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What Life On A Native American Reservation Is Really Like

Updated September 23, 2021 81.3k views11 items

In 1851, the US government passed the Indian Appropriations Act, creating reservation lands for Native Americans. For decades prior, the US government had forcefully moved and abused Native American tribes, most notably through the Indian Removal Act and subsequent Trail of Tears under President Andrew Jackson.

In placing them on reservations, the US government often forced Native Americans to live on subpar lands under harsh conditions. Reservation rules were also oppressive and unfamiliar. By 1887, the government took further action with the Dawes Act. President Grover Cleveland signed the act, which aimed to assimilate Native Americans into white culture and improve their lives. It did the opposite. By taking more land away from Native Americans, splitting up land they already held, depriving them of productive and profitable farmland, and sending them into abject poverty, the US government only made matters worse.

During the 20th century, Native American life was directly tied to the reservation system. Until the 1950s, most Native Americans lived on reservations. Today, the majority of Native Americans live in cities, but life on a reservation is still difficult for those who remain. Poverty, inadequate health care, crime, and alcohol abuse characterize reservation life - but so do cultural strength and pride in tradition.

  • Clean Water May Be A Luxury

    The water problems affecting Native Americans on reservations are twofold. Many homes and other buildings on reservations lack running water due to their remote location and the lack of reservation infrastructure. In Arizona and Utah, for example, people living on Navajo Nation land regularly visit watering holes 5 or 6 miles away to retrieve water. At the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, people like Donald Morrison, age 60, have lived their entire lives without running water or electricity.

    Running water is only part of the problem. Insufficient sanitation and groundwater pollution limit access to clean drinking water. In North Dakota, Nebraska, and other western states, mining operations and outdated wells contaminate water on reservations. In Arizona, numerous health conditions and high rates of child death are linked to uranium contamination.

    In 2016, a major protest took place at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, where people from across the country joined Native American "water protectors" in protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. During construction, engineers rerouted the oil pipeline through tribal lands - reportedly without tribal permission.

    Bobbi Jean Three Legs, a Standing Rock Sioux leader, said she joined the protest out of fear her daughter would grow up without access to clean water:

    I have a 2-year-old daughter, and every morning she wakes up, and she asks me or her father for a cup of water. I thought to myself, What am I going to do when we wake up and I can't give her a cup of water because our water will be damaged? That got me involved.

    US oil pipeline spills are not uncommon. Protesters engaged in a monthslong battle to stop the pipeline's construction and deter water contamination at Standing Rock, but in the end, the US government allowed construction to continue. In 2017, at least five crude oil leaks already occurred along the Dakota Access Pipeline.

  • Photo: Jack Delano / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Crime Rates Are High, And Jurisdictional Issues Make Problems Worse

    High crime rates and low prosecution rates on reservations are tied to the numerous social ills on Native lands, as well as the inconsistent, ineffective exercise of justice. Violence against women is more common among Native American groups. Because many of the crimes involve non-tribal men assaulting tribal women, Native American courts are unable to prosecute offenders. Even if an assault happens on a reservation, there are few resources and support options for Native women.

    These jurisdictional issues, as they're called, also affect other groups. When two Navajo children went missing from a reservation in New Mexico in 2016, their father, Gary Mike, reported them missing to Navajo authorities in Shiprock. One of the children was found on the reservation, but the other was not. When the family reached out to local, non-reservation authorities in nearby Farmington, they had not heard anything about the missing child. The lack of prompt action by the understaffed Shiprock police was nothing new to the Navajo community, and the second child's body was found the next day.

    Data indicates that deaths by homicide were more than two times as likely for Americans living on reservations between 2009 and 2011. High homicide rates can be linked to alcohol abuse, drug addiction and trafficking, and gang activity.

    In 2010, one-third of criminals in Native American jails had a violent crime conviction. Many cases involved domestic abuse, assault, or public intoxication. Most offenders were men, but the female inmate population reportedly increased from 20% in 2000 to 25% in 2015.

  • Tourism And Gambling Make Up Much Of Reservation Revenue

    Federal and tribal government jobs make up a majority of the employment opportunities on many reservations, but the reservations themselves often depend on tourism and gambling money to survive.

    When Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988, it opened up tribal lands - sovereign areas - to unrestricted gambling enterprises. Since then, tribal nations in 29 states have opened casinos, bingo halls, or other gambling businesses. The revenue these businesses garner varies by state and location, but annual revenue for all Native American gaming reportedly exceeds $32 billion.

    Though the act is controversial, Joe Nayquonabe of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota thinks it helps to stabilize reservation income and create opportunities for revenue diversification. He said:

    What Indian gaming has done for Indian tribes is it's helped us develop basic infrastructure for our tribal members. So when you look around out here at the community, we have clinics, we have a government center, we have schools, we have community centers. Now we're starting to think about how do we improve the quality of life even more.

    Along with gambling, many reservations receive income from tourists. Some host traditional events to teach visitors about their culture, while others feature nature reserves and other recreational activities.

    Competition over tourist destinations like the Grand Canyon Skywalk highlights the importance of tourist revenue to reservations. The Hualapai Tribe in Arizona stood to lose millions of dollars when a suit initially ruled in favor of the Las Vegas developer who built the glass-cased walkway. But because the structure falls on tribal land, both parties eventually struck an agreement giving the Hualapai Tribe control over the tourist attraction as well as revenue access.

  • Photo: Martina Nolte / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

    Reservations Have Helped Native Languages Find New Life

    Native languages, many of which were targeted by Indian boarding schools' assimilation efforts, have experienced new life around the country since the 1960s. Experts often attribute this to their continued use on reservations. Since the 1970s, Congress passed several pieces of legislation aimed at protecting Native languages.

    The role of reservations in retaining Native languages is essential. Many reservations have implemented language immersion programs that bring together tribe members to strengthen the use of their Native tongues. Native language retention programs in reservation schools across the US are also helping to carry on linguistic traditions.

    