Native Americans — the 6.8 million people who make up about 2% of the U.S. population — have faced myriad critical issues throughout history but also in modern life.
In fact, this past summer marked the first-ever Native American presidential forum, where Democratic presidential candidates (including U.S. senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Kamala Harris) met with tribal leaders in Sioux City, Iowa, to discuss everything from health care to violence against women.
“It’s great to finally get a lot of acknowledgment that Native Americans still exist, are still very much a part of civic engagement and not an erased people,” Elizabeth Day, an enrolled member of the Ojibwe tribe, said at the forum, according to the Des Moines Register.
Here are five important issues that Native American tribes are grabbling with today.
When it comes to health care, Native Americans are at a severe disadvantage when compared with the general US population. Not only are American Indians and Alaska Natives dying at a higher rate than other Americans in categories including chronic liver disease, diabetes millitus, homicide, and suicide, but their life expectancy is about 5.5 years less as well, according to the Indian Health Service (IHS), which provides health care to members of the 573 federally recognized tribes.
The IHS itself has been labeled as an underfunded organization that is unable to serve all the needs of tribal members.
High school graduation rates for Native Americans are significantly lower than the general U.S. population, at 67% compared with 80%, respectively. As with the Indian Health Service, many of the issues stem from inadequate resources.
“Nobody can visit one of these schools and not say, ‘We need to fix this,'” Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) said at a 2015 hearing, where he noted issues such as broken water heaters and damaged floors, according to U.S. News and World Report.
The conflicts over tribal land go as far back as European settlement in the United States, but modern tribes have their own challenges as well.
Tribal members who live on reservations cannot buy or sell their land, which is held “in trust” for the tribe by the federal government. There have also been disputes throughout the years among tribes, states, and the federal government concerning the natural resources on or near tribal land.
For example, in the above photo, an elderly member of the Navajo Nation receives her monthly water delivery. Because of disputes concerning water rights and other issues, “up to 40% of Navajo Nation households don’t have clean running water.”
Violence against women
Violence against Native American women, sadly, is a pervasive problem among tribes. “More than 4 in 5 American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence, and more than 1 in 2 have experienced sexual violence,” according to the Indian Law Resource Center. Not only that, but women on some reservations are murdered at a rate of 10 times the national average.
The problem also extends to Native children who experience violence in their lives. Those kids “suffer rates of PTSD three times higher than the rest of the general population,” the Indian Law Resource Center also reports.
The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2019 was passed earlier this year in the House of Representatives. The act enhances “legal tools to combat domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking,” and improves services for victims. It has yet to come to a vote in the Senate.
Loss of tribal language
While most Native Americans today primarily speak English, many tribes are making a concerted effort to teach members their native language. Tribes including the Arapahoe (pictured above), Cherokee, and Muscogee (Creek) Nation offer language classes, apps, and other resources to help their members keep the words alive.
After all, as W. Richard West Jr. (Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma), the founding director of the National Museum of the American Indian, said: “Language is central to cultural identity. It is the code containing the subtleties and secrets of cultural life.”