Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
First language/s: English, Navajo, Pueblo, Apache, other native languages
Religion/s: Christianity, native religions
Native Americans, the indigenous peoples of what is now the mainland United States (US), belong to hundreds of nations with different linguistic, social, cultural and economic traits. Native Americans live throughout the US, especially in the rural west, and most often speak English or their own traditional language. The majority were converted to Christianity in early colonial times, but some have always maintained traditional religious practices; traditional spirituality has experienced a revival in recent decades. Native Americans are also commonly called American Indians (a misnomer of historic proportions but a prevalent one), or by specific national designations such as Mohawk, Cree, Ojibwe (Chippewa) and Hopi. Recognized nations (‘tribes’ in official parlance) live on reserved lands of varying sizes and populations, though they now comprise a minority: according to the 2010 census, only 20 per cent of the ‘American Indian and Alaska Native’ (the terminology used by the US Census Bureau) alone-or-in combination lived on reservations or trust lands.
The 2010 Census estimated the ‘American Indian and Alaska Native’ population to be 5.2 million or 1.7 per cent: this includes around 2.9 million (0.9 per cent) American Indian or Alaska Native alone, and another 2.3 million (0.7 per cent) in combination with one or more ethnicities. In 2010, the largest tribes were Navajo (308,000), (Cherokee (285,476), Sioux (131, 048), Ojibwe/Chippewa (115,859), Choctaw (88,913), Apache (64,869), Pueblo (59,337), and Iroquois (48,365).
According to the Indigenous Language Institute, there were once more than 300 Indigenous languages spoken in the United States, and there are currently 175 Indigenous languages spoken still today. The Institute estimates that if efforts are not made to revitalize these languages, there will only be 20 Native American languages spoken by 2050. Navajo is the most widely spoken Native American language, with an estimated 166,800 speakers, followed by Yup’ik with an estimated 19,800 speakers.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), part of the Department of Interior is the federal body charged with dealing with more than 326 reservations in mainland US. A typical source of defining Native American status is often based on blood ancestry, although Native Americans also emphasise the importance of language, culture and heritage. In the past three decades, while the US government has restored limited recognition of Native American sovereignty, government-Native American relations are perhaps best described as those of internal neo-colonialism.
From conquest to ‘extermination’ to self-determination, Native American nations were established in the present-day United States for thousands of years before European colonization. Estimates of the pre-contact population range between 3 million and 12 million people, living in over 600 different societies. Each region had nations with distinct cultures, languages and lifestyles – from nomadic hunting bands in arid regions to large agricultural settlements on the coasts. Common elements included complex social structures based on ceremonial and subsistence roles, communal stewardship of resources, collective decision-making (one of the models for US democracy) and visionary spiritual traditions that emphasized history, ancestry and reverence for the land.
The first European conquerors were the Spanish, who invaded Mexico and the south-west in the late sixteenth century and for a time enslaved indigenous people there. The French and Dutch arrived in the seventeenth century, followed by the British. In most cases, initial relations were friendly, but with increased immigration and self-sufficiency by the 1630s, colonists began to covet and invade Native land, and attempt to impose European religion and culture on Native Americans. The Europeans had a devastating effect, bringing previously unknown diseases that wiped out whole Native American populations, including smallpox, syphilis and influenza. Over-hunting and land depletion caused famines. When negotiation was inconvenient, the Europeans used their superior weapons to force Native Americans off their own land. Native tribes were divided and manipulated during wars between colonial powers.
After independence, Congress signed treaties with the surviving nations, recognizing and guaranteeing their title to lands remaining – the core of the ‘nation to nation’ relationship Native Americans still struggle to revitalize today. The Constitution grants the federal government exclusive jurisdiction over relations with Native Americans. From that point until 1975, government policy alternated between eradicating the ‘Indian Problem’ through extermination/assimilation, and paternalistic programmes providing services and limited autonomy to reservation dwellers.
