The Never-ending Struggle of Native Americans

Credit: Getty Images

By Matthew D. Gamble

Native Americans, America’s silenced minority are taking their rights into their own hands, for centuries they have been victims of genocide, oppression and culture erasure. Natives across the US have joined together in protest of the construction of  the Dakota Access pipeline which runs through reservation territory. The pipeline is intended to be 1,100 miles long and will transport 400,000 barrels of crude oil across four states, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois. However, it’s construction is both a threat to the environment and the a violation of Native American rights.

Since 2014, there was massive controversy since the announcements of the pipeline’s installation. The greatest concern is the fact that the pipeline creates the hazard of oil pollution into the Missouri River. A river in which the American Indians of western reservations get their water supply. Another factor is that the construction will call for the digging up of sacred grounds belonging to the Standing Rock Sioux. Many of these grounds hold importance because of their burial and religious uses.

Protesters demonstrate against the Energy Transfer Partners' Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in Cannon Ball, North Dakota
DPL protestors

Credit: Reutgers

The Army Corps of Engineers had approved of the pipeline’s construction, allowing it to run through Native territory and cross under the Missouri River. And this permission for the pipeline came without the Army Corps consulting the Sioux on the matter. The disregard for Native lands and rights has resulted in a massive protest against the pipeline’s construction. Many protesters have been arrested and have been victims of police brutality.

This is not the first time that Native American rights have been ignored and denied by the federal government. Treaties that were signed between the government and Native American tribal nations have consistently been broken over centuries. There are over 500 treaties that have not been honored or recognized by the government and has resulted in much of modern day Native American poverty. In fact in 1972, an initiative called “The Trail of Broken Treaties” saw Native American and Indigenous Canadian organizations had joined together to complain to the US government for not honoring any of the signed treaties.

“We Were All Wounded At Wounded Knee”, 1973 protest song by Native American rock band Redbone

Actions of the US government towards the Native American populations were crimes against humanity. The European colonization of the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries was marked by genocide and enslavement of the indigenous populations. Diseases brought by European colonizers also resulted in massive depopulation of the Native Americans who now only make up 2.7% of the total US population.

In 1830, President Andrew Jackson, signed the Indian Removal Act which permitted American settlers to expand into Indian territory and forcibly relocate the Native populations by gunpoint west of the Mississippi River. The Trail of Tears which saw the displacement of 125,000 Native Americans was a direct result of the Removal Act. More acts passed by the US government have negatively affected the Native populations such as the 1862 Homestead Act. This act allowed for White settlers to invade Native land and claim territory with permission just through applying. Any act of retaliation that tribes did to protect their territory resulted in harsh punishment. In fact, 38 Minnesota Sioux men were hanged by the order of President Lincoln for an uprising in 1863.

Throughout history, there have been several attempts to weaken Native Americans, one of the most nefarious attempts was extermination of the bison by White hunters. Bison served as the major food, clothing and source of shelter for Plains Indians and this attack on the species would serve as a serious blow. There were millions of bison inhabiting the United States but by 1870, bison were hunted down to the point of extinction which was an act of terror on the Plains Indians. Native Americans continued to be pushed further and further westward, and placed onto the most undesirable land which were semi-arid plains; difficult for farming and raising livestock.

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Mountain of buffalo skulls

Credit: Wikipedia

Other unethical acts of the US government include The Dawes Act of 1877 which resulted in Native Americans losing millions of acres of land to the federal government. Another is the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 in which the US Army’s 7th Cavalry killed 300 unarmed Lakota Indians, including women and children. This was the Army’s reaction to the Lakota’s militant resistance to White settlers who wanted access to their lands to mine for gold. The US government allowing settlers into Lakota territory was a direct violation of the treaties that were signed with the tribe.

Today, Native Americans are the most disadvantaged minority in the United States with the lowest employment rates, lowest high school graduation rates and generally have poor and unsafe living conditions. Native American reservations are impoverished and overcrowded, access to adequate healthcare, clean water and internet access are minimal at best. Cases of crime such as murder and sexual assault are also high on reservations. Also high, are rates of heart disease, diabetes, malnutrition, alcoholism, depression and suicide. Native Americans have a shorter life expectancy than the average American.

Schools on Native American reservations are also in very poor condition despite the federal government’s responsibility to fund and overlook the schools. The education quality is significantly lower than non-Native American schools with Native students receiving lower marks than their White counterparts. The underfunding has resulted in a continuing decrease of high school graduation and a high drop rate that is double of the nation’s average. Poor education is one reason that Native Americans are continuing to struggle with poverty and employment.

In our modern days, Native Americans are fighting for better and positive presentation in the media. Apart from the cartoonish depictions which serve as mascots for sports teams and food products and noble savage stereotypes seen in westerns, and even in modern films like Disney’s Pocahontas (1995), there remains little to no representation of modern day Natives. This has led to the erroneous belief that Native Americans no longer exist as the only depictions of them are set in the historical films.

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Native American figures are still being used as mascots for sports teams and food products

The fight to ensure that Native American history is being taught in schools is still ongoing. At Rutgers University, the Rutgers Native American Cultural Association has successfully launched a Native American Cultural Center on campus. The RNACA also wants to secure a scholarship program from native students and more funding that will assist in the recruitment of more Native students. And even more importantly, is the Association’s desire to reinstate the Native American Studies program at Rutgers which had been dismantled years ago. The university has reinstated the program and approved the construction of the Native American Cultural Center.

While their presence may be ignored by many mainstream media outlets, Native Americans are still fighting for their human rights and survival as they have done for centuries. The public misconception which mistakes them as a “vanishing race” is also false. In fact they as a group are rapidly growing in population size and do not seem to be slowing down anytime soon.

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