Native Americans in the US Today: Oppressed and Ignored

Navajo reservation, ArizonaNavajo reservation, Arizona

by Rowland Keshena (author of the By Any Means Necessary blog)

…How many non-Indians remember Alcatraz? The BIA seizure? The Mayflower II? The second or even the first Wounded Knee incidents? How many of you know why it is that Leonard Peltier is in prison? Ever hear of Russell Means, Ward Churchill, Vine Deloria Jr. Winnona LaDuke, or Dennis Banks? Anyone recall the American Indian Movement? Ever hear the phrase Red Power or Uncle Tomahawk?

I won’t hold it against you if you haven’t heard of, or aware of, all or some on that list, because to be truthful, many people are unaware of our situation. Some people are even ignorant enough to assume that because some nations have done well for themselves via the new buffaloes a.k.a the casino and oil rackets, that we all have money oozing out of every pore in our bodies.

The truth is most reservations and Indian communities are as poor as, or below, the level of the third world/global south countries. Looking at it from my own experience, my own nation’s reservation is gripped by abject poverty and utter desperation and isolation. Alcohol and drug use are killing more of us than Custer and Sherman could have ever have hoped to with guns and bombs, and there is little hope for the future when faced with the full force of the white supremacist, Christian, patriarchal capital-imperialist machine that is the United States Federal government.

Compounding this problem is the fact that the typical US citizen/resident knows almost nothing about the situation currently being faced by most Indians on reservations, and if they think they know anything about Indians in general, it is what they have gotten by being exposed to the romanticization and/or caricaturization of Indians they have seen in films as primitive, pagan oddities, or in the print media as the stereotypes of oil and/or casino-rich Indians.

With that in mind, it is my intention here is chronicle very briefly the suffering of just one such nation with the goal of dispelling these myths. I will be looking at the Oglala Lakota of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. I chose them over other equally or more impoverished peoples because they are well known and because the stats are more easy to come by. With that said however, it should be noted that if one were to only change the names and locales, this article could just as easily be used to describe countless other nations from Alaska to Mexico, including (but by know means limited to): the Diné-Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Tohono O’odham (Papago), Pima, Yaqui, Cherokee, Choctaw and Creek of Oklahoma, Apache, other Lakota such as the Brule’, and my own people, the Menominee. The list is tragic and far from ending.

(These stats are specifically taken from

The Arrogance of Ignorance: Hidden Away, Out of Site and Out of Mind

(Stephanie M. Schwartz, 2006) however, they can also be found from various governmental and non-governmental organizations and tribal publications. I chose to use Ms. Schwartz’ piece because it was easily arranged and provided additional information other than just the raw stats)

Employment Information

  • The unemployment is between 83 and 85%, with higher fluctuations during the winter months when conditions make travel difficult.
  • As of 2006, 97% of the population lives below the federal poverty level
  • It is made even more difficult to find employement by the fact that the nearest city (Rapid City) is 120 miles from the reservation, while the nearest large city (Denver) is 350 miles.

Life Expectancy and Health Conditions

  • Some figures state that the life expectancy on the Reservation is 48 years old for men and 52 for women. Other reports state that the average life expectancy on the Reservation is 45 years old. These statistics are far from the 77.5 years of age life expectancy average found in the United States as a whole. According to current USDA Rural Development documents, the Lakota have the lowest life expectancy of any group in America.
  • Teenage suicide rates are roughly 150% higher than they are for the rest of the country
  • The infant mortality rate is the highest on this continent and is about 300% higher than the U.S. national average.
  • More than half the Reservation’s adults battle addiction and disease. Alcoholism, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and malnutrition are pervasive.
  • The rate of diabetes on the Reservation is reported to be 800%higher than the U.S. national average.
  • Recent reports indicate that almost 50% of the adults on the Reservation over the age of 40 have diabetes.
  • As a result of the high rate of diabetes on the Reservation, diabetic-related blindness, amputations, and kidney failure are common.
  • The tuberculosis rate on the Pine Ridge Reservation is approximately 800% higher than the U.S. national average.
  • Cervical cancer is 500% higher than the U.S. national average.
  • It is reported that at least 60% of the homes on the Pine Ridge Reservation are infested with Black Mold, Stachybotrys. This infestation causes an often-fatal condition with infants, children, elderly, those with damaged immune systems, and those with lung and pulmonary conditions at the highest risk. Exposure to this mold can cause hemorrhaging of the lungs and brain as well as cancer.
  • A Federal Commodity Food Program is active but supplies mostly inappropriate foods (high in carbohydrate and/or sugar) for the largely diabetic population of the Reservation.

