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“Aborigines, n. Persons of little worth found
cumbering the soil of a newly discovered country.
They soon cease to cumber; they fertilize.”
Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

Native Americans

The indigenous peoples of the United States include a vast array of distinct groups that fall under the generally accepted designation of Native Americans, which include American Indians and Alaska Natives; also included are the people indigenous to Hawaii, or Native Hawaiians. These indigenous peoples form tribes or nations – terms used interchangeably – and other communities with distinctive cultural and political attributes.

The United States presently recognizes and maintains what it refers to as government-to-government relations with approximately 566 American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and villages, around 230 of these being Alaskan Native groups. For the most part each of these tribes and villages determines its own membership. While having some form of federal recognition, Native Hawaiians do not have a similar status under United States law as that of American Indians and Alaska Native groups. Many other groups in the United States that identify as indigenous peoples have not been federally recognized, although some of these have achieved recognition at the state level.

Today, according to United States census data people who identify as Native American represent approximately 1.7 per cent of the overall population of the United States, with 5.2 million persons identifying as American Indian or Alaska Native, either alone or in combination with one or more other races. It should be noted that this number significantly exceeds the number of those who are enrolled or registered members of federally recognized indigenous groups. In addition, there are roughly a half a million persons that identify entirely or partly as Native Hawaiians.

Within the United States stereotypes persist that tend to render Native Americans relics of the past, perpetuated by the use of Indian names by professional and other high-profile sports teams, caricatures in the popular media and even mainstream education on history and social studies.

When European settlers arrived on the North American continent at the end of the fifteenth century, they encountered diverse Native American cultures—as many as 300 different languages. These people, whose ancestors crossed the land bridge from Asia in what may be considered the first North American immigration, were virtually destroyed by the subsequent immigration that created the United States. This tragedy is the direct result of treaties, written and broken by foreign governments, of warfare, and of forced assimilation.

Estimates of pre-contact American populations vary between 8 and 112 million (2 to 12 million for North America), and estimates of total mortality range from 7 to 100 million. Whatever the exact numbers, the mortality was unprecedented and overwhelming.

American Indians struggled with ill health even before Europeans arrived. Although pre-Columbian populations were spared the ravages of smallpox, measles, influenza, and many other infections, they did not inhabit a disease-free paradise. Careful analyses of skeletal remains have revealed many diseases, including tuberculosis and pneumonia.1 Whereas some populations, such as those of coastal Georgia or Brazil, enjoyed excellent health, many American Indian groups stretched their environments past the limits of sustainability. From the arid southwest to the crowded urban centers of Mexico and Peru, malnutrition, disease, and violence kept life expectancies below 25 years of age.

The mortality was not completely one-sided. Half of the Ply-mouth colonists died during the first winter. Of 6000 colonists sent to Jamestown between 1607 and 1624, only 1200 remained in 1625. Despite their own mortality, explorers and colonists marveled at disparities in disease susceptibility.

In 1786, the United States established its first Native American reservation and approached each tribe as an independent nation. This policy remained intact for more than one hundred years. But as President James Monroe noted in his second inaugural address in 1821, treating Native Americans this way “flattered their pride, retarded their improvement, and in many instances paved the way to their destruction.”

President Andrew Jackson in his first inaugural address in 1829, when he emphasized his desire “to observe toward the Indian tribes within our limits a just and liberal policy, and to give that humane and considerate attention to their rights and their wants which is consistent with the habits of our Government and the feelings of our people.” Yet, only fourteen months later, Jackson prompted Congress to pass the Removal Act, a bill that forced Native Americans to leave the United States and settle in the Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River.

Many Cherokee tribes banded together as an independent nation, and challenged this legislation in U.S. courts. In 1832, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Cherokees, but some tribes still signed treaties giving the federal government the legal authority to "assist" them in their move to the Indian Territory.

In 1838, as the deadline for removal approached, thousands of federal soldiers and Georgia volunteers entered the territory and forcibly relocated the Cherokees. Americans hunted, imprisoned, raped, and murdered Native Americans. Cherokees surviving the onslaught were forced on a 1,000-mile march to the established Indian Territory with few provisions. Approximately 4,000 Cherokees died on this “Trail of Tears.”

The expansion of the United States that encroached upon Native American lands occurred faster than many policymakers had predicted with events such as the Mexican-American War in 1848 placing new territories and tribes under federal jurisdiction. A government report, The Indians of Southern California in 1852, explained that many Californians believed “destiny had awarded California to the Americans to develop” and that if the Indians “interfered with progress they should be pushed aside.”

Although Native Americans eventually gained citizenship, they received federal support for two more decades. In the 1950s, however, the Bureau of Indian Affairs terminated federal services and placed the responsibility for Native Americans on state governments. Between 1952 and 1956, the bureau also sold 1.6 million acres of Native American land to developers. Political protests by organizations such as the American Indian Movement (AIM) call attention to the chronic unemployment and political disenfranchisement of Native Americans.

