For hundreds of years, Native Americans in the United States have been brutally and violently suppressed and face a deeply discriminatory justice system.
“Make sure you just, ‘yes sir, no sir,’ hands where they can see them. Don’t get smart, don’t talk back, just do the best you can to just walk away.”
-Kelly, Apache descendent
– killed at 3x the rate white people by police
– 1/4 of people killed by police in 2016 were experiencing mental health issues; Native Americans made up half of those deaths
-Native American men are committed to prison at 4x the rate of white men, and Native American women are committed at 6x of white women
-Native American youth make up 70% of youth in prison; they are also transferred to the adult system at 18.1 times the rate of white juveniles
The History of Reservation Policy and Government Attitude
Those who fought were eventually defeated. Under the Trail of Tears, thousands of Cherokee Indians died and suffered as they moved westward. In addition, many white settlers refused to recognize Indian ownership of reservation land, and for a long time the federal government did nothing to protect it. After Jackson, the United States’ goal with the reservation system was to both acquire land for white people and avoid conflict between white settlers and Native Americans. But by the late 1880s, under pressure to acquire even more land for westward expansion, Congress passed the General Allotment Act of 1887, which stole over 90 million acres of land from Natives, displacing millions and sending them into poverty.
In order to properly understand the relationship between Native Americans and the government and police, however, understanding removal policy is key. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Jackson presidency, where the American government took up its arguably most aggressive stance against Native Americans and established a pattern of violence. Andrew Jackson believed Natives should become citizens and integrated or be removed. He pursued the Seminole Indians into Florida, violating international law, and through bribery and violence, forced treaties from other Indian Nations.
The roots of the Red Power Movement sprung up with the fight for Alcatraz. In the mid-1960s, a number of Indian leaders staked a claim to Alcatraz Island and moved in. It was short-lived as general disorder quickly took over the island. Although the events at Alcatraz can be seen as a failure, they revitalized Native spirit.
The Red Power Movement
Meanwhile, the creation of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and its leaders-Russel Means, Hank Adams, Dennis Banks- grew to became the face of change, and were extremely successful at it. However, after several violent encounters, the government tied up its leaders in endless amounts of legal litigation in order to stop them.
Policing in Modern Day
Native Americans in reservations are policed in two different ways: by tribal federal police or by state police. Tribal police, elected by the tribes themselves, occurs when the federal government has responsibilities. In 1953, Congress transferred the responsibilities for managing affairs with Native Americans over to the states, leading to a virtual elimination of the federal criminal justice role, except for the several tribes that successfully advocated for tribal police instead. A study comparing Native communities that were locally versus federally policed found that areas with local police have a higher incidence of fatal police encounters per person.However, this doesn’t mean that either had it easy. A journal published in 1931 details the horrors of punishment set by police. “Severe flogging to the point of death, and the destruction of the offender’s horses, dogs, tent, robes, and other property even to the point where he is left destitute were the usual punishments”
Native Americans face much more than an oppressive justice system. Their basic human rights and rights to their land are under constant threat by the government. From mental heath to housing, the federal government has severely underfunded our Native communities, and has failed to compensate them.
According to Dr. Mary Berry, the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and former chairwoman of the US Commission on Civil Rights, Native Americans face many of these problems today largely due to severe underfunding and lack of compensation on the part of the government. Between 1999 and 2003, Native Americans were directly targeted for 0.0016 percent of USDA’s budget at most. In 1999, Native American programs received only 0.001 percent of USDA funds. The U.S. commission on civil rights found, that through every right- housing, education, agriculture, and other social services-the “efforts to bring Native Americans up to the standards of other Americans have failed in part because of a lack of sustained funding…in massive and escalating unmet needs…the disparities in services show evidence of discrimination and denial of equal protection of the laws”
The best way to move forward is to address these problems one by one, on a macro level. More money and funding can be directed away from policing and towards programs like mental health and other social services. To start off, a bipartisan, action-oriented admission should be implemented immediately and deal with implementing general change, which should be created through nationwide, uniform federal policy. All federal agencies should analyze unmet needs even after its implementations. To continue, more programs for Natives should be controlled by the Natives themselves in order to keep their best interest at hand. For example, on a micro level, community policing can provide increased safety within Native communities and prevent violent police interventions. By systematically linking community values to departmental values, community policing can fully be shaped by the Native nation’s beliefs. Tribes can request funds and initiatives of the government in order to rethink their local policing. Also, tribes can request to shift from a federally administered to a tribally administered department, which has been proven to decrease violence.
What can you do?
So, how can you help? Find and identify your local Native community! Donate or volunteer hours towards their efforts and fight for bills you believe in. An example of this is the fight to end the DAPL, a pipeline that would have cut through reservation land. It ended in 2020, under the Biden administration.
Organizations to know and support
-The Association on American Indian Affairs,
-American Indian Business leaders,
-American Indian College Fund,
-Lakota’s People’s Law Project,
-Native American Capital,
-Native American Rights Fund,
and so many more…
Donation and Volunteer Links
-Find your local community and volunteer: https://www.nativeconnections.org