Kelly H. graduated college and teaches on her home reservation, Navajo.
In the midst of the hot, long summer days when children are free from classrooms, school is often the last thing on everyone’s minds. And unfortunately, that thinking can bleed into the school year, as many youth do not see postsecondary education (or college) as a realistic goal. Seemingly, nor should they, based on the raw numbers alone.
Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy, co-director of the Pueblo Indian doctoral-training project (spearheaded by Arizona State University’s School of Social Transformation and Santa Fe Indian School’s Leadership Institute), said in an Arizona Republic article that “of 100 Alaskan or Native Americans who start ninth grade, 48 will graduate from high school, 20 will go on to postsecondary education, and only one will finish a bachelor’s degree within six years of starting. One in 2,500 Natives earns a master’s degree, and one in 7,000 earns a Ph.D.” In another report by the U.S. Census and based on 2006-2010 data, 13 percent of Native Americans hold bachelor’s degrees.
But, things are starting to change, thanks to programs like the Pueblo Indian doctoral-training project that graduated a cohort of 10 Ph.D. students at Arizona State University in May; this is believed to be one of the largest groups of Native Americans to earn doctorates at the same time and place.
Aaron S. graduated college and pursued his Master’s in physical therapy.
The new reality is that postsecondary education is not only attainable but supported by Native communities and partners. To help end the cycle of poverty through education, our organization offers scholarships, college grants, emergency funding, college readiness camps, and literacy and school supplies through the AIEF program for American Indians.
Vaughn V., a student at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (SDSMT), working to complete a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering, recently received an AIEF scholarship. He shared, “I did not see myself as an engineer growing up. I had no interest in doing math and science. I didn’t see the value in it.” When he discovered Industrial Engineering held the greatest opportunities for him, he changed his major. Vaughn explains, “Engineering was the best route, but I wasn’t prepared for math and science. I gave up so many times, but I was persistent. And here I am taking Calculus 3 and going onto Differential Equations.”
Vaughn is one of 210 Native American students awarded scholarships through the AIEF program in 2014, which granted a total of $349,000 to students from 22 tribes. “My motivation is helping my community; there’s a lot we can do,” says Vaughn. “I’m really excited to make some of the changes happen.”
It must be good to be Native American… Free food. Free healthcare. Free college education. Free housing. Plus, monthly checks from the government and tribal casinos. It’s about time I look into that Cherokee Princess Grandmother I’ve always heard about and get myself some of those benefits. All I have to do is get myself enrolled in a federally recognized tribe and I’ll have it made. I’ll get myself one of those free houses, move out of Mom’s basement, and spend the rest of my days as I see fit. Maybe I’ll paint my masterpiece. Yeah, I like the sound of that.
Oh, wait… Say what? You mean that isn’t true? I thought Native Americans got everything for free from the federal government because of the treaties. You mean to tell me that, according to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), one in four Native households spend a third or more of their household income on housing?
Not only do Native Americans pay for housing… their housing and living conditions are considered some of the worst in the United States. For example, NCAI reports that 40 percent of reservation housing is considered substandard and nearly one-third of reservation homes are overcrowded. On top of this, fewer than half of reservation homes connect to public sewer systems and 16 percent lack indoor plumbing.
The Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act of 1996 (NAHASDA) was passed to ensure tribes greater self-governance in providing HUD housing assistance to tribal members. Under NAHASDA, tribes have access to both the Indian Housing Block Grant (IHBG) and the Title VI Loan Guarantee Program. The IHBG issues grant funding to tribes for affordable housing development and rehab, land acquisition and infrastructure for housing, as well as crime prevention and safety. The Title VI loans are a public investment tool offered to tribes that receive IHBG awards.
NAHASDA was reauthorized in 2002 and 2008 but expired in September 2013. An amended NAHASDA passed in the House of Representatives in March of 2015 but was referred by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee to the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee and awaits approval.