In the nineteenth century, Native Americans were herded from their lands to reservations, sometimes hundreds of miles away. Thousands died in such forced marches. Broken treaties, land frauds and military attacks were common. Some tribes responded with armed resistance, particularly in the ‘Indian Wars’ of the 1880s, but at best achieved temporary stalemates. In 1887, the General Allotment Act (or ‘Dawes Act’) nullified tribal land holdings, assigning each Native American 160 acres ‘in trust’, while the rest was sold. As trustee, the government took legal title to the parcels, established an Individual Indian Trust and thereby assumed full responsibility for management of the trust lands. That included the duty to collect and disburse to the Indians any revenues generated by mining, oil and gas extraction, timber operations, grazing or similar activities. In all, 90 million acres of land, about 67 per cent of Native American land, was seized and the communal property system was destroyed. As documented in the Merriam Report of 1928, Native Americans on and off reservations were left destitute and prone to suicide, alcoholism and mental illness; housing and health conditions were abysmal. Cultures, languages and families were lost. In 1900, the total Native American population of the US had fallen from several million to 237,000. This figure is often cited as evidence that policy on Native American peoples through most of US history was ethnocidal.
Outrage over the Merriam Report prompted the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt to attempt an ‘Indian New Deal’. The Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) became law in 1934 and was accepted by 191 tribes. It recognized limited sovereignty for Native American tribes and mandated elected councils to assume partial control over reservations. Monetary aid accompanied the new structures, as did on-reserve education and health care. Native religions were decriminalized. In 1946, the Indian Claims Commission was established to deal with outstanding land claims. Critics such as the American Indian Movement (AIM) point out that IRA reforms were imposed, often by underhanded manipulation of the referendum process, regardless of tribes’ own traditional systems (several councils’ first acts were to provide US companies with access to their resources.). Later, IRA structures fostered conflicts and even violence between council supporters and traditionalists. But they were the first step made in decades towards greater self-determination.
In the 1950s, Congress ordered that Native Americans should be cut off as soon as possible from all federal responsibility and forced to assimilate into white society. By 1960, 61 Native American tribes had been ‘terminated’. Development projects were dropped, loans frozen and federal services cut off. Termination threats spurred the first national Native organization, the National Congress of American Indians, and many new Native American leaders who had gained some experience of white politics in military service. They pressured government to halt the termination process, and by 1960 it unofficially stopped. In 1964, the Economic Opportunity Act gave Native Americans access to funds not controlled by the BIA, which helped launch businesses on some reservations. In 1968, the Indian Civil Rights Act ceased the termination policy, removed Native Americans from the jurisdiction of states, and set out the intention of involving Native Americans more directly as BIA employees.
Native American cultural nationalism had begun to emerge by the mid-1960s. The Native American Rights Fund organized tribes to pursue land claims and federal recognition. The National Indian Youth Council and, later, AIM, exposed broken treaties and corruption among BIA agents and IRA-style councils, and advocated traditionalist politics and Native civil rights. AIM’s demonstrations, occupations and armed militancy were met with brutal repression by BIA and FBI agents, with tragic results in stand-offs at Pine Ridge and Wounded Knee. But this upsurge in Native American visibility did much to raise US and international awareness of Native American rights and to put sovereignty on top of the Native agenda. In 1970, partly to head off AIM and its supporters, President Richard Nixon began to promote self-determination for Native American nations. The Indian Self-Determination Act of 1975 affirmed the rights of recognized tribes and allowed tribal governments to contract for federal funding to run former BIA services (education, health care, economic development and child welfare), although it did not provide for new programmes and standards defined by Native Americans themselves.
The history of Native America since 1975 is more fractured. By 1980, more than half the Native American population had been urbanized, and to some degree assimilated, under the 1956 Relocation Act funds administered by the BIA. Meanwhile, political battles were fought to arrest or reverse the damage done by centuries of marginalization, and urban Natives advanced ‘pan-Indianism’. The revival of traditionalism and new self-determination structures have facilitated an unprecedented unity among Native Americans, and unprecedented support from non-Natives – especially during Native American-led protests against the 1992 Columbus quincentennial (‘500 Years of Oppression’) and in the environmentalist movement. Native Americans have also emerged as leaders defending indigenous peoples’ rights worldwide, with an active role in the establishment of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1982. On 15 June 2004, the Senate and House passed a Joint Resolution to send to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, to formally apologize to the Native Americans for years of depredations.
