Indian Country: The Situation is Bleak, But Not Hopeless

Juanpablo Ramirez-FrancoDecember 17, 2018

On Oct. 22, 2014, Adam Lays Hard, 14, and Sam Bull Bear, 18, who are members of the Oglala Lakota, a subtribe of the Great Souix Nation, ride across the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Pine Ridge is the poorest community in the United States.

Back in 2001, about 100 miles west of Kab­ul, in the Bamiyan Val­ley, the Tal­iban rigged two tow­er­ing sand­stone stat­ues of Gau­ta­ma Bud­dha with enough dyna­mite to wipe them clean from the cliff they were carved into dur­ing the sixth cen­tu­ry. Despite an inter­na­tion­al out­cry, the Tal­iban det­o­nat­ed the 1,700-year old stat­ues. They were met with con­dem­na­tion, out­rage and head­lines the world over.

In ear­ly 2015, videos start­ed cir­cu­lat­ing show­ing Islam­ic State of Iraq and the Lev­ant (ISIL) fight­ers tak­ing jack­ham­mers, drills and sledge­ham­mers to ancient arti­facts in the Mosul muse­um. Then ISIL took a bull­doz­er to the Mash­ki and Adad Gates of Nin­eveh, and all but top­pled the 2nd-cen­tu­ry city of Palmyra.

In the sum­mer of 2016, mem­bers of the Bat­tle Moun­tain Band of the Te-Moak Tribe of West­ern Shoshone Tribe mount­ed legal action against min­ing oper­a­tions that endan­gered large por­tions of the Tosaw­i­hi Quar­ries — a 15,000-year-old trib­al sacred trib­al site in Neva­da that includes ancient-stone gath­er­ing places and an ances­tral healer’s trail that qual­i­fied for the Nation­al Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places. The min­ing com­pa­ny didn’t wait for a final rul­ing to begin oper­a­tions and irrepara­bly dam­aged the Tosaw­i­hi Quar­ries.

Can we derive any com­mon denom­i­na­tors from the events in the Bamiyan Val­ley, Mosul, Nin­eveh, Palmyra and the Tosaw­i­hi Quarries?

In her new book, Amer­i­can Apartheid: The Native Strug­gle for Self-Deter­mi­na­tion and Inclu­sion, Stephanie Woodard writes, Demo­li­tion of irre­place­able ancient arti­facts usu­al­ly mer­its out­rage, or at least notice.” When it comes to how the media cov­ers Native issues, we’ve been doing it all wrong.

Before the Trump administration’s direc­tives involv­ing Stand­ing Rock, Bears Ears, and Grand Stair­case Escalante pro­pelled Native affairs into nation­al head­lines, Woodard, who writes reg­u­lar­ly for In These Times, spent 20 years report­ing onNa­tive issues — his­tor­i­cal­ly a blind spot for main­stream media out­lets. In Amer­i­can Apartheid, Woodard argues that Indi­an coun­try faces a cri­sis that extends beyond the events at Stand­ing Rock, one that has not become part of the nation­al conversation.

Despite the pub­lic inter­est in the fight against the Dako­ta Access Pipeline, Woodard writes that it remains just one of many oil, gas, and elec­tri­cal trans­mis­sion lines, roads, rail­roads and oth­er infra­struc­ture projects that cross Native lands nation­wide.” The exploita­tion of Native peo­ple isn’t a thing of the past; it’s hard­wired into our democ­ra­cy and insti­tu­tion­al­ized at every lev­el of government.

Patrick Wolfe, the late his­to­ri­an of colo­nial­ism, wrote that col­o­niza­tion is a struc­ture rather than an event.” Woodard’s the­sis is sim­i­lar­ly ground­ed. She maps the fed­er­al poli­cies, bro­ken treaties and pub­lic atti­tudes that exac­er­bate eco­nom­ic dis­tress and keep trib­al peo­ple sep­a­rate, unequal and exposed to preda­to­ry interests.”

The most com­pelling and unnerv­ing finds emerge when Woodard brings into sharp focus the casu­al­ties of the cozy rela­tion­ship between pri­vate inter­ests and gov­ern­ment agen­cies. She writes about a Nava­jo family’s fight for appro­pri­ate com­pen­sa­tion in return for renew­ing the right-of-way grant of an oil pipeline that trans­ports about 15,000 bar­rels of crude oil a day across their 160-acre plot of land. When all was said and done, Woodard writes, the fam­i­ly faced accept­ing a sum of “$6,656 for 20 addi­tion­al years of access to their land, or about $333 per year.” She con­tin­ues, The amount was to be split among near­ly 50 peo­ple, for an aver­age of a lit­tle more than six dol­lars per each year.”