Until the federal government reauthorizes NAHASDA, federally recognized tribes are losing out on important funding opportunities that could help address serious housing challenges on many reservations. NRC home repairs benefit Native American Elders living in unsafe conditions, yet there is much more to do. With the wait list for tribal housing assistance already upwards of three years, a lot is riding on NAHASDA funding.
There is a misconception about Native Americans getting a free ride through college. Many people misunderstand the term “Native American Scholarships” and think that perhaps these are actually ways that Native Americans get free tuition. In addition, many people believe the U.S. government pays for college for Native Americans.
Well, let me tell you, this could not be further from the truth. Yes, there are large scholarships, but being awarded a four-year award such as the Gates Millennium Scholarship is no easy task. And, competition for scholarships is heavy. Native Americans, just as any other ethnic group, must submit the same applications and write numerous essays and compete academically, and even then may not be selected to receive scholarship funding.
Havasupai Elementary, a BIE school located the base of the Grand Canyon — home to the Havasupai Tribe.
Perhaps the misconception around free college education for Native Americans comes, in part, from the BIE schools on many reservations. These federally funded schools are part of the treaties the United States made with Native American tribes in the promise of an Anglo education. On the surface, this sounds good yet has nothing to do with college. What’s more, many BIE schools struggle with underfunding, high staff turnover and physical disrepair, and when the government decides to make budget cuts, BIE school budgets are often affected.
In fact, “Funding for replacement schools, improvements and repairs to BIE schools has fallen by 76 percent over the past decade,” creating a perfect storm for Native American children to fall behind their peers at public schools. It is a disgrace to further slow childhood learning for innocent and underprivileged Native children. “Many schools serve some of the nation’s poorest and most remote communities. Test scores for the [BIE] system’s 49,079 students lag those of both Indians and non-Indians in public schools.”
Add to this the physical discomfort experienced by students at some of the BIE schools that lack adequate facilities to keep students warm and sheltered from the elements – this is no exaggeration. In northern Minnesota conditions at a BIE school are such that it has “a roof that caves in under heavy snowfall, a failing heating system that has many students wearing coats and blankets in class as soon as the weather turns and a sewer system that backs up during extreme cold — all adding to the discomforts and indignities of an aging, metal ‘pole barn’ that has to be evacuated when wind gusts top 40 miles per hour.”
So, taking all of this into account… schools that are physically decrepit, understaffed and underfunded; stiff competition for scholarships and the poverty associated with living on a rural and remote reservation where Indian reservation unemployment can reach up to 80% — well, it is inspiring, to say the least, that Native Americans do attend and thrive in college. But, their time in college is definitely not free – they pay the financial cost, the emotional cost, and the same uncertainty about employment after school that many Americans face.
There is a prevalent misunderstanding regarding the nature of federal healthcare for American Indians. The Indian Health Service (I.H.S.) under the Department of Health and Human Services provides health services to federally recognized tribes based on the special government-to-government relationship between the federal government and tribes dating as far back as 1787. This obligation arises out of treaties and other legal mandates.
Yet, while the federal government is obligated to provide healthcare for these tribes, I.H.S. is not immune to the cuts facing many federal programs. As Montana Senator and member of the Indian Affairs Committee, Jon Tester, highlighted in a 2014 NPR interview, I.H.S. is struggling to fulfill its obligation.
Of late, I.H.S. has found itself unable to make it through a fiscal year without running out of funds. Combined with the challenge of recruiting healthcare professionals to rural and remote I.H.S. facilities, this makes for a real crisis in providing quality healthcare to American Indian communities.
In response, the I.H.S. is limiting treatment to only the most sensitive cases such as those involving loss of life or limb. Fewer resources are available for preventative care that can address health issues before they become a serious condition. The I.H.S. simply cannot prioritize non-life threatening needs or pay for patient referrals outside of the I.H.S. system, and however minor, well-being and quality of life for tribal members reliant on I.H.S. care is directly affected by untreated medical needs. This is why NRC supports health screenings, health education and other initiatives by tribally-operated health and wellness programs and our partners who work for them. NRC Health Services benefited 287,209 Native Americans in 2014.
