According to the stories, Native Americans helped the first white settlers of America. They taught the white settlers how to farm in America and introduced them to American products to help with their crop output. Thus, the first harvest dinner, we now call Thanksgiving, the settlers invited the Native Americans to help celebrate.
Somehow after that first dinner, things went downhill between the white settlers and the Native Americans. In the next two hundred years, white America waged what can only be described as a war of genocide against the Native Americans.
If we read our history, the first real transgression was the forced evacuation of Native Americans from their homelands in the East to Oklahoma Territory. This was the narrative behind the “Trail of Tears” that Native Americans were forced to undertake. Then, there were the “Indian Wars” against tribes that resisted whites taking their hunting grounds and land away from them.
Yet here we are over a hundred years removed, and Native Americans are still being held back both economically and socially. There are a lot of reasons, but the main factor is the reservations or “tribal lands” that the majority of Native Americans still live on.
We have placed Native Americans in economic limbo by law. Tribal lands are held in trust by the federal government, so tribes are unable to levy property taxes, and imposing income taxes is rarely feasible. Thus, unlike states and cities, reservations have a hard time funding basic government services.
Because of the federal title to most tribal lands, banks cannot use the same foreclosure policies they can elsewhere which dissuades them from offering mortgage lending on reservations. Only about 1.5% of reservation Native Americans who have sufficient income to qualify for a mortgage have one. Resulting in depriving them of the main engine for economic growth among the middle class.
A 1978 Supreme Court ruling said that tribes are legally barred from prosecuting non-Natives for crimes committed on reservations. This has helped produce crime rates, including the rape of Indian women—most often by whites, much higher than other ethnic groups—and rates of child sexual abuse that run as high as two and a half times the rates they do elsewhere.
The 2010 Tribal Law and Order Act tried fixing some of this, beginning to restore sentencing authority to tribal courts. But, as usual with Republican supported bills it did nothing to fund its implementation. According to the Act, in order to prosecute non-members, a tribal court must establish a detention facility and an experienced judiciary, and must provide public defender services. A truly functioning public defender’s office costs about $350,000 per year. Add in the other costs and you’re looking at upwards of a million dollars annually. Since tribes can’t levy most taxes, this becomes a significant hurdle in complying with the Act.
The 2013 Violence Against Women Act went further, recognizing tribal criminal authority over non-Natives for the first time since 1978 for domestic violence. It did not include crimes of child sex abuse, nor most other crimes. It only is applied to reservations that can meet the Tribal Law and Order Act and other standards. To date, none of the reservations have met these standards. When you consider that more than half of reservation residents are now non-Native, this presents a real problem. The vast number of Congress who voted against this Act did so because they did not believe that non-Natives should be prosecuted in Tribal Courts.
There are also jurisdictional conflicts that impair prosecutions even of Indians by their own tribes. If an Indian batters his wife, for example, the tribe usually cannot compel the off-reservation hospital doctors who treated her injuries to testify, nor the white friend who witnessed the battery. If the man moves to a town just off the reservation, he can’t even be arrested by tribal police (unless cross-deputized—yet another complication).
All of these problems may want you to ask why the Federal Government doesn’t do more to provide judicial services on the reservations? That would be a fair question since the Federal Government holds title to most reservation land. But, you also have to remember that most budget-strapped U.S. attorneys rarely see political or career benefit in prosecuting crimes like rape or assault on sparsely populated reservations hundreds of miles from their offices. As a result, more that half of all major crimes reported on the reservations go unprosecuted.
Because these flaws exist, the effect has been turning reservations into havens for non-Native sexual predators and other criminals. For example, mid-level non-Native drug dealers who aren’t large enough to attract federal prosecution can operate with relative impunity on many reservations, because neither tribal nor state law enforcement has authority to touch them.
These problems were not created by Native Americans. They were created by the catch-22 that we have created, in which we deny them the ability to provide economic opportunity and justice, while failing to provide it ourselves. When the allies won World War II, they worked to provide the losers with economic growth and opportunity. We have failed to do the same for Native Americans even hundreds of years after the wars were over.
But, as the arguments against the Violence Against Women Act shows, there is still a lot of prejudice against Native Americans. Why would anyone argue against Tribal Courts having the authority to prosecute non-Natives for rape or domestic violence against Native Women? The only reasonable explanation is that these members of Congress have a bias against Native Americans.
The prejudice is shown again in the fight against the Washington Football Team changing its name. Sorry, but I will never understand how using a racial slur for the name of a sports franchise can be interpreted in any way as “respecting” Native Americans as the owner claims.
We have had civil rights fights since our country was founded. African-Americans and Latino Americans are almost always at the forefront of these fights, and that should be. But, one “race” we seem to always forget about are the Native Americans.
These problems will not go away anytime soon. When political parties use the “us v. them” meme for political gains, minorities are always “them”. And, since Native Americans are rarely even thought about by white America, they suffer the most in the shadows of society. That is not just a shame, it is criminal.