In the summer of 2012 I journeyed to the remote town of Show-Low, Arizona as part of an attempt to fulfill my duties of racking up volunteer hours for the IB program. The group’s mission was to improve the infrastructure of a school for Apache children. My personal mission was to get in and get out as soon as possible while avoiding the annoyingly Christian group I was traveling with as much as possible. When the plane landed in Arizona my biggest worry was that my Cuban skin couldn’t possibly handle over a week of exposure to air this dry. After hours of a nauseating van ride up the Arizona Mountains we stopped to climb rock cliffs, I guess to help the Native Americans. Later that night we arrived at the school. The first thing I remember seeing on the reservation was the middle aged white man who greeted us wearing a Palin 2012 shirt, to which the only appropriate response was, “Lord give me strength.”
The following day I was woken from my slumber at a toasty 6:15 in the morning to pickaxe a dirt road because it was too hard and dry to use shovels. After a lunch break we ventured to the heart of the Apache reservation to spend some quality time with the children of the tribe. This was the first direct experience to truly extreme poverty of my life. At that point in my existence, most of my perception of the Native American community was based on pop culture and the media; essentially I was just another ignorant, middle class, liberal American.
But the reality was disturbing. Their clothing and hygiene were atrocious, and a traditional tepee would have been more luxurious than most of the houses I saw there. Many of the children had either one or no parents, and some of those with a parent experienced some sort of abuse. One child in particular had no shoes, torn clothing, and his home looked as if it was a poorly built shed that was abandoned 30 or so years ago. I had entered a dystopic wasteland right in the heart of the wealthiest nation in the world. As that first day ended I had forgotten my petty problems like withstanding dry weather and waking up early and I had gained a greater understanding of the strife of the poor. I wondered how on earth a once spiritual, vibrant culture had been reduced to being defined by poverty and crippling alcoholism.
The next few days of labor were unproductive as much of our time was spent doing leisurely activities or teaching Christianity to the kids. What they needed was food, water, clothing, shelter and other basic needs that the majority of Americans enjoy, not the teachings of the Lord which they’ve heard for hundreds of years. Then we stayed 2 days at the Grand Canyon. So, in total, 4 of 7 days on a trip in the name of humanitarianism were actually spent helping anyone but ourselves. It was the textbook definition of humanitourism. We saw the poor, took pictures with the poor, and spent a small portion of time with the poor, but did we really help anyone in the long term?
What I witnessed in Arizona is not unique to the Apache tribe. There are massive disparities when comparing the wealth of average Americans and the Natives of all tribes. They have more problems with disease rates, mortality rates and illegal substance abuse than any other demographic in the US. And, of course, to compliment that they have awful health care coverage, with just 2/3 having any. Furthermore, Native Americans make under half the average salaries of US citizens, have a suicide rate twice as high as the rest of the country, and are four times as likely to die of alcohol related disease than their white counterparts. These statistics depict a people who experience extreme poverty and discrimination no doubt a result from the confiscation of 95% of their land and the relentless efforts to destroy their culture.
The Civilization Fund Act of 1819 was the first act of the US government explicitly aimed at destroying the culture of the Native Americans. The act stimulated the development of “benevolent societies” providing education for the Natives through a combination of Christian missions and federal oversight. The Act created a social structure in the Native populations as the more “progressive” population attended the benevolent societies, while the “backwards” population did not. This is the same type of stratification employed by colonialists everywhere, from Kenya to Kentucky.
Indians were forced from their land by decree of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which marked the Trail of Tears which saw thousands perish along the way from their native lands to government determined reservations. The 1851 Indian Appropriations Act forced them to Oklahoma, but the constant scrimmage between the natives and settlers forced the 1860 Peace Policy, which tried to decrease tensions, by forcing the assimilation of the natives through Christian missionary deployment. The Dawes Act of 1887 allowed the President to give land to individual Indians and those that accepted the land apart from their tribes were given US citizenship, a commodity not seen by the average Native until 1924.
The 1950’s saw a continuation of this movement of Indian Termination. House Concurrent Resolution 108, passed in 1953, made official this policy by terminating the recognition of 109 tribes and cutting off their federal funding and healthcare provisions associated with being associated with a tribe. Public Law 280 allowed states to have previously excluded jurisdiction over reservations, save for some special exceptions. The Indian Relocation Act of 1956 encouraged Native Americans to leave the reservation and assimilate into American society by decreasing subsidies to reservations and providing funding to relocate as well as vocational training.
The policy changed in 1975 to one of self-determination, with the aptly named Indian Self Determination and Educational Assistance Act. The Act once again allowed the federal and state governments to enter into contracts with tribes. And although funding was restarted for many tribes that lost it, they were not allowed to reallocate funds from where they were initially given to adapt to changing needs on the reservation.
Currently, there exist 310 reservations in the United States covering 2.3% of the area of the country. But there are 550 officially recognized tribes, meaning that some reservations are shared, and some tribes lack a reservation at all. Of the 2.5 million Native Americans still around today, about 1 million live on reservations, with poor access to basic needs of clean water and hygienic shelter, though alcohol, legalized for sale on reservations only after alcoholism crippled populations and revenue was lost to liquor stores off the reservation, and gambling abounds.
It’s no secret that the people who originally owned the land we now take for granted got screwed over back when the US was a new nation going through a violent and imperialistic period of manifest destiny. But why in this age has the US not fixed the atrocious acts it committed? And although Native Americans make up only 1 percent of the population, why do they get little to no media attention even though their problems surpass every other demographic in the US? It seems as if the attitude of the government and the people of the US towards the Native Americans is out of sight, out of mind. Their problems don’t affect the outcome of our lives so why should we bother dealing with them? Care is denied simply due to a lack of morality on the part of the government and a lack of awareness by the general population.
Now I’m not saying it makes fiscal or political sense to even pay attention to these people, let alone give Native Americans aid, but it is the moral duty of the US to provide care to the people in this region. If it weren’t for the United States’ violent rampage of the 18th century these impoverished people could be flourishing. The US has a responsibility to maintain a certain standard of living for the people who have suffered under the radar and boot of American hegemony for all these years. And there’s nothing stopping us from doing something about it but our own deliberate ignorance.