Socio-economic, political, legal and cultural issues
While Native American income relative to white Americans has risen dramatically in recent decades, they still have a high unemployment rate. The total US unemployment rate for Native Americans was 8.9 per cent in 2016, almost double the 4.9 per cent average for the country overall.
In addition, some 26.6 per cent of Native Americans were living in poverty in 2015, the highest levels of any ethnic group in the country and almost double the national poverty rate of 14.7 per cent. Similarly, the median 2015 household income of Native Americans was US$38,530, far lower than the average of US$55,775 for the country as a whole. Reservation housing in particular is still substandard, often without electricity, indoor plumbing or refrigeration, except in the wealthiest nations. As of 2013, around 7.5 per cent of Native American households still lacked safe drinking water or basic sanitation.
Although Native American life expectancy has risen dramatically in recent decades, it is still the lowest of any ethnic group in the US. The Native American population has a high incidence of communicable diseases, including tuberculosis, and fatal infectious illnesses. The ratio of health care providers to patients is lower on reservations than in any other community. Suicide and accidents (often drug or alcohol related) are the two biggest causes of Native American deaths. Poverty, dispossession and drug abuse has also led to a high rate of violence, particularly on reservations, impacting on Native American women in particular. A 2010 US Department of Justice report found that of around 2,500 women surveyed, 84 per cent of Native American women had experienced violence during their lifetime and 56 per cent had experienced sexual violence.
Reservations are also used as dumping grounds for toxic or nuclear waste. Lead poisoning, landfill sites, water pollution from nearby industries, cancers caused by nuclear weapons testing (nearly all of it on Native lands) and many more environmental problems plague Native American communities. Native Americans also have the lowest high school and university graduation rates in the US, partly because education has been an assimilationist tool since colonial times. Programmes such as bicultural education and Native-run schools under the Indian Education Act of the early 1970s have improved the situation, but only marginally – in part because of a shortage of qualified Native American teachers. Most Native American children attend public schools. The Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act of 1978 was partially successful, establishing Native-run colleges and increasing grants for Native American students, but its funding has been drastically cut back over the 1980s and 1990s. In 1995 the Office of Indian Education Programs was threatened with closure by Congress; it was renamed the Bureau of Indian Education in 2006. The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act introduced further requirements to improve the accountability of tribally run schools to improve the performance of their students with the additional funds they were receiving.
Economic development efforts on reservations have been limited by issues like jurisdiction, financing, training and isolation, by internal disputes over direction and sometimes by obstruction by non-Native American opponents and governments. Nevertheless, the 1980s and 1990s saw an upsurge in programmes for economic self-sufficiency, including mineral exploration, industrial parks, forestry, fisheries, hotels, agriculture, tobacco sales, casinos and high-stakes gambling on reserves. These enterprises could dramatically alter Natives Americans’ economic position, if they are allowed sufficient control over their administration, land and resources. However, each economic success is likely to meet with local resentment, especially when Native Americans use the legal benefits of tribal sovereignty to their advantage. Hunting and fishing disputes in the north-west, and controversies over casino operations in the north-east are typical examples.
