by Jamison Maeda
Police brutality in the United States is not a secret. The names of black men and black children killed by police officers are known around the world. Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and more. Black Americans are taking to social media and to the streets to protest police brutality, racism, and white privilege. The majority of Americans no longer tolerate injustice and inequality that were once accepted as a cultural norm.
But as the United States continues to struggle with racism and privilege, and mainstream media amplifies tensions between “Black America” and “White America,” Native American issues are once again forgotten.
There are more than 5 million Native Americans in the United States, and over 1 million Aboriginal people in Canada. Unfortunately, their struggles rarely make headlines, and few non-Native people are aware of the severity of their strife.
- Native American people are more likely to be killed by policethan any other group (by percentage of population.)
- Native Americans in the US are victims of violent crime at twice the rate of the national average.
- Native people are twice as likely as any other race to die before the age of 24.
- The Native American population in US federal prisons has increased by 27% in the last 5 years.
- Aboriginal women in Canada are four times more likely to be murdered or disappear than other ethnic groups of women in Canada.
- Native American people commit suicide at rates 3 to 10 times higher than the national average.
- Suicide is the leading cause of death of Aboriginal people under 45 years old in Canada.
- Over 25% of Native American children live in poverty, versus the US average of 13%.
- The high school graduation rate of Native American young people is 17% lower than the national average.
In addition to these incredible statistics, unemployment of Native Americans is nearly twice that of the rest of the US and in some areas, such as the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Nation, the unemployment rate is over 60%.
Some who study history are familiar with the American Indian Wars, which claimed the lives of tens of thousands. Most people in the US have at least heard of The Trail of Tears, when the US government forcibly removed more than 16,000 Cherokee people from their homes, making them walk more than 2,000 miles. Thousands died during the journey.
But arguably as damaging was the forced assimilation and cultural genocide that continues to this day.
In the 19th century, Christian organizations created the infamous Native American boarding schools. These ‘schools’ were sponsored by the US government and aimed to ‘civilize’ Native children through forced assimilation. The first step was to cut the children’s hair and change their names. They were forbidden from speaking their languages or practicing any religion other than Christianity. In addition to this systematic cultural genocide, children at the boarding schools in both the US and Canada suffered from malnutrition, disease, and severe physical abuse. Tens of thousands died.
A report by the Truth Commission into Genocide in Canada exposed the involvement of the Catholic Church, the United Church of Canada, the Anglican Church of Canada, and the government in the deaths of more than 50,000 Aboriginal children in the ‘Indian Residential Schools.’ The report listed electric shock, starvation, and medical experimentation as just some of the causes of death. Many children also suffered forced sterilization.
In 2008, the Canadian Prime Minister issued a formal apology for what happened in Canada’s residential schools. The Anglican Church of Canada also apologized for its part in the abuse of Aboriginal children.
In addition to the boarding schools of the past, Native American children are currently being taken from their homes by US social workers and Child Protection Services agencies at an alarming rate. Native American children are being taken from their families by Social Services at nearly 16 times the rate of other ethnic groups, which could decimate every Native American community in the US.
The US government as a matter of policy has kidnapped thousands of Native American children from their families and placed them in the foster care system or with non-Native families. This has happened for generations. It is nearly impossible to speak to a Native American person who doesn’t have a personal story about a family member or members being taken by social workers. By the 1970’s as many as 35% of Native American children were forcibly removed from their homes. The Mormon Church even designed an “Indian Placement Program” which removed over 5,000 Native children and placed them with Mormon families.
The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 was enacted to protect Native American families from this institutionalized kidnapping. But more than four decades after ICWA was installed, 32 US states still ignore the law. In South Dakota alone, more than 700 Native kids are forcibly taken from their homes each year.
It must be noted that states receive a significant amount of federal money for every child removed from their home and placed into the system. The State of South Dakota receives $4,000 for each child placed into the foster care system. It receives $12,000 for each ‘special needs’ child placed in foster care, but 10 years ago, South Dakota defined all Native American children as ‘special needs.’ In 2014, South Dakota received $100 million dollars from the US Federal government for all of the state’s foster children, over half of whom are Native American. This does not include the $45 million it received for a social program for needy families and tens of millions more dollars for medical care reimbursement.
‘They make a living off of our children,’ said Juanita Sherick, a tribal social worker for the Pine Ridge reservation.
William Napoli was a South Dakota state Senator until 2008. He remembers when South Dakota first received large amounts of money from the federal government.
‘When that money came down the pike, it was huge,’ says Napoli. ‘That’s when we saw a real influx of kids being taken out of families.’
Historically the US government has not represented the interests of Native American communities and this is still true today. Recently the US Government transferred Oak Flat, 2,400 acres of Apache holy land in Arizona to the copper mining company Resolution Copper. And the US government is still looking at the possibility of allowing oil company Trans Canada to construct the Keystone XL Pipeline across sacred Native American land despite strong Native American opposition.
After centuries of slavery, oppression, and institutionalized racism, Black Americans still face horrific adversity in their own country. Just five days ago, nine innocent people were gunned down inside a South Carolina church because they were black. American people need to wake up and support the Civil Rights Movement. All of us must champion human rights worldwide and raise awareness of social issues. But if we are to be victorious, we have to fight in earnest for the rights of everyone. For Black people, for Native people, Greek people, Rohingya, Roma and everyone. No one can be forgotten.
*For this piece I used the term “Native American” when referring to indigenous people in the United States, and the term “Aboriginal” which is more frequently used in Canada, though many other terms such as “American Indian” and “First Nation” are also used to refer to the indigenous people of North America.