Another response to the I.H.S. situation is the Affordable Care Act (aka ObamaCare), through which efforts are underway to enroll American Indians in affordable private insurance plans. Private plans offer American Indians more healthcare providers and services than available through I.H.S. In addition, private plan holders may still access I.H.S. healthcare covered by private insurance, which redirects funds back into I.H.S.
There are, however, legitimate concerns with private insurance enrollment too. In 2013, less than half a percent of individuals who enrolled in private insurance under ObamaCare are American Indians. To increase Native enrollment in Obamacare, significant community outreach, education and assurance of affordability will be required.
As a 501(c) (3) nonprofit committed to championing hope for a brighter future for Native Americans living on remote, isolated and impoverished reservations, NRC is always encouraged by the progress we see happening for tribal communities. Progress toward economic development, infrastructure and social change often comes in small increments but adds up to big gains over time. Here are 5 points of progress we’ve seen in recent years for the tribes in our service area:
1. Sustainable Housing Alternatives: With 90,000 Native Americans homeless, tribes are looking at alternative forms of sustainable housing. While the waiting list for tribal housing is often 3+ years, straw bale homes are a good alternative. Straw bale homes are affordable, quick to build, environmentally friendly, and constructed from natural materials that are locally available in remote communities. Red Feather Development builds straw bale houses in Native American communities throughout Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota, as part of the American Indian Sustainable Housing Initiative. NRC Program Partners have also shared about the introduction of straw bale homes on the Hopi Reservation. Another plus, some straw bale houses integrate solar panels to support hot water, floor heating and systems to catch rainwater – an important opportunity for reservation communities with contaminated ground water.
2. Closing the Digital Divide: On March 12, 2015, the Federal Communications Commission released the Open Internet Order to regulate broadband Internet service as a public utility. An Open Internet represents unlimited possibility for rural Native communities and improves the opportunity to build tribal nations and economies. In addition, federal stimulus funding was awarded in 2011 to help bring high-speed Internet access to 5 Indian reservations in the state of Arizona, including Navajo, Hopi, San Carlos Apache, Tohono O’odham and Havasupai (in the base of the Grand Canyon). The federal stimulus also funded fiber-optic cabling and building of microwave towers in New Mexico and Utah for the Navajo Nation. Often the reservation schools on these tribal lands lack the computers and basic Internet access that many students in America now take for granted. Beginning to close the digital divide between Indian country and the rest of the world will, over time, “increase college enrollment and completion, improve the quality and efficiency of health care and strengthen the business economy on reservations, which would attract outside companies needed for a competitive, healthy market,” as noted by Carl Artman, professor and director of the Economic Development in Indian Country program at Arizona State University.
3. Alternative Energy Development: NRC offers the AIRC winter fuel service because depletion of the energy assistance budget by mid-winter is an annual challenge for some tribes. Today, we are encouraged to see tribes at the forefront of many renewable energy projects. No stranger to working in harmony with nature, alternative energy development bodes well for practical needs and future economic development of the tribes. Currently, the Oneida Reservation in Wisconsin has a solar renewable energy project to meet electricity and hot water needs. The Manzanita Reservation in California has a hybrid wind-and-solar project and Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico has an off-grid project. These are just a few of the leading edge renewable energy projects the tribes are undertaking today. On the Fort Berthold and Rosebud reservations in North Dakota and South Dakota, massive wind turbine projects are underway that will provide key insights about the viability of wind energy and the possibility of commercial-scale wind energy production.
4. Native American Business Growth: In the five-year period from 2002 to 2007, the number of Native American small businesses increased 17.7 percent. Today numbering about 300,000, Native-owned businesses continue to grow in small increments. While only 8% of the businesses actually create jobs, collectively these firms employ 184,416 people — representing sustainable gains through self-employment.