There is an over-representation of Native Americans in US jails, with Native American men incarcerated at four times the rate of white men and Native American women at around six times the rate of white women. Attempts at community policing and reconciliation models have had some success at coping with Native American offenders but have been obstructed by jurisdictional issues. Suspicion of unfair law enforcement is widespread, and there are indications of political motives at work. The case of Leonard Peltier, the American Indian Movement (AIM) leader convicted of involvement in the deaths of two FBI agents in a confrontation at Ogala reservation in 1973, is indicative. Over the years, the evidence against Peltier has been discredited; Native Americans widely believe that the he was framed for his political activities, but he has consistently been refused a new trial. In 2017, his appeal for clemency was formally rejected by President Obama. Several other reserves have complained of the same kind of police harassment that led to Peltier’s arrest, and other prisoners have asserted that they have been persecuted by police and prison authorities for their political or religious beliefs. Prohibitions in prisons include restrictions on Native prisoners’ hair length, sweat lodges, peace pipes, drums, headbands and other elements of traditional spirituality.
In 1978, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed to ‘preserve and protect’ the rights of Native Americans to pursue their traditional spiritual paths. But the Act has no real enforcement mechanisms, and while it has sometimes helped Native Americans to protect sacred sites and religious practices, courts have deprived plaintiffs of protection under the Act in all but four cases. The Supreme Court ruled in the Lyng case of 1988 that the US Forest Service was free to cut roads and timber in the sacred high country of Siskyou Mountain, saying that the government could not compel religious observance or deliberately interdict a religion for its own sake, but was under no obligation to protect anyone’s religious practices. The Clinton administration was at work in 1995 on an Executive Order that would mandate stronger protections for sacred sites, but again there were no guarantees that the order would be interpreted as outweighing economic interests of business and government.
The persecution of the Native American Church’s use of peyote – a controlled hallucinogen whose sacramental use dates back at least 1,400 years – is another case of the inadequacy of the Act. The Supreme Court ruled in Employment Division v. Smith (1990) that an employer was within his rights in firing two Native American workers for their religious practice of using peyote, and that the decision of whether to bring criminal prosecution against Native American Church members would be left up to the states. This was a clear reversal of established religious protections in the US and touched off a rash of marginal prosecutions against other groups.
In 1990 Congress passed the Native American Languages Act (1990), which articulated a policy of protecting indigenous languages, and in 1992 passed an act which authorized a grant programme for the purpose. In 1994 the Clinton administration awarded US$1 million for 18 language revitalization programs, but financial commitment to the issue remains limited, and the number of people who speak one of the surviving 154 Native American languages continues to decline rapidly.
Native Americans protest against racist, stereotypical or offensive appropriations of their culture, beginning with mid-century ‘cowboys and Indians’ movies and today, including the frequent use of Native American names or pejoratives for sports teams, inaccurate museum displays and so on. The Washington Redskins American football team has long resisted pressure to change its name, despite a prolonged campaign and legal action. More positively, the Cleveland Indians baseball team promised to drop the derogatory ‘Chief Wahoo’ logo from its uniforms in 2019, although some Native American activists would like to see the team go further and change its name. Traditionalists also worry about the effects of businesses like mining, casinos and tobacco smuggling on Native American values and culture.
Self-determination, land resources
Although the official policy of the United States is now to encourage Native Americans’ self-determination, in reality the power of Native communities is severely limited. The self-determination process has also forced Native Americans to adopt structures foreign to their own traditions – including the current reconfiguration of traditional structures as ‘nations’ comparable to the European nation-state. Even with this modification, tribal nations are not viewed within US law as independent entities to which the US has historically derived responsibilities, but as internal dependent nations or ‘wards’. Native Americans possess only ‘residual sovereignty’ – power over what is not already regulated. US policy towards Native self-determination allows not much more autonomy than is given to a municipality or, at best, one of the states in the Union.
Tribal courts are often forbidden to deal with events on reservations involving non-tribal members, especially non-Native Americans (making jurisdiction racial rather than political or territorial), and cannot mete out sentences of more than one year’s imprisonment. Tribal nations’ ability to enforce their own land use and environmental regulations is not respected by the legal system. Their powers of taxation are also restricted. The BIA maintains ultimate control over Native American nations’ constitutions, the composition of their governments, their power to make contracts, the disposition of their property and the funding and implementation of most programmes that affect them. It has authority to veto decisions made by the tribal councils. The concept of distributing self-determination funds for tribes to use at their discretion has been floated but never fully adopted.