Native Americans, especially on reservations, have disproportionately high poverty rates, rising to nearly double the national average. Along with poverty, Native Americans suffer poor health conditions, with low life expectancy and high rates of disease, illness, alcoholism and suicide.6 As for education, 77 per cent of Native Americans aged 25 or older hold a high school diploma or alternative credential as compared with 86 per cent of the general population, while 13 per cent of Native Americans hold a basic university degree as compared to 28 per cent of the general population. Indigenous peoples also face disproportionate rates of incarceration, and rates of violent crime on Indian reservations exceed those of any other racial group and are double the national average.

Disparities in health status between American Indians and other groups in the United States have persisted throughout the 500 years since Europeans arrived in the Americas. Colonists, traders, missionaries, soldiers, physicians, and government officials have struggled to explain these disparities, invoking a wide range of possible causes. American Indians and Alaska Natives born today have a life expectancy that is 4.4 years less than the U.S. all races population (73.7 years to 78.1 years, respectively).

The American Indian and Alaska Native people have long experienced lower health status when compared with other Americans. Lower life expectancy and the disproportionate disease burden exist perhaps because of inadequate education, disproportionate poverty, discrimination in the delivery of health services, and cultural differences. These are broad quality of life issues rooted in economic adversity and poor social conditions. Diseases of the heart, malignant neoplasm, unintentional injuries, and diabetes are leading causes of American Indian and Alaska Native deaths (2008-2010).

American Indians and Alaska Natives continue to die at higher rates than other Americans in many categories, including chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, diabetes mellitus, unintentional injuries, assault/homicide, intentional self-harm/suicide, and chronic lower respiratory diseases.

The Government took a step that could be one on a path toward reconciliation, when in 2010 Congress adopted a resolution of apology to the indigenous peoples of the country, following in the spirit of the apology previously issued to Native Hawaiians. Acknowledging widespread wrongdoing, the Apology states: “The United States, acting through Congress … apologizes on behalf of the people of the United States for the many instances of violence, maltreatment and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States [and] expresses its regret”. The apology also “urges the President to acknowledge the wrongs of the United States against Indian tribes in the history of the United States in order to bring healing to this land.” The full text of the apology bears reading. However, strangely, the apology was buried deep in a defense appropriations act, and apparently few indigenous people, much less the public in general, were made aware of it.

November is National American Indian Heritage Month. What started at the turn of the century as an effort to gain a day of recognition for the significant contributions the first Americans made to the establishment and growth of the US, resulted in a whole month being designated for that purpose. The first American Indian Day in a state was declared on the second Saturday in May 1916 by the governor of New York. In 1990 President George H. W. Bush approved a joint resolution designating November 1990 “National American Indian Heritage Month.” Similar proclamations, under variants on the name (including “Native American Heritage Month” and “National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month”) have been issued each year since 1994.

Columbus Day is celebrated on the second Monday in October annually in the United States. It became a federal holiday in 1937, and a fair share of government and service offices are closed on this day. However, observance of Columbus Day across the US varies from state to state and region to region with a few states not recognizing the holiday at all. Some states and municipalities have chosen to celebrate the second Monday in October with Indigenous Peoples’ Day to honor those who lived on the continent prior to the arrival of the Europeans.

In recent years, there has been momentum building in the US for Indigenous Peoples’ Day with the state of Vermont and the city of Phoenix recently joining other places that celebrate the diverse cultures that thrived on the continent before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Chicanos (politically conscious Mexican Americans) and Latinos have been instrumental in advancing the day of recognition in solidarity with Native American brothers and sisters, which is important given the government’s attempt to "Hispanicize" a community with substantial Native American heritage with recognitions such as Hispanic Heritage Month.

Tribal people for generations have suffered discrimination by a dominant society. “There’s a strange paradigm of people wanting to pursue cultures that aren’t theirs,” said Ben Barnes, second Chief of the Shawnee Tribe in Oklahoma. “But they step over the line when they start claiming to be those ethnicities and speaking for people of those ethnicities.”

Native Rights advocate Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee) has worked for decades to remove Native American references and mascots in American sports. “With so many fine traditions of their own, why do the Boy Scouts have to steal ours?” she asked in a written statement to VOA. “They can learn, teach and promote survival and life skills without ‘playing Indian.’”

Boy Scouts, like sports teams, frequently insist that “Indianizing” and mascotry honor Native Americans. But Oglala Lakota journalist James Giago Davies doesn’t accept that excuse. “It is belied by the fact that when the Indian objects, they become indignant and insulting and dismissive. If you truly honored Indians, you wouldn’t react that way,” he said. Davies finds it particularly offensive when Scouts stage ceremonies which are directly attached to tribal identity and spirituality. “What if the Boy Scouts were Protestants and dressed up like Catholic nuns and priests just for the fun of it?” he asked. “People would be outraged.”

The BSA said the organization "cherishes the rich cultures of Native American tribes, and we teach youth to honor and respect the heritage of all people. We have a long and respectful relationship with Native American tribes throughout the U.S. — relationships that we deeply value and learn from constantly.”

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Page last modified: 01-05-2022 16:44:35 ZULU