5. Food Sovereignty Initiatives: A number of tribes in our Northern Plains service area are embracing food sovereignty and food security. Gardening, for instance, is on the rise among Northern Plains tribes. Families of the Standing Rock Reservation are actively involved with gardening and a farmer’s market, facilitated by an NRC partner who coordinates the Native Gardens Project through the tribe’s Diabetes Program. On the Pine Ridge Reservation, one partner started a youth garden project that blossomed into a community-wide gardening movement, with individual family gardens, garden training, a farmer’s market, a canning station and a greenhouse. This summer, NRC will begin operating a mobile food truck that follows our fresh produce distributions across the Northern Plains reservations to conduct healthy cooking demos with fresh vegetables. These types of projects are especially important for reservations designated as food deserts by the USDA. For some families, raising and selling fresh produce has also become a new income stream.
“The movie has ‘ridiculous’ in the title for a reason — because it’s ridiculous. It is a broad satire of Western movies and the stereotypes they popularized, featuring a diverse cast that is not only part of — but in on — the joke.” (Netflix response to Native actors walking off the set of Ridiculous Six)
Netflix makes a good argument, absolving themselves of any possible wrongdoing related to the film Ridiculous Six. In their view, it isn’t plausible for someone to find a film offensive when they are in on the joke. But, when ethnic actors feel like the joke is “on them” – as opposed to being “in on” it, some serious implications arise.
Actors Saginaw Grant, Loren Anthony on “Ridiculous Six” set. Source: instagram.com/lorenanthony
It seems Netflix has missed the point of what made about a dozen Native actors walk off set, along with the film’s cultural advisor for the Netflix production. The Ridiculous Six team is suggesting it knows what a “Native American” is, what the stereotypes are, and how to parody them.
Do they? Or do they merely reflect mainstream culture’s definition and perception of Native America?
What led the Native American actors to leave the set were things like female characters named Beaver Breath, Smoking Fox and Never-Wears-Bra, as well as a scene in which a female character urinates while smoking a “peace pipe,” not to mention actors of various ethnicities (including Native Americans) having darkening makeup applied to appear more Native.
Perhaps of greater concern is how mainstream audiences will respond to the supposed satire in Ridiculous Six. Considering how the film may reinforce stereotypes through its attempt at parody, I’m left wondering whether its audiences will be in on the joke.
The film Ridiculous Six starring Adam Sandler has been pitched as a parody of the Western film The Magnificent Seven and the Western genre as a whole. A well-done satire of the genre and the stereotypes it perpetuates would be a good thing as Western films have been anything but authentic in representing Native Americans. (See my earlier blog topic: Not a Reel Injun.)
Instead, Ridiculous Six is most likely going to give audiences more of the same. Despite whatever role the Native American cultural advisor played in the film’s development, Ridiculous Six is still a product from outside the Native American community – the authority and power in representing Native Americans remaining with Netflix, Sandler, and other key players. The film has the potential to fuel a continuing ignorance about Native Americans in Hollywood and throughout America.
It seems like it happens in an instance. One moment they are there and the next they are gone. The signs are there, but often no one sees it coming. What we do see is the emptiness left behind… manifested not only in the physical sense like an empty classroom desk, but in the hearts, minds, and spirits of those who mourn their loss… their absence a constant reminder of what once was and what will never be again.
The recent rise of youth suicides on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation has left a staggering emptiness and communities on the South Dakota reservation are organizing to prevent this misfortune from spreading.
Youth suicide is not new for the Oglala Lakota on Pine Ridge. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2012 reported that suicide is the second leading cause of death among American Indians/Alaskan Natives aged 15 to 34 years. The CDC also found that the rate of suicide among American Indians/Alaskan Natives in that group is 2.5 times higher than the national average.
Yet, something uncanny is happening on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. In the months since December, 2014, nine youths between the ages of 12 and 24 have taken their own lives while at least another 103 suicide attempts have been made.
In response to this recent outbreak, the Oglala Sioux Tribe has declared a reservation-wide state of emergency. The Indian Health Service has dispatched additional mental health professionals to assist its six full-time counselors that regularly service the reservation.