It turns out that the Bureau of Indi­an Affairs autho­rizes lease appli­cants, some but not all of which are oil com­pa­nies, to set the price for the Native prop­er­ty they want. She writes, This is busi­ness as usu­al in Indi­an country.

Over­turn­ing decades-old laws that dis­crim­i­nate against Native peo­ple is made more dif­fi­cult when they are rou­tine­ly shut out of the vot­ing process. In an unlucky com­bi­na­tion, dis­tance and pover­ty pre­vent trib­al mem­bers from get­ting to white-major­i­ty towns and their cour­t­house polling places.” For instance, Woodard writes, In San Juan Coun­ty, Nava­jo Nation res­i­dents who need­ed to or want­ed to vote in per­son had to trav­el as many as 400 miles to do so.” A round-trip dis­tance like this would require a work­ing car and gas mon­ey, resources that not every­body on reser­va­tions has access to.

Vot­ing by mail, the next best alter­na­tive for reser­va­tion vot­ers, man­ages to be sim­i­lar­ly com­pli­cat­ed. Get­ting a mail-bal­lot can also require steps that are daunt­ing on iso­lat­ed, impov­er­ished reser­va­tions,” she writes. The prospec­tive vot­er gen­er­al­ly has to down­load instruc­tions and a bal­lot appli­ca­tion, pho­to­copy the doc­u­ment along with iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, and get it all nota­rized before putting this pack­et in the mail.” Keep in mind, a com­put­er, inter­net access, a pho­to­copi­er and a print­er are unlike­ly to be avail­able at the same place and the same time on any reser­va­tion. An attor­ney from a vot­ing-rights group, who already had the advan­tage of a lap­top, test­ed the mail-in process and had to trav­el across state lines to find a pho­to­copi­er and a printer.

The police pow­ers of the state are also arrayed against Native peo­ple. A 2016 study by Jean Schroedel and Roger Chin of Clare­mont Grad­u­ate Uni­ver­si­ty found that in Mis­sis­sip­pi, South Dako­ta, Ida­ho, Wash­ing­ton, Alas­ka and North Dako­ta, the death rates for Native Amer­i­cans caused by the police ranged from 1.19 down to .27 per 10,000. All six were high­er than the high­est rate for African Amer­i­cans — in Cal­i­for­nia, at .19 deaths per 10,000.”

Life on the reser­va­tion is clear­ly vicious­ly dif­fi­cult. For Native youth liv­ing at the inter­sec­tion of so much gen­er­a­tional pain, the con­se­quences are heart­break­ing. Woodard writes, The sui­cide rate for of Natives aged 15 to 24 was not only the high­est in the nation, it had climbed steadi­ly over the 15 years between 1999 and 2014.” The lat­est fig­ures from the Sui­cide Pre­ven­tion Resource Cen­ter report that in 2016 the sui­cide rate among Amer­i­can Indians/​Alaskan Natives was 21.39 per 100,000, com­pared to the nation­al aver­age of 13.5 per 100,000 in the same year.

Amer­i­can Apartheid sug­gests that if nobody knows, nobody can care. Woodard is also deeply aware that those who do know about the oppres­sion of Native peo­ple are active­ly ben­e­fit­ing from it. Bet­ter media cov­er­age may not stop this human rights cri­sis — but doc­u­ment­ing the struc­tur­al racism that Native peo­ple expe­ri­ence is the first step. It makes us con­front the preda­to­ry polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic appa­ra­tus that ben­e­fits from the oppres­sion of the first Amer­i­cans and the exploita­tion of the nat­ur­al resources still under their control.

Woodard’s last­ing mes­sage, how­ev­er, is that while the chal­lenges are many, Native cul­tur­al resilience ensures that the tribes will sur­vive. The sit­u­a­tion in Indi­an coun­try is not, and has nev­er been hope­less. Dur­ing vis­its to Native com­mu­ni­ties around the coun­try, I have seen that cul­ture is a shield that has per­sist­ed, indeed thrived, despite all efforts to stamp, starve and reg­u­late it out of exis­tence,” she writes. The ongo­ing hum of tra­di­tion under­lies the cacoph­o­ny of prob­lems that trib­al mem­bers are con­stant­ly fight­ing to resolve.”

Juan­pablo Ramirez-Fran­co is an edi­to­r­i­al intern for In These Times and Doc­u­menter at City Bureau.
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