A few weeks ago I provided a link (and hopefully some of you followed it) to a telling study produced by the non-profit think tank, Public Agenda. Walking a Mile certainly corroborated what I’d discovered in my reporting of December’s ASBJ cover story: Very few non-Indians understand the issues, challenges, and misconceptions American Indians face.
I include myself in that group. I knew that Native Americans had treaty rights, but I didn’t how that started, what it meant, and how it affects life for American Indians today. I had some vague sense that the federal government had entered into agreements with hundreds of distinct indigenous tribes in exchange for land many, many years ago.
But I didn’t know what the government had promised, and even more importantly, if it had honored those promises. A 2003 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights shows they have not. “A Quiet Crisis,” which reviewed the budgets of the six main federal agencies tasked with serving the 562 federally recognized tribes, is, to put it mildly, shocking.
Here a just a few of their findings:
Slightly more than a quarter of Native Americans enjoy medical benefits through an employer; most rely on the Indian Health Service. Yet annually, IHS spends 60 percent less on its recipients than the average per person health care expenditure nationwide. In fact, the government spends less than any other group it has direct health care responsibility for, including veterans, Medicaid recipients, and prisoners. Is it any wonder then that American Indians have higher rates of diseases like tuberculosis, diabetes, and alcoholism resulting in a life expectancy that is lower than any other racial/ethnic group?
Of the roughly 4.5 million American Indians in the U.S., less than half a million live on reservations, land held in trust by the government. The housing situation on the reservations is grim, with about 40 percent of homes deemed inadequate compared to 6 percent nationally.
Today, less than 10 percent of American Indian children attend schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs — a complete turnabout from a half-century earlier. Maybe it’s because in 2004, BIA schools spent about $3,000 per student, less than half the amount spent in public schools. Or could it be that BIA schools are generally in worse condition than schools nationally, even inner-city schools, with the backlog of needed repairs and construction tallied at close to $1 billion in 2001.
But what about all the benefits tribes receive, you ask, like tax exemption and the power to run casinos? Tribes are not exempt from paying taxes and, in fact, often pay more than their share. A study by the Arizona Commission on Indian Affairs, for example, found that for every dollar the state spent on a tribe, nearly $42 was returned through taxes levied on businesses on the reservation and sales tax on items bought by American Indians off the reservation.
For more details, visit the report at www.usccr.gov/pubs/na0703/na0731.pdf .
Naomi Dillon, Senior Editor