population. Alcoholism still persists as an issue; a 2008 study attributed 10 percent of Native American deaths to alcohol abuse.
Many reservations struggle to find public education funding that is comparable to students in the rest of the country. The 2014 Native Youth Report issued by the White House found that “the American Indian/Alaskan Native high school graduation rate is 67 percent, the lowest of any racial/ethnic demographic group across all schools.” As most taxpayers know, school funding is largely based on property tax revenues, which often don’t exist on reservations. Like in inner cities and rural areas, reservations are left out of the tax windfalls that come to more affluent districts that businesses find attractive.
The funding deficit has created a dire situation. Not only do schools lack necessary supplies and technology, but often the buildings themselves are in disrepair. With a lack of funds comes low attainment; the four lowest performing schools in Nebraska are on reservations. Attempts at higher education on reservations have also met significant challenges; one study found that students were only earning degrees at a 20 percent rate.
Standing Rock, sadly, is not an anomaly. Battles between Native tribes and developers and polluters are never-ending. This year, the Navajo Nation sued the E.P.A. over pollution of the Colorado River caused by pollution from a mine. In California, tribes fight to maintain water and fishing rights in a drought-stricken landscape. In the Rockies, the Kootenai tribe fights to save a species of reindeer deeply important to its tribal history from extinction. Each tribe seems to be fighting its own environmental battle for the mere preservation of land that was promised to the tribe decades and centuries ago.
Tribes have relied on the government to clean up and provide some level of restitution after environmental disasters and developer intrusions. Even that level of “too little too late” assistance may now be in doubt, given the anti-environmental stance shaping in Trump’s cabinet. Though the previous administration was imperfect when it came to Native affairs, tribes can’t help but wonder if changes are on the horizon.