Health Care

  • Many Reservation residents live without health care due to vast travel distances involved in accessing that care. Additional factors include under-funded, under-staffed medical facilities and outdated or non-existent medical equipment.
  • Preventive healthcare programs are rare or non-existent.
  • In most of the treaties between the U.S. Government and Indian Nations, the U.S. government agreed to provide adequate medical care for Indians in return for vast quantities of land. The Indian Health Services (IHS) was set up to administer the health care for Indians under these treaties and receives an appropriation each year to fund Indian health care. Unfortunately, the appropriation is very small compared to the need and there is little hope for increased funding from Congress. The IHS is understaffed and ill-equipped and can’t possibly address the needs of Indian communities. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the Pine Ridge Reservation.


  • The school drop-out rate is a staggering 70%.
  • According to a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) report, the Pine Ridge Reservation schools are in the bottom 10% of school funding by U.S. Department of Education and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
  • Teacher turnover is 800% that of the U.S. national average

Housing Conditions and Homelessness

  • The small BIA/Tribal Housing Authority homes on the Pine Ridge Reservation are overcrowded and scarce, resulting in many homeless families who often use tents or cars for shelter. Many families live in old cabins or dilapidated mobile homes and trailers.
  • According to a 2003 report from South Dakota State University, the majority of the current Tribal Housing Authority homes were built from 1970-1979. The report brings to light that a great percentage of that original construction by the BIA was “shoddy and substandard.” The report also states that 26% of the housing units on the Reservation are mobile homes, often purchased or obtained (through donations) as used, low-value units with negative-value equity.
  • Even though there is a large homeless population on the Reservation, most families never turn away a relative no matter how distant the blood relation. Consequently, many homes often have large numbers of people living in them.
  • In a recent case study, the Tribal Council estimated a need for at least 4,000 new homes in order to combat the homeless situation.
  • There is an estimated average of 17 people living in each family home (a home which may only have two to three rooms). Some larger homes, built for 6 to 8 people, have up to 30 people living in them.
  • Over-all, 59% of the Reservation homes are substandard.
  • Over 33% of the Reservation homes lack basic water and sewage systems as well as electricity.
  • Many residents must carry (often contaminated) water from the local rivers daily for their personal needs.
  • Some Reservation families are forced to sleep on dirt floors.
  • Without basic insulation or central heating in their homes, many residents on the Pine Ridge Reservation use their ovens to heat their homes.
  • Many Reservation homes lack adequate insulation. Even more homes lack central heating.
  • Periodically, because of the above listed reasons, Reservation residents are found dead from hypothermia.
  • As reported above, at least 60% are infected with the potentially-fatal Black Mold, Stachybotrys and as such theses homes need to be burned to the ground and replaced with new housing due to the infestation. There is no insurance or government program to assist families in replacing their homes.
  • 39% of the homes on the Pine Ridge Reservation have no electricity.
  • The most common form of heating fuel is propane. Wood-burning is the second most common form of heating a home although wood supplies are often expensive or difficult to obtain.
  • Many Reservation homes lack basic furniture and appliances such as beds, refrigerators, and stoves.
  • 60% of Reservation families have no land-line telephone. The Tribe has recently issued basic cell phones to the residents. However, these cell phones (commonly called commodity phones) do not operate off the Reservation at all and are often inoperable in the rural areas on the Reservation or during storms or wind.Computers and internet connections are very rare.
  • Federal and tribal heat assistance programs (such as LLEAP) are limited by their funding. In the winter of 2005-2006, the average one-time only payment to a family was said to be approximately $250-$300 to cover the entire winter. For many, that amount did not even fill their propane heating tanks one time.

Reservation Life

  • Most families live in isolated rural areas.
  • There are few improved (paved) roads on the Reservation and most of the rural homes are inaccessible during times of rain or snow.
  • Weather is extreme on the Reservation. Severe winds are always a factor. Traditionally, summer temperatures reach well over 110°F and winters bring bitter cold with temperatures that can reach – 50°F or worse. Flooding, tornadoes, or wildfires are always a risk.
  • The Pine Ridge Reservation still has no banks, discount stores, or movie theatres. It has only one grocery store of any moderate size and it is located in the village of Pine Ridge on the Reservation.
  • Several of the banks and lending institutions nearest to the Reservation have been targeted for investigation of fraudulent or predatory lending practices, with the citizens of the Pine Ridge Reservation as their victims.
  • There are no public libraries except one at the Oglala Lakota College.


  • There is no public transportation available on the Reservation.
  • Only a minority of Reservation residents own an operable automobile.
  • Predominant form of travel for all ages on the Reservation is walking or hitch-hiking.


  • Alcoholism affects 8 out of 10 families on the Reservation.
  • The death rate from alcohol-related problems on the Reservation is 300% higher than the remaining US population.
  • The Oglala Lakota Nation has prohibited the sale and possession of alcohol on the Pine Ridge Reservation since the early 1970’s. However, the town of Whiteclay, Nebraska (which sits 400 yards off the Reservation border in a contested “buffer” zone) has approximately 14 residents and four liquor stores which sell over 4,100,000 cans of beer each year resulting in a $3,000,000 annual trade. Unlike other Nebraska communities, Whiteclay exists only to sell liquor and make money. It has no schools, no churches, no civic organizations, no parks, no benches, no public bathrooms, no fire service and no law enforcement. Tribal officials have repeatedly pleaded with the State of Nebraska to close these liquor stores or enforce the State laws regulating liquor stores but have been consistently refused.

