In the United States, November marks Native American Heritage Month, a time dedicated to celebrating the contributions, lives, and cultures of Indigenous people across the Americas.
As an organization that advocates for the equity of all, we want to take this time to center and illuminate the experiences of Native Americans. Our organizational values uphold the pursuit of equity and justice, while rejecting systems of oppression. We stand in solidarity with Indigenous peoples’ efforts to seek liberation. Our allyship involves educating ourselves and others, so that we can support Indigenous people and advocate alongside them.
From the colonization of the Americas to today, Indigenous people have faced and continue to experience oppression, disenfranchisement, discrimination, and violence at the hands of governments and institutions steeped in a legacy of racism and colonialism. Native American people have been silenced and encountered institutional barriers with far reaching impacts on education, economy, justice, and environment. The historical, generational trauma can only begin to heal if the harm and abuses are understood, addressed, and dispelled by all.
Law, Land, and the Environment
The federal government in the U.S. denied Native Americans the right to vote until 1924, imposing laws which ultimately restricted the political and societal movements of Native Americans. Over time, Native American nations have been dispossessed of 99% their land. Forced migrations, unjust land treaties, and economic pressure have left 42% of Native American tribes with no federally or state-recognized land. These forced relocations can be traced back to the U.S. government’s desire to expand the industrial economy, which requires large swaths of land and contributes to dangerous levels of greenhouse gases.
Climate change, intensified by colonialism and industrialism, shakes the foundation of Indigenous people’s cultural heritage and identity. Many facets of Native American life depend on traditional places, foods, and lifestyles as their health is based on interconnected social and ecological systems native to their land. Through forced relocations and the disruption of territories, particularly for Alaskan Natives, climate change threatens access to important resources for medicinal and community health. Policies imposed by White settlers and perpetuated by the U.S. government forcibly relocated Native communities to undesirable, vulnerable locations exposed to flooding and other extreme weather.
Federal institutions such as FEMA are less likely to help Native communities recover from extreme weather. Data reveals that Native communities are more likely to be denied FEMA grants, although these communities are “most disproportionately impacted by climate.” Notably, the few grants offered to Native tribes, do not cover important mechanisms of recovery and development, such as schools.
Adequate education provides new opportunities, gives children resources, and increases access to employment, which can break the cycles of poverty. The U.S. government has signed treaties with Native Americans which exchanged tribal land for federally funded and operated schools.
Throughout the 19th and 20th century, these treaties funded boarding schools with curriculums rooted in White supremacy and anti-Indigenous racism. From the 1860s to the 1960s, these boarding schools failed in educating Indigenous children, but succeeded in forcibly “assimilating” and stripping them of their Native American heritage and culture. After a report revealed the failure by the government to deliver its side of the treaty, the Indian Reorganization Act was created in 1928. The act granted Native American tribes with self-determination rights in 1934. However, the reorganization of the education system did little for Native American communities. Public schools for Native children are underfunded and inadequate. With only 67% of Native Americans graduating high school compared to the national average of 80%, federally funded education has failed and caused long-lasting complications for Native Americans.
Unfortunately, the lack of reform on Native education can be easily correlated with the decimation of the Indigenous population in the Americas. Be it through complications to the tribal membership process, lack of self-identification as Indigenous, the dispossession of Native lands, or the tragic history of violent persecution and extinguishment of Native communities, Native American pleas for reform have been limited their ability to collectively be heard.
Systemic oppression has created conditions where Native Americans are forced to decide between their economic position and their culture, heritage, identity, and even their health.
The federal government’s ownership of Native American land and assets is due to the incorrect, and deeply racist, notion that tribes are incapable of doing so themselves—all economic development projects on Native land must be reviewed and authorized by the government. This bureaucratic burden discourages investment into Native land and communities, and when development projects are approved, the government collects the payment on the behalf of Indigenous people, creating unjust complications, even losing the money. Additionally, federal involvement in land ownership has created guidelines which make generational wealth on Native land virtually impossible, creating a lack of opportunities and resources, leading to high rates of unemployment on reservations.
Poverty and economic barriers lead some Native people to leave their communities in pursuit of economic stability. However, when leaving reservations, Native American individuals have expressed that their link to their identity, heritage, and culture is weakened. Outside of Native American Heritage Month, there is little to no effort to maintain, celebrate, and teach Native American culture by the general public. Therefore, the lack of economic opportunities available to Native Americans on reservations directly limits the survival of Native American culture.
As discussed in the section of forced relocation and climate change, Native American culture, heritage, identity, and health strongly depends on tribal land. Economic circumstances, through disenrollment and leaving reservations, break the link American Indians can have to their culture. In addition to the long history of violent persecution of Native Americans, these conditions–created by the U.S. government—also inhibit the survival of American Indians. Ultimately, this hopelessness, created from dire economic situations, from the institutional disenfranchisement of Indigenous peoples, and from historical traumas, can find its outlet through violence.
Native American women and girls are disproportionally exposed to violence. Suicide is the leading cause of death for Indigenous girls aged 10-14, while murder is the third leading cause of death for Native American women. Native women in the U.S. are 2.5 more likely to be assaulted than any other group, and yet missing and murdered Indigenous women are simultaneously denied justice. Only 2% of the 5,712 reports of missing Indigenous women are logged as cases in the U.S. Department of Justice’s federal missing person database. Crimes against Native American women are overlooked due to colonial legacies which paint Indigenous women as deserving of sexual violence. Because the prosecution and investigation of crimes in the United States heavily depends on advocacy, the negative stereotypes that Native American women are subjected to hinder their ability to gain justice, as non-tribal law enforcement simply dismisses their cases.
In addition to crimes against Native Americans being overlooked by the federal justice system, the prosecution of these crimes is obstructed by treaty laws. Tribal jurisdiction does not extend past reservations and is also limited to tribal members, meaning non-tribal members can commit crimes on reservations without prosecution. Unfortunately, non-tribal members commit the majority of crimes, particularly against women, on tribal land.
OVERCOMING THESE CHALLENGES
Although Indigenous people of the Americas have been obstructed by systems of oppression since colonization, their communities have resisted and rejected systems of oppression. Whether through the collective organization of protests, individual struggles to overcome injustice, or the support and creation of organizations that promote the human rights of Indigenous peoples, Native Americans fight for justice, equity, and liberation.
The Dakota Access Pipeline protests are a powerful example of Native Americans and Indigenous peoples collectivizing to overcome and fight burdens placed by the U.S. government. These protests were primarily organized and sustained by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, joined by the Cheyenne River Sioux. Their traditions and health are dependent on the land and water resources put at risk by the pipeline, and their Indigenous rights should have protected their land. Instead, the U.S. government chose to violate their treaty, for its economic gain through the construction of the pipeline. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe continues to exercise their agency and land rights by challenging the operation of the pipeline, despite resistance from federal courts.
We want to highlight organizations including Vision Maker Media, Native Hope, Native American Rights Fund, National Congress of American Indians, the Mayan League, Illuminative, Lakota People’s Law Project, NDN Collective, and Indian Law Resource Center. These organizations work with Native Americans to fight against oppression. We hope to widen their reach, so that they can maximize their impact. We urge you to support and visit these resources, especially this month, as we consider and appreciate the valuable contributions American Indians have made to this country.
As an organization dedicated to ending gender-based violence, Tahirih seeks to dismantle systems of oppression that facilitate discrimination, injustice, and violence against Indigenous people. We recognize that gender-based violence particularly impacts Indigenous migrant women and two-spirit people, who live at the dangerous intersections of sexism, racism, and xenophobia. We support the work from the organizations above who are leading the charge in this fight for equity and justice.