Working-class unity to fight back
On the rare occasions that ruling-class politicians, media commentators and academics acknowledge the history of genocide committed against Native Americans, this oppression is always presented as a thing of the past. They often take a tone of pity or even remorse.
Their false sympathy is easy to expose in their neglect for Native people’s present-day struggle. In reality, the land, living conditions and national rights of Native people are still under unrelenting attack. At each stage of this attack, Native Americans have also regrouped and resisted, drawing upon centuries of resistance to creatively and militantly confront the problems of the day.
The massive federal spending cuts known as the “sequester” has put a spotlight on this super-oppression of Indigenous people, and sparked new organizing.
Indian Health Services, a federal program that provides health care to Native people on and off the reservations, stands to lose well over $200 million in 2013 alone. Even before the sequester, these services were already inadequate, and served only half of Native Americans living in the United States.
Cuts to education spending will also impact Native youth, who also have the lowest rate of graduation of all national groups in the United States. Native students mostly attend public schools that rely heavily on federal funds to operate. Sequestration cuts will impact their schools with cuts to staffing and other vital services.
Block grants for Native housing and housing loan guarantees have also been affected. The Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs is dealing with a reduced budget and Environmental Protection Agency tribal grants are subject to the cuts.
Floyd Azure, Tribal Chairman at the Fort Peck reservation in Montana, reflected on the government’s hypocrisy saying, “The ones who are supposed to help us the most, hurt us the most… This is disgraceful.”
A diverse and growing sector of U.S. society
In the media and in most U.S. classrooms, Native people are often presented as if they scarcely exist.
In reality, the 2010 Census identified nearly 3 million people solely as Native American and another 2.3 million reported Native ancestry in combination with other ethnicities. These numbers have grown in the last century, and by 27 percent from 2000 to 2010. In five states—Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Dakota—Native people are the largest non-white population. Eleven states have Native populations of over 100,000, and California is the largest with over 700,000.
The composition and conditions of Native peoples, of course, vary widely based on their unique histories. For instance, 87 percent of Navajo people — the second-largest group — live in the Navajo Nation. By contrast, 78 percent of Native people nationwide live outside of a reservation and 70 percent live in urban areas.
During the era of colonization, the U.S. ruling class blatantly massacred Indigenous people, carrying out genocide and forced expulsion as the mechanism for land theft and national expansion.
While the military side of these genocidal policies is largely complete, the social costs of this historical and continued oppression now take the form of sky-high poverty rates, teen suicide, alcoholism, diabetes, domestic violence and other deadly symptoms.
According to a study by the U.S. Census Bureau, between 2007 and 2011 poverty rates among Native people was as high as 50 percent in Rapid City, South Dakota, and over 30 percent in five other cities that had a large Indigenous population. Reservations in remote areas of the country offer few employment opportunities, leaving youth—as in other impoverished areas of the country—to turn to drugs, alcohol and violence as a way out.
One of the most serious health problems facing Native people is diabetes. Traditional Native diets, typically considered of a higher nutritional quality, have been uprooted by generations of corporate agricultural development and displacement, along with processed foods that are cheaper and more readily available. Historically, the government’s imposition of flour, coffee, sugar and dairy products—through rations—led to dramatic, negative changes in Indigenous people’s health.
Domestic violence, including rape, is a major issue facing women in Native communities. There have also been a string of incidents in which Native women who live on reservations have been raped by non-Native men, who target them because they can use jurisdictional limitations, and the well-known neglect of local police, to escape and avoid prosecution.
Teen suicide is another epidemic facing Indigenous nations. Native youth are over three times more likely to kill themselves than other young people. This is a result of rape committed against young girls, lack of opportunity, despair in the face of cultural genocide, alcoholism and a lack of mental health services.
All these conditions can only be expected to worsen in the face of dramatically reduced social services.
Uniting the fight for social services and Native self-determination
The most reactionary mouthpieces of the ruling class dismiss the plight of Native people as a symptom of cultural inferiority. Some liberal politicians, noting how the U.S. government is directly responsible, will call for restored social spending to alleviate the burdens they face.
But restoring the pre-sequester oppressive conditions is no answer. At present the Democratic Party is considering, in the form of a “bi-partisan compromise,” to make permanent the sequester cuts and adopt key aspects of the Republican Party’s economic program, including cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
All progressive organizations must mobilize against the pending attack on poor and working people. By putting front and center the situation facing Native and other oppressed communities, such a fight-back can point the way to a whole new society, in which the working class is in control and Native people win the lasting justice and self-determination they have long been denied.