Poverty on Native American Reserves

MEDWAY, Massachusetts – Native Americans are among the poorest citizens in the United States. Not surprisingly, the Pine Ridge Reservation and the Rosebud Native American Reservation are located in the two poorest counties in the United States. However, these two reserves are home to some of the most resilient people in the country. Native Americans remain a cornerstone of American history as well as of America today.

Poverty among Native Americans

When it comes to extreme poverty on Native American reservations, the US government plays an important role. The Indian Removal Act forced Native Americans to the west in 1830. It divided the tribes into reservations in the west, which contained very poor land and mandated rationed resources from the government. As a result, many Native Americans plunged into poverty almost instantly.

Today, 50% of residents on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota live below the poverty line of $ 22,314 needed to support a family of four. In the Pine Ridge reservation, also in South Dakota, the situation is even more serious because “97% of the population lives well below the US federal poverty line”. The median income on the Pine Ridge Reservation averages between $ 2,600 and $ 3,500 per year. Why do Native Americans live in such extreme poverty?

Reserves throughout the United States are consistently labeled as depleted and characterized by a number of contributing socio-economic issues. However, the Pine Ridge Reservation and the Rosebud Native American Reservation are in the worst circumstances. For example, there are no significant industries on the Pine Ridge Reservation to provide reliable employment. Indeed, the unemployment rate on the reserve is 90%. Education is another major issue, as the Pine Ridge Reservation has a 70% dropout rate. In addition, “life expectancy is only 48 years for men and 52 years for women”. This is in part due to violence, suicide and alcohol-related accidents.

Government policies perpetuating poverty among Native Americans

Many government policies have perpetuated poverty on Native American reservations. These policies were still in effect in 2016.

  1. Land ownership: Native Americans do not own their land. Instead, the government is doing it. In addition to the inability to claim land on reserves, Native Americans generally do not even own their homes. For this reason, they cannot mortgage their wealth for bank loans like the majority of Americans. This makes it almost impossible for many to start their own business. Even among the tribes who own natural resources, many still remain trapped in poverty because the resources represent “dead capital”. The government really owns the money raised from these tribes, not the tribe.
  2. Economic development: The government controls almost all parts of economic development on reserve. Any development project by reservation must receive government approval. This is an extremely slow and complicated process, which often takes several years. Companies must go through a minimum of “four federal agencies and 49 steps to obtain an energy development permit”.
  3. Legal restrictions: Reserves have complex legal restrictions that limit economic growth. “Fractional land ownership” through federal inheritance laws “required that many Indian lands be passed equally to multiple heirs. After several generations, these lands have become so fragmented that there are often hundreds of owners per plot. Management of these fractional lands is almost impossible, and much of the land remains unused. “
  4. Native American assets: The US government has repeatedly compromised the value of Native American assets. In the past, Native Americans had no control over their resources. Since the Office of Indian Affairs established warrants, it has undervalued Native American resources on numerous occasions. A federal commission reviewing the agreements in 1977 found that the valuations were among the poorest deals ever made in American history.

One mind

One Spirit is a South Dakota-based nonprofit organization. He provides firewood and food for hundreds of people on the Pine Ridge Reservation. In order to address health issues, such as diabetes, heart disease, and malnutrition, One Spirit has developed a dietary program to alleviate these health issues while remaining true to the sense of the Lakota community. The organization is primarily run by Native Americans from many tribes who work together to help the Oglala Lakota.

Prior to the development of One Spirit’s firewood program, many families feared they would survive the winter. Residents burned anything in the past to stay warm, including clothes and shoes. One Spirit’s food program is unique in that “it mainly offers fresh produce and locally raised meat.” This fits with the nonprofit organization’s goal of reducing health concerns on the reservation.

The food program also hopes to teach the Lakota about the traditional diet of their culture through the “Bring back the buffalo” campaign. “The campaign aims to increase the number of buffaloes on the Pine Ridge Reservation, provide jobs at a meat and food processing plant for families in need.

Global volunteers

Global Volunteers, an international non-profit organization, sends volunteers to the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota each year during the summer. Teams of volunteers work with residents to “chop and store firewood for distribution during the freezing winter months, help repair houses and organize ‘sports and arts camps’ for the children.” Volunteers have a major impact in helping residents of the reserve by helping to dramatically reduce repair and resource costs while empowering residents how much they matter.

Global Volunteers is also focusing on food insecurity in the Rosebud Reserve. Most food comes from off the reserve, and the majority of school-aged children receive only one healthy meal per day. Upon arrival, volunteers distribute food to residents to help combat the fact that the Rosebud Reserve is a “food desert”. Through its work, Global Volunteers is making major strides in improving the quality of life on the reserve.

US bailout law

The American Rescue Plan Act provided more than $ 31 billion in federal funding to Indigenous communities in March 2021. It was the largest one-time investment in Native American programs in the nation’s history. The new funding has given Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Hawaiians new avenues to fight the impact of COVID on their communities.

Reducing poverty on the Pine Ridge Reservation and the Rosebud Native Reservation is no small feat. However, the success of poverty reduction programs on these reserves are examples of the hope and future success that is possible on all reserves across the country.

Curtis McGonigle
Photo: Pixnio

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