Throughout American Indian communities, it is commonly understood that the issue of youth suicide goes beyond any family disorder and is deeply rooted in the history of colonization and oppression felt by many American Indian communities. The loss of culture and resulting realities (e.g., poverty, geographic isolation, substandard housing, and social prejudice) all contribute to other social conditions such as alcoholism, drug abuse, mental/sexual abuse. All of this paired with a general lack of access to basic resources has created a pervasive hopelessness in some reservation communities.
On top of this, the current generation of young American Indians is experiencing a host of new pressures in their daily lives. Cyberbullying has created an environment where a young person who is bullied at school can now be exposed to cyberbullying anywhere at any time. Compounded with hardships at home, some young people may have no safe place in their lives. Sometimes suicide is seen as the only reprieve. (To learn more about cyberbulling, visit stopbullying.gov.)
There is some good news in that groups of young people across Pine Ridge are organizing to find ways to support suicide prevention on the reservation. Young people understand they must have a voice in addressing an issue that affects them directly – even while tribal governments and programs look to address the issue. A three-day summit held at the Oglala Lakota College Piya Wiconi campus in early March brought together youth, tribal officials and programs to start a dialogue on suicide prevention. Collaborative efforts like these will be necessary to bridge youth and adults while working together to decrease the loss of youth to suicide on the reservation.
In last week’s blog, Murray Lee talked about food insecurity and food deserts and promised more to come on food sovereignty. So, let’s start by clarifying what food sovereignty is and why it’s important. Food sovereignty is about the right of a people to determine their own policies relative to food and agriculture–rather than having their food supply subject to market forces. The U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance states:
“Food sovereignty goes well beyond ensuring that people have enough food to meet their physical needs. It asserts that people must reclaim their power in the food system by rebuilding the relationships between people and the land, and between food providers and those who eat. First framed by the international peasant movement La Via Campesina at the World Food Summit in 1996, food sovereignty is rooted in the ongoing global struggles over control of food, land, water, and livelihoods.”
The indigenous people of this country certainly understand losing their relationship to the land and to their food source, having experienced both through the forced relocation of tribes onto reservations and the hunting of buffalo to near extinction by westward settlers. Many of the reservation trust lands designated for Native American tribes are barren—inadequate for farming. Many reservation communities in NRC’s service area have contaminated water from mining run-off, dumping and natural pollutants—or lack access to local water sources sufficient for crop irrigation. Many communities, too, are an hour or more away from the nearest supermarket–not easy when the community is also short on jobs and transportation. The implications are made clear by this food desert infographic showing affected tribes and why food sovereignty is a must for these sovereign nations.
Food sovereignty is sort of a “bottom up” approach that focuses on what works for people and communities and it involves food providers in the equation of looking at solutions. Growing and processing one’s own food is a big part of it… involving farmers, families, fishers, ranchers, migrants and indigenous people. Harvesting what is naturally occurring and compatible with one’s own environment is also a big part of the food sovereignty equation.
National Relief Charities is doing its part to address the challenge of food sovereignty on Native lands by supporting community investment projects on the reservations. In one long-term approach toward food sovereignty, NRC is tilling gardens, training gardeners, and supporting farmer’s markets, greenhouses and canning classes, in collaboration with reservation partners and their local volunteers. One garden enthusiast, John Yellow Hawk, has gone from “gardener to grower” and tribal members now purchase his produce at local and mobile farmers markets across the Pine Ridge Reservation. (Coming soon, you can read more about John and his role in one Pine Ridge garden in our 2014 annual report.)
By definition, it is important that food sovereignty initiatives be community-led… by the people for the people. One such project involved NRC developing a head start curriculum focused on shaping healthy eating and exercise habits in early childhood—delivered by Crow Creek Head Start program and changing their children and parents’ relationship with food and food sources. This summer, NRC will begin operating a mobile food truck, following our fresh produce distributions across the Northern Plains reservations to conducting healthy cooking demos with fresh vegetables. For tribes in this region, gardening is on the rise, along with farmer’s markets and a return to the traditional foods of their ancestors such as local fish, venison and berries.