Congress has always reserved ‘plenary power’ over Native Americans, and the Supreme Court ruled in 1978 that tribal sovereignty exists ‘only at the sufferance of Congress’, which at any time could ‘limit, modify or eliminate’ it. There is also the fear that the current policy is ‘termination in disguise’, and that once Natives achieve a certain degree of autonomy, Congress will cut off all aid. Both the BIA and the Indian Health Service have volunteered to dismantle services in the name of self-government, without proposing exactly how tribes would replace them; only Native protests forced Congress to forbid programme termination or contracting out without tribes’ consent. Budget cuts have also severely impaired Native Americans’ pursuit of self-sufficiency. In fiscal year 2006, for example, the Bush administration cut the budget allocation for the BIA by US$110 million from the previous year.
The BIA has frequently been negligent and abused its function and authority, usually by contracting on Native Americans’ behalf to lease land to companies for extraction of natural resources, often at less than 2 per cent of the resources’ real value. Political pressures make this rarer now – instead the government simply pressures the tribal council to make the same decisions – but the government has been reluctant to compensate for past admitted extortions of peoples like the Cheyenne and Navajo. In 1977, the American Indian Policy Review Commission called such leases ‘among the poorest agreements ever made’. Large numbers of Native Americans are employed within the BIA, and in recent years it has been headed by Natives; but, aside from the direct employment benefits, the results of such affirmative action are debatable. By the mid-1980s there was widespread disapproval of how the Department of Interior, as trustee, was managing tribal and Individual Indian Monies (IIM) accounts. In 1994 the American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act established the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians (OST) to improve the accountability and management of Indian funds held in trust by the federal government. On 10 June 1996, Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet tribe in Montana, filed a class-action lawsuit (Cobell v. Salazar) in the US District Court in Washington DC to force the federal government to account for billions of dollars belonging to approximately 500,000 Native Americans and their heirs, and held in trust since the late nineteenth century, and to bring about permanent reform of the system. The case has revealed that the US government has no accurate records for hundreds of thousands of Native beneficiaries, nor of billions of dollars owed to the class of beneficiaries covered by the lawsuit. It exposed gross mismanagement, ineptness, dishonesty and delay by federal officials, leading US District Judge Royce Lamberth to declare their conduct ‘fiscal and governmental irresponsibility in its purest form’. In December 1999 Judge Lamberth ruled that the secretaries of the Interior and Treasury had breached their trust obligations to Native Americans. The court retained judicial oversight of the system for a minimum of five years to ensure that it would be overhauled and ordered the Department of Interior to provide an historical accounting of all trust funds. An appeal by the government, arguing that the court had overreached its authority, was unanimously rejected by a three-judge appeals court panel in February 2001. Finally, in December 2009 a settlement was agreed, with US$1.4 billion awarded directly to the plaintiffs and another US$2 billion to support the repurchase of land.
US government actions have had other negative repercussions, for example when the Reagan administration adopted a policy of discouraging Native-run businesses in favour of contracts between tribes and resource companies. It was also suggested that tribes voluntarily relinquish their legal jurisdiction in civil disputes to encourage companies to locate on reserves. In 1988, amendments to the Indian Self-Determination Act allowed pilot projects for tribes to revise government structures away from the IRA model. By 1995, about half the reservations in the US had somehow modified their systems to make them more compatible with traditional values, though conflicts over forms of government and economic direction at reserves still cause severe tensions. The most forward-looking policy direction coming from the US government was proposed in Hawai’i Senator Daniel Inouye’s report from the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs in 1989. Documenting BIA mismanagement, Inouye and his colleagues suggested that every tribe adopt a democratically approved constitution, on the basis of which new treaties would be negotiated to transfer full governmental power and moneys in toto for use at tribal governments’ discretion. The sole caveat was that tribal governments – which have sometimes been caught in scandals – remain subject to federal corruption laws.
These proposals are the closest the US government has come to the demands of such Native platforms as AIM’s Twenty-Point Programme or the National Congress of American Indians’ 1974 American Indian Declaration of Sovereignty. While they have not yet been enacted, US policy has slowly drifted in this direction. Many Native American activists and scholars argue that social justice can only be achieved with full sovereignty – complete control of land, resources and law in Native jurisdictions – perhaps through Native nations negotiating agreements for Commonwealth-type status within the US. However, since the majority of Native Americans now live in cities, self-determination in Native territories may not by itself guarantee full equality for all the people affected by the legacy of colonization. The Dawes Act forced Native Americans to part with 64 per cent of the land that they retained at the end of the Native American wars of the 1880s and today less than 215,000 sq km remain. Reservations often include the poorest agricultural land, with severe water shortages and limited economic potential. At least 25 per cent of these lands are currently occupied by non-Natives, and on some reserves as much as 90 per cent of the land is held by outsiders. Meanwhile, the Native American population has increased nearly seven-fold over the last century and the land base is unable to sustain them.
From 1946 to 1978, the Indian Claims Commission adjudicated Native land claims, but could provide only monetary, not territorial compensation, and estimated land value based not on current market value but on its worth at the time of taking. Many tribal nations, for example in New York state, were compensated at derisory levels for their lost land. Not until 1974 did the Supreme Court rule that Native Americans had the right to pursue land restoration. Thousands of square kilometres and millions of dollars have since been transferred, though an Act of Congress is required for each such settlement. In some cases, often due to the sacred significance of a particular site, Native nations have refused to accept monetary settlements. The most dramatic example has been the ‘Black Hills Are Not for Sale’ campaign by the Lakota of South Dakota, who turned down US$105 million in compensation for their lands and sacred sites in the late 1970s, a case still in dispute today despite some positive overtures by the Obama administration.
Other pending claims include: the Papago nation of Arizona’s claim on the sacred Baboquivari Mountain Range, where mining has taken place; suits by the landless Schaghticoke and Mohegan peoples of Connecticut and Catawbas of South Carolina for recovery of their former reservations; the Western Shoshone’s land claims, covering 80 per cent of Nevada; and the several-sided dispute between traditional Dineh and Hopi, the Navajo and Hopi tribal councils, the federal government and the Peabody Coal Company over the Big Mountain/Black Mesa lands in Arizona, a case that, perhaps better than any other, indicates the complexity of Native land and sovereignty issues.
The sheer number of disputes reveals the inadequacy of US government mechanisms. These conflicts have been sharpened by the recent realization that Native land is one of the few untapped sources of natural resources left in the United States. Again, much of the richest land was stolen (for example by oil companies in Texas and Arizona) in years past, but large areas remain. In 1975, 25 Native American tribes in the north-west joined together to form the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, modelled on the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and some of these tribes have grown rich from mineral and oil profits. However, a 1989 Supreme Court ruling that tribal councils could not limit land uses by non-Natives on reservation land has hampered attempts to control development.
In 1982, 240 out of 300 federally recognized tribes had some energy resources, amounting to 25 per cent of US mineral wealth. Nearly all the uranium in the US is under Native land. Other valuable forest and mining land is directly adjacent to reservation land, sometimes on traditional hunting and fishing or ceremonial grounds, and its use tends to pollute water tables, rivers, lakes, air and other life sources of Native peoples. For example, the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine peoples in Montana were severely affected by the Zortman-Landusky goldmine and its release of thousands of gallons of cyanide solution into the local watershed.
Native Americans have had little success in disputing such corporate incursions and have often not received the due financial benefits of their own holdings. Water diversion, pollution and damming around Native lands, as well as pollution of groundwater, has been sanctioned by the courts. The separation of land and water rights is contrary to international standards, besides being socially, economically and environmentally destructive. In recent years there has been some limited success regarding water rights.