Water and Aquifer Contamination

  • Many wells and much of the water and land on the Reservation is contaminated with pesticides and other poisons from farming, mining, open dumps, and commercial and governmental mining operations outside the Reservation. A further source of contamination is buried ordnance and hazardous materials from closed U.S. military bombing ranges on the Reservation.
  • Scientific studies show that the High Plains/Oglala Aquifer which begins underneath the Pine Ridge Reservation is predicted to run dry in less than 30 years due to commercial interest use and dryland farming in numerous states south of the Reservation. This critical North American underground water resource is not renewable at anything near the present consumption rate. The recent years of drought have simply accelerated the problem.
  • Scientific studies show that much of the High Plains/Oglala Aquifer has been contaminated with farming pesticides and commercial, factory, mining, and industrial contaminants in the States of South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas.

While I write this, I do not mean to have this as a piece to depress, because there is a ray of hope on both the Lakota reserverations and those throughout the rest of the United States and Canada. Since the 1960s many Indians have become concious of the nature of their oppression and have organized to defeat it. The greatest and most famous manifestation of this was the American Indian Movement, which was part of the wider Red Power movement. However, I take it step farther, and also in another direction, than most AIM leadership and membership by applying a Marxist interpretation to the situation. It is my position that by introducing the largely European concept of class division on the reserves and reservations the Bourgeois State has created their own gravediggers. Many true revolutionaries, Indian and non-Indian have come to realize that the enemy of the North American Indigenous is not the white man but capitalism and the State. Marxists and working people must unite with the other oppressed and excluded of the world to fight, and topple, the bosses and their rotten system.

However, that is not to say that this is not without its hurdles. Many Indians feel left behind by Marxists and socialists in America and Canada (something that has allowed anarchists to come in and provide an alternative). They often feel as though they are being forgotten behind all the lofty rhetoric and are only remembered when they are actually encountered face-to-face by so-called revolutionaries. Add to that the fact that previous and current “revolutionaries” in America have at times actually been reductionist, or even entirely dismissive, of the plight of Indians both past and present. If you want to examine this topic further I highly recommend the book Marxism and Native Americans (South End Press, 1984), edited by Ward Churchill. The book is a series of essays penned by major Indian activists at the time including Russell Means, Vine Deloria Jr., Frank Black Elk, Dora-Lee Larson and Churchill and their Marxist counterparts, perhaps most prominent amongst them [an essay “Second Harvest,” written by the Revolutionary communist Party]

Indeed, that volume alone, the RCP’s entry goes to show how unquestioning ideology can encourage ignorance and arrogance on the part of its followers. Also many Marxists are unable to see the world in anyway fundamentally different than the Judeo-Christian society that they came from (despite most Marxists being atheists), especially when it comes to the idea of man’s dominion over the Earth which is entirely foreign to most Indigenous world-views. Some, who come from the Stalinist tradition, also are very much still trapped in the world-view of the old colonial “White Man’s Burden” and hence feel that Columbus’ “discovery”, rather than being genocidal and imperialist in nature, actually had a civilizing impact on the Americas. All of this has come together to create what at times seems like an unbridgeable chasm between Indians and Marxists.

However, I am not trying to say that it is impossible to bridge the divide. Of major concern for Indians when dealing with Marxists and revolutionaries is the question of the environment. In the past (and still today) many Marxists and non-Marxists have seen Marx and his writings as being unconcerned with the environment and built on the idea of man dominating nature and the world, the very antithesis of the Indian world-view. However, as many Marxists are coming to discover, Marx and Engels in their writings are very much so concerned with the environmental sustainability and nature. It has allowed for the birth of the school of thought known as ecosocialism, which more or less has been adopted by every major Marxist organization. Again, if you are interested in this please check out the works of John Bellemay Foster, in particular I recommend Ecology Against Capitalism and Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature. With these new developments, or one could say “rediscoveries”, I feel that there is no reason that Indigenous peoples in the Americas can not join hands with Marxists to shrug off their shared oppressors.

From the South-West to California, to the Great Plains to New England and throughout Canada Indians are rising up and progressive people of all colours and creeds are rising with us. It’s time to turn this fucking world upside-down!

No more Okas or Wounded Knees! No more Dudley Georges or Leonard Peltiers!

For the unity of Indian and non-Indian workers!

Long Live the World’s Indigenous!

Long Live the Excluded of the Entire World!

Long Live the Anti-Imperialist and Anti-Capitalist Struggle!

Long Live the Tireless Defense of Mother Earth!

Long Live Our Dead Forever!

Democracy! Liberty! Justice!

2 thoughts on “Native Americans in the US Today: Oppressed and Ignored

  1. Pingback: Native Americans in the US Today: Oppressed and Ignored – Sioux Sacred Land |

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