Food sovereignty initiatives empower tribal members living on the reservations to grow their own healthy, fresh produce; ease low food insecurity; and realize the additional benefits of healthy eating in the prevention of heart disease and type II diabetes. To learn more about the 7 principles of food sovereignty, watch this video by the National Family Farm Coalition.
Workplace giving is a significant factor in support of NRC’s work. Over four consecutive years we have been approved as a national Combined Federal Campaign (CFC) charity, from 2011 to 2014. Currently listed under our program name, American Indian Relief Council, our CFC number is CFC charity code # 95225.
The CFC, known as “the world’s largest and most successful annual workplace charity campaign,” is the federal government’s answer to workplace giving and support for philanthropy. Annually, the CFC runs more than 200 organized campaigns to reach thousands of federal workers and raise millions of dollars for nonprofits. The total CFC effort helps postal, military, and Federal civilian workers, nationally and globally, to pledge payroll deductions for nonprofits providing health and human services.
Only some charities can participate in the CFC. Only after completing a rigorous application and review process that culminates in approval and selection by the Office of Personnel Management in Washington, DC is a charity deemed eligible and listed in the annual CFC giving catalog. As a national charity, NRC has to provide detailed documentation on the types of services delivered in at least 15 states, as well as the volume and value of those services and the beneficiaries in each state. This is in addition to meeting all the CFC’s financial and administrative requirements.
We are confident that NRC will also be included in the 2015 CFC and that this important workplace campaign will continue to help us raise more awareness about the American Indian population we serve and the work we do on remote reservations to help end the cycle of poverty. To request a CFC Charity List and/or a CFC pledge form, federal employees should contact their local CFC office. CFC pledge drives typically occur from September to mid-December each year.
In addition to the CFC, our AIEF program is recognized as a Women, Children, and Family Services federation charity participating in state giving campaigns for Washington and Utah. We have also received employers’ matching gifts when their employees have made independent contributions. If your organization is interested in learning more about workplace giving, please call 800-416-8102.
Some of you may have heard about or read about “food deserts” and “food insecurity” but are not quite sure what these terms mean or encompass. Yet, they are something that affect many families in America, including many Native American families on and off the reservations on a daily basis.
“…urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options. The lack of access contributes to a poor diet and can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.”
According to the USDA, a rural food desert is a community wherein a third of its population is 10 miles or more from a large grocery store. Much work is being done to help improve access to healthy, affordable foods in food deserts and to decrease food insecurity.
Food insecurity “is a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food, according to the USDA, and can lead to a condition called hunger, distinguished as “an individual-level physiological condition that may result from food insecurity.” Hunger often manifests itself in sickness, pain and physiological discomfort.
Food insecurity is definitely a challenge affecting 23% of Native Americans living on remote reservations at a much higher rate than any other group in the United States. This might be a little known fact since people often expect and thus look to developing countries to be the hardest hit by food insecurity and hunger.
As I mentioned in another blog on social equity, I know first-hand the issue of food insecurity and hunger, and it is important to me that people realize these aren’t only issues in developing countries… they exist here in our own country.
The food insecurity on the reservations is, in part, due to well over 100 years of federal policy that have left many tribes with limited access to arable land, extreme poverty and all the social conditions that accompany such poverty. This perfect storm has also contributed to what we know as “food deserts” on many Indian reservations.
In 2013, National Relief Charities (NRC) alone delivered $6.4 million worth of food and water to reservations across the Northern Plains and Southwest regions of the U.S. In 2014, NRC provided food and meals for more than 145,000 Native American Elders, families and children. Among them were homebound Elders on the reservations. Last year when we rode along on some home deliveries with June, a partner from the Cameron Senior Center, it was clear the Elders were grateful for the food as well as the company and that NRC’s food provisions helped improve the quality of available food and provide some immediate relief from food insecurity.
So, although poverty and economic stress coupled with limited access to nutrient-dense foods can cause perilous conditions, industrious steps are being made by community leaders on the reservations and by generous outside organizations and individuals with the desire to help.
Next week we will talk more about “food sovereignty” and addressing sustainable solutions to food sovereignty on Native lands.