Native Lives Matter: Don't They?

On December 4th, the US Army announced that they would halt the Dakota pipeline from crossing under Lake Oahe in North Dakota. This was good news, yet, sadly, it didn't last long. Yesterday, President Trump signed executive actions to approve both the Dakota pipeline, which was originally halted, and the Keystone pipeline, which was stopped in 2015 by the White house. For Native Americans, whether past or present, this is business as usual.

                                                              Typical Native American Halloween costumes

In a country that has, for the most part, erased the Native American presence from the mainstream of society, and instead, has relegated the native community to surviving on in racist caricatures of high school, college, and professional sports teams, in addition, to weathering the predictable Halloween costumes every October 31st, where someone's girlfriend is dressed up in skimpy “tribal” attire with a feather tied behind her head, do native lives actually matter to us? Most Americans would probably say, “yes, they do matter”, however, actions carry more weight than words do, and based on our past and present actions towards this particular group of people, the answer is likely, something very different.

Scholars have a hard time agreeing on the exact native population pre-Columbus, yet, whatever that number was, it is now somewhere around 5 million. What happened in between this period is well documented: diseases were brought over by the Europeans, and sometimes intentionally inflicted, which wiped out around 90% of the population, a litany of massacres further gashed the native population, broken treaty after broken treaty (more than 370 in fact) expanded US territory, and the list can go on a while longer. With that being said, the historical atrocities that have helped shape the current condition of Native Americans is one thing, however, what about today?

Presently, Native Americans make up around 0.8 percent of the United States, and yet, comprise about 2 percent of police killings. Thus, natives are the group most likely to die at the hands of law enforcement (Blacks make up 13% and comprise 26 percent of deaths by law enforcement, and are second most likely.) Latinos, Whites, and Asians follow afterwards, in that particular order. Also, according to BJS reports, almost 90 percent of violence perpetrated against Native American women are by non-Natives.

Nevertheless, police brutality aside, Native Americans currently face a variety of other problems. These include, but are not limited to: prison overrepresentation (over 4 times the rate of white men), widespread poverty (24% of Natives live in poverty, 32% of those 18 and younger Natives live in poverty), and staggering suicide rates (young Native American men constituted twice the rate of other racial groups). Not to mention, that last year the state of South Dakota was found guilty of regularly violating federal law and taking Native American children from their families and placing them in foster care.

There were even cases where the court found that native children were sometimes removed from their families in hearings that didn’t even last 60 seconds, and in situations where the parents could neither speak nor be told the grounds for their children's removal. NPR ran a piece on this phenomenon in 2011, where they stated that, “Nearly 700 Native American children are being removed from their homes every year, sometimes under questionable circumstances”. Why was such a thing happening? One plausible reason, could be the fact that the state received a financial stipend—in the form of thousands of dollars—each time a child was taken from a family, and as NPR further reported, there were even cases where additional money was given if the child was native.

Past or present, natives have been pushed to the edge of society and forced to look on as the world, largely, does not blink an eye in their direction, no matter how troubling their reality is. Even now, how likely is it that most Americans are even aware of these sorts of troubles that afflict the native community? Not likely, and even if they did know would they care? After all, around half of our country just elected a man who personally denigrated just about every minority group in this country, not once, but multiple times.

Moreover, even if they did care, it is well documented that natives do not receive the media representation that other minority groups receive. So how would empathetic Americans show their support, when they don’t even know there’s an issue in the first place? This is further exemplified in a study entitled, “Frozen in Time: The Impact of Native American Media Representations on Identity and Self-Understanding” that was published in Journalist's Resource. The study showed that even though American Indians and Alaskan Natives together make up about 2 percent of the country, they only accounted for 0 to 0.4 percent of TV or movie characters. Additionally, according to the study, “the lack of accurate representation is heightened by the fact that the average U.S. resident experiences nearly no direct, daily interaction with Native Americans.”     

Bill Day cartoon, illustrating the blatant racism of a Redskins name and logo

Bill Day cartoon, illustrating the blatant racism of a Redskins name and logo

Still, even if non-native contact with Native Americans is low, and representation in media is scarce, it's ridiculous that until the Dakota pipeline protest became a national issue, natives weren’t even a part of the national conversation on racial injustice. Furthermore, the lack of media representation, when added to the very intentional, miseducation that most Americans received throughout elementary, middle and high school, in regards to natives (you know, such as the thanksgiving myth: the picture of the natives and pilgrims in warm-hearted unity), has given us deeply flawed perceptions and lazy generalizations of Native Americans. It is what encourages many non-native men and women, to dress up as a variety of Native American stereotypes for Halloween without understanding the offense behind such things, and it is also what leads people to make up excuses for why the name/logo “Redskins” is perfectly okay for a nearly 3 billion dollar football brand, while an appropriately worn Bomani Jones t-shirt entitled: “Caucasians”, that protested the racist Cleveland Indians logo, wasted no time in pissing off segments of our country. It is what turns a historically and culturally, multi-faceted people into a wardrobe of, distasteful at best, gimmicks and jokes.

However, it doesn’t end there.

The effects of inadequate media representation leads to even greater consequences for Native Americans: it leaves them invisible, and thus, easy targets for any kind of affliction, especially police brutality. Because, as a group of people rendered largely invisible and voiceless, who will know or care about there problems, besides them? This is exemplified in direct comparison with the black community, because although both blacks and natives suffer from police brutality at the highest of rates, at least we, in the black community, have names like Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castille, and Alton Sterling: all of whom, are quite well known, no matter what community you come from, because of all the media coverage (long overdue). As a result, at least we have millions of people from a variety of nations around the world that know about these names: that marched, protested, and cried over these names. At least we have a number of people that actually seem to care.

 Nevertheless, what about these names: John T Williams, Ma-hi-vist Goodblanket, Christina Tahhahwah, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Renee Davis, Paul Castaway, and Jacqueline Salyers. How many of us can say we recognize them, even though they too, were made to bear the burden of police brutality? Where is the acknowledgement, on the part of the media, as to the lack of coverage that has been given to Native Americans and the systematic problems they face, and how this lack of coverage affects them? Most importantly, what are we saying when we as a country refuse to give any semblance of a voice to our country’s foremost inhabitants, and instead nonchalantly demand that they suffer in silence with no efficient way to articulate their pain to the rest of the world? We, in effect, say: “your lives matter, just not to us”.