Column: U.S. government must stop sidelining Native American grievances

Brayden White of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, right, and Tatiana Ticknor of the Yup'ik/Tlingit/Dena'ina, listen as President Barack Obama speaks during the 2015 White House Tribal Nations Conference, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015, in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP)

The history of U.S.-Native American relations is a long trail of injustice and broken promises. For hundreds of years, colonists and settlers seized Native American lands under the justification of manifest destiny and either killed or forced the inhabitants onto reservations, which have since decreased dramatically in size. Only in the past century have real attempts been made to compensate for these crimes, but according to last week’s seventh annual Tribal Nations Conference at the White House, these efforts are far from adequate.

According to a report from the National Journal, the 160 federally recognized tribes that attended the Tribal Nations Conference were displeased with the present poverty levels and educational funding on reservations. In fact, one in three Native American children live in poverty, and high school graduation rates are the lowest of all demographics at 67 percent, according to the report. Due to these horrendous conditions, child suicide rates have skyrocketed to 2.5 times the national average.

In response, the U.S. government increased funding for education in Native American communities in 2011, as reported by Al Jazeera. The funds, however, have been unevenly distributed, and serve only to put government officials at ease after they have sidelined Native American issues. While some schools have received enough funding to provide an adequate education, others such as the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School on the Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota are crumbling.

The building itself was built originally as a pole barn, with lights shorting out in some rooms when more than two electronics are used at once. In addition, one computer lab was constructed from sheet metal and is full of exposed electrical wires. The barn roof leaks during rainstorms, and in the winter, there is little or no heating, so students have to wear jackets to stay warm in freezing temperatures.

The uneven distribution is in part due to the federal government’s policy for recognizing tribes. According to another Al Jazeera report, in 1978, the U.S. established a set of seven criteria that tribes must meet to gain recognition; these include proving “continuous existence since before the birth of the United States” and “maintenance of tribal leadership over the history of the community.”

These obscure requirements are difficult to prove and have forced some tribes to wait more than 30 years for recognition. The process is so arduous that only two tribes have been recognized in the last 10 years. “Those tribes were petitioners as of 1978,” Judith Shapiro, a lawyer in Indian law, told Al Jazeera. So 30-plus years to get those two, and there are other tribes out there with the same long history.”

According to Al Jazeera, the Shinnecock Indian Nation is the most recent tribe to be recognized – but only after spending $33 million and providing 170,000 pages of paperwork to prove that it was legitimate. Lance Gumbs, the former chairman of the tribe believes that the process is difficult chiefly due to economic concerns. As more tribes are recognized, the funding must be split between more groups. Consequently, many tribes are left to fend for themselves.

In the meantime, the federal government continues to make petty attempts at compensation, and the Native American situation, still, is largely ignored. The oppression of this country’s earliest inhabitants has been restricted to a few pages in a history book instead of being represented as an ongoing issue that still exists today.

While some areas have shown visible improvement, others have shown minimal progress, as they are forced to exist without the aid they so direly need. The Rev. John Norwood of the Tribal Supreme Court of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation said it best when he spoke to Al Jazeera: “People like the dead Indians, the Indians of the past, and they like those of us who carry that bloodline to still act like we’re in the past. But to deal with the very real political struggles we have today? Not interested.”

As long as government officials continue to bury their heads in the sand regarding the plights of Native Americans, what remains of the reservations will crumble. Minimal funding is not enough to stop schools and living conditions from deteriorating. Neither is it enough to provide Native American children with educational opportunities to lead the lives they want. Instead, the federal government must follow up on its attempts to aid Native American tribes and actively work with the reservation communities to address the stark reality of their needs.


Alex Oliveira is a contributor to the Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at alexandra.oliveira@uconn.edu.