Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Indigenous resilance and resistance

More than 5.1 million people in the US identify as fully or partially Native American or Alaska Native. (2.5 million identify fully) More than half do not live on reservations. The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs estimates that "per capita income in Indian areas is about half that of the US average, and the poverty rate is around three times higher". There are 566 federally recognised tribal entities in the US.
More than 100,000 indigenous people were forced to attend Christian boarding schools that started with President Ulysses Grant's 1869 Peace Policy and continued throughout the late 20th Century. Separated from their families, children in these schools "experienced a devastating litany of abuses, from forced assimilation and grueling labour to widespread sexual and physical abuse", recounts a 2007 Amnesty International examination.

Olowan Martinez, a 43-year-old recovering alcoholic and  mother of three, isn't paying attention to the current presidential elections. 
"Politicians give big words and big promises," she says. "When it comes down to it, the people back here on these dirt roads are forgotten." Describing alcohol as "the white man's piss", she argues that widespread alcohol and drug use were used to prevent indigenous people from organising politically: "Alcohol was used as a tool of manipulation to take our lands, take our resources - they needed to keep us drunk and deluded." Citing the high rates of alcoholism and foetal alcohol syndrome, she talks of a "liquid genocide"

At Pine Ridge, alcohol has been banned by the tribal government. Whiteclay, a town on the South Dakota-Nebraska border just three kilometres from the Pine Ridge village possesses a population of just only 12 sells an average of 13,000 cans per day, or upwards of four million a year. Whiteclay has been there for more than 100 years with one intention - to sell alcohol to Native Americans. To make matters worse, there has been the advent of narcotics, namely methamphetamines, in recent years.

The Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, which encompasses more than 2.8 million acres, was established in 1889. It is home to the Oglala Lakota, the 38,000-person tribe that is part of the Sioux people.

It has 80 to 90 percent unemployment rate with a median individual income of $4,000 a year. In 2014, more than 52 percent of the residents of Oglala Lakota lived below the poverty line. More than 80 percent of residents suffer from alcoholism. A quarter of children are born with foetal alcohol syndrome or similar conditions. The tuberculosis and diabetes rates are eight times the national averages, while the cervical cancer rate is five times more than the US average. Life expectancy - 48 years for men, 52 for women - is the second-lowest in the western hemisphere, behind only the Caribbean country Haiti.

Between December 2014 and February 2015, five local youth aged between 12 and 15 committed suicide. The streak of suicides prompted tribal officials to declare a state of emergency. Yet the suicides weren't limited to the young.

Nick Estes, a University of New Mexico PhD candidate whose research focuses on indigenous history and decolonisation, argues that the persistent problems stemming from Pine Ridge's intergenerational poverty are rooted in America's colonial history. The present-day poverty gripping many indigenous communities - on and off reservations - is firmly rooted in the historical laundry list of massacres, ethnic cleansing, land theft and broken treaties endured by indigenous people in North America, says Estes.
"The fact is that Natives are poor not because they failed at civilisation. Before colonisers came we were not considered poor. We had plenty," he argues.

Citing "the intense conditions of colonialism", Estes links this history to present-day poverty, as well as increased rates of police killings and incarceration. "It's not just something [that happened] in the past. You can't heal from something that continually inflicts wounds upon you. The trauma is continually being inflicted."

In December 29, 1890, the US army carried out one of the bloodiest massacres inflicted on indigenous people in North America at Wounded Knee, where soldiers killed between 150 and 300 Lakota led by Chief Spotted Elk (also known as Chief Big Foot) for defying the reservation borders imposed on them by American authorities. In 1973 on Pine Ridge, around 200 members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), a civil rights organisation founded in 1968, and Oglala Lakota activists occupied Wounded Knee to protest against a political crackdown by tribal president Dick Wilson. In 1977, AIM activist Leonard Peltier was sentenced to two consecutive life terms in prison for allegedly killing two FBI agents in Oglala, a town on Pine Ridge, two years earlier. Amnesty International and other rights groups have cited "concerns about the fairness" of his trial and conviction, and many activists consider Peltier a political prisoner.

Jerome High Horse, a 66-year-old from Pine Ridge's Wanblee village, helps his neighbours. "That's how we operate. We all take care of each other. I grew up with that concept. I was always led to believe that, as Indian people, we're going to be treated different because of who we are. If there's one value we have, it's to look out for each other. That way of life is a good way of life."

Olowan Martinez says the Pine Ridge reservation shouldn't be the subject of pity.  "They tried to wipe us out, they stuck us on this reservation, this POW camp, and thought we're going to die off. But this is our land. We were made from this land. So, we survive and here we are today. We're still here."

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