Some of the challenges Indigenous Peoples face — like derogatory sports mascots and natural resource exploitation — have made the headlines lately, but many remain underreported. These problems are connected to a host of other crises that challenge Native communities, many due to ongoing racism and a desire to erase these resilient groups that has spanned generations. As we mark the continuing observance of Native American Heritage Month this November, here’s a rundown of some of the most pressing issues that Indigenous communities face in the U.S., including links to resources that further discuss ways to aid in solving these problems.
Lack of resources are leading to poverty and unemployment.
In the U.S., 1 in 3 Native Americans are living in poverty, with the average individual earning a median income of just $23,000 a year. Unemployment is also skyrocketing within Indigenous populations; in 2019, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that American Indian and Alaska Native people faced an average unemployment rate of 6.6%, compared to the national average of 3.9%. COVID-19 has only made that figure worse with thousands of additional jobs being lost over the course of 2020, especially among Indigenous women.
Living conditions for Native people are dire.
American Indian and Alaska Native households are more likely to face homelessness or live in significantly overcrowded conditions. In tribal and nontribal areas, Native American households are chronically overcrowded, which has become a growing concern during the coronavirus pandemic.
Native American students have lower high school graduation rates than other ethnic groups.
The high dropout rate can be attributed to poor education systems that do not accommodate many Indigenous students’ needs. Lack of resources in schools due to insufficient funding is also a major contributing factor to students’ plummeting academic levels. Just 17% of Native American students continue their education after high school compared to 60% of the U.S. population, according to data from the Postsecondary National Policy Institute.
In 2020, Native American activists began working to get their communities counted in the U.S. Census — but with the White House’s premature end to census polling, many fear the effort may not have been enough. As a group that has been historically undercounted, poor representation in the Census continues to reduce and limit distribution and availability of resources in all areas, including education.
Violence against Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit (gender-nonconforming) people occurs at shocking levels.
Eighty-four percent of Native women report having experienced violence at some point in their lives according to the Department of Justice. Native women and girls are also murdered at a rate 10 times higher than other ethnicities. While the majority of these murders take place on Native land, the perpetrators are most often not Native, according to Native Women’s Wilderness. A report by the Urban Indian Health Institute says that while 5,712 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls were reported in 2016 (the last year for which data is available), only 116 of these deaths were logged into the Department of Justice’s database.
Violations of voting rights run rampant.
Native American tribe members have the right to vote, but those who live on reservations often struggle to get to polling sites. This is a recurring problem for Indigenous populations and was an especially prevalent issue during the 2020 Presidential election. Some polling sites are located too far from reservations, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Additionally, many Native American reservations do not use traditional street addresses, so their applications for voter registration are often rejected. Still, there is some hope on this front at least; Vox has reported that an especially high turnout within Arizona’s Navajo Nation may have helped to clinch Biden’s win in the state.
Natural resources on native lands face continual exploitation.
Private companies continue to exploit much of the resource-rich land many Native American tribes live on. This exploitation leaves many Native American reservations without access to clean water or other natural resources. Because Native American households are less likely to have access to clean water, they also experience higher mortality rates. According to the Native American Rights Fund, exploitation of land also disrupts wildlife and fish populations, making it difficult for Indigenous people to hunt and maintain traditional forms of subsistence. Additionally, many states have begun building new infrastructure or pipelines for the transport of oil, which can cause (and have caused) irreparable damage to ancient Indigenous sacred sites.
Indigenous communities face an alarming lack of health equity.
Native American people continue to die from many preventable illnesses at higher rates than other ethnicities. Indigenous adolescents are up to 30% more likely than white adolescents to be obese, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Native adults are 50% more likely to be obese, increasing the risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Since so many Indigenous Peoples live below the poverty line, they often lack access to fresh produce and healthier foods, instead of living off highly processed packaged foods — which only exacerbates the prevalence of obesity.
Indigenous groups also suffer from untreated mental illness at alarming rates. Native Americans die by suicide at higher rates than any other ethnic group in the U.S. Native Americans also struggle with substance abuse at a rate higher than other groups in the U.S. These health disparities have nothing to do with any predispositions inherent in Native American people, but rather a lack of health resources, funding and culturally competent care allotted to their communities. Cultural loss and historical trauma have also been shown to have adverse health effects throughout generations.
Erasure and cultural exploitation are commonplace.
Many treat Native Americans as ancient people whose cultures are no longer relevant. But the reality is that Native people are resilient and have held onto many elements of their cultures, despite repeated attempts at forced assimilation by the U.S. government. A consequence of this forced assimilation is many Native languages are becoming extinct. According to the Indigenous Language Institute, out of more than 300 Native languages that once existed, only about 175 remain in use today. Estimates predict that without measures to preserve these languages, there could be as little as 20 left by 2050.
Coupled with this apparent contempt for Native culture is the exploitation of it. Native American figures as offensive sports mascots and non-Native people disrespectfully donning costumes that attempt to resemble Indigenous regalia are examples of how mainstream society likes the idea of Native culture while not actually listening to or supporting Indigenous Peoples.
What you can do to help:
With social media, many have begun educating others about it. James Jones, a Cree influencer and dancer, has a lively Instagram and TikTok following due to the videos he creates, where he displays his tribe’s traditional regalia and dance, as well as educates viewers on the misconceptions about Native Americans. Other Indigenous influencers have utilized TikTok to show how beautiful — and alive — their cultures are.
Other ways you can support Indigenous Peoples include:
- Support organizations like The National Indian Education Association which works to improve schools and education for Native children while teaching them about their heritage.
- Advocate for Native American women’s rights and safety. Native Women’s Wilderness works to empower and support Native women through outdoor education and activity.
- Stand up against pipeline and other infrastructure projects being built on Native land. Check out Apache Stronghold, a grassroots organization formed to protect Native American holy sites, including Oak Flat, an Apache holy site in Arizona at risk of being built on.
- Listen to Native voices on issues that affect their communities. Research Indigenous artisans and business owners in your area and support them.