Despite significant progress in recent decades, Native Americans continue to experience significant levels of exclusion and discrimination: 26.2 per cent of indigenous people were living below the poverty line in 2016, compared to a national average of 14 per cent, with education, health and employment outcomes well below the national average. There are concerns that these problems will only worsen as the Trump administration proposed a broad range of budget cuts to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and other public agencies that provide Native American communities with essential support in areas such as housing. While these proposed cuts were buffered by significant boosts in federal support such as the March 2018 omnibus bill – a move that appeared to represent a bipartisan rejection of Trump’s proposals – they nevertheless represented a source of significant concern for the country’s Native American population.
The prolonged federal government shutdown that began at the end of 2018 caused considerable disruption to Native American communities. Healthcare provision and law enforcement were blocked for the 35 days that the shutdown lasted. The timing could not have been worse, as many reservations were hit by heavy snowfall. The lack of road maintenance services – including snow clearance – meant that residents went for days without access to water, food and medicines. More than half of BIA’s Native employees were furloughed.
Although overall Native Americans now enjoy better health, there are still great health disparities between Native Americans and the US general population: the rate of tuberculosis for Native Americans is 4.7 cases per 100,000 persons compared to 0.6 cases per 100,000 for non-Hispanic white Americans. Native youth also have the highest rate of alcohol abuse of any ethnic group in the US. With elevated levels of diabetes, liver disease and a range of other afflictions, Native Americans have a life expectancy that is 5.5 years lower (73 years) than the national average of 78.5 years.
Notwithstanding the measure of recognition secured by many Native American tribes, the historic problem of land rights violations persists, with efforts by certain groups to halt the expansion of oil pipelines on or near their land receiving nationwide and international attention. In recent years indigenous communities including the Ponca Nation and Oglala Lakota have led land rights movements in opposition to the expansion of the Keystone XL pipeline connecting the oil sands in Alberta, Canada to Steele City, Nebraska. The Standing Rock Sioux, along with Jicarilla Apache, Oglala Sioux, Oglala Lakota and others played a central role in protests against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline near to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
Despite facing widespread violence and evictions, the protests appeared to have achieved some success by the end of 2016, with the pipeline’s expansion put on hold. But after the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency in January 2017, the situation rapidly deteriorated as Trump signed an executive order removing impediments to the pipeline’s construction. In the weeks that followed, the environmental impact assessment and public consultation were put to one side as the remaining protestors were evicted to pave way for the pipeline, which by April 2017 was completed.
In addition to the inspiring role that indigenous communities played in organizing and leading protests, the demonstrations were also notable for the extraordinary levels of violence meted out by public and private security personnel, with hundreds of protestors wounded by rubber bullets, water cannon and attack dogs, leaving some with lasting injuries. Protestors continue to face severe repercussions as a number of activists involved in the demonstrations have been handed down lengthy prison sentences on charges of rioting and trespass.
This arguably reflects a broader trend of targeted discrimination by law enforcement: in recent years Native Americans have been killed by police at nearly the same rate as African Americans. While garnering little to no media attention, indigenous activists have utilized the hashtag #NativeLivesMatter to galvanize support and to highlight the disproportionate levels of police brutality experienced by indigenous people in the country. As is the case with African Americans, these incidents occur against a broader backdrop of social disenfranchisement that – with more than 70 per cent of Native Americans now residing in urban areas – is increasingly evident within metropolitan settings. This is exacerbated by the fact that federal support for Native American populations is primarily concentrated on rural areas, in particular reservations. For instance, only about 1 per cent of spending by the Indian Health Service is allotted to urban programmes, yet Native Americans living in urban areas encounter significant impediments to accessing healthcare as well as education and employment. While these issues intersect with some of the inequalities experienced by other ethnic groups in urban areas, Native Americans experience discrimination where other communities have found opportunities, particularly in relation to accessing urban labour markets.
The number of Native American language speakers continues to decline, and a growing number of Native American children are monolingual English-speakers. Native American communities also still face issues of cultural and religious freedoms, including the denial of access to religious sites, prohibitions on the use or possession of sacred objects, and restrictions on their ability to worship through ceremonial and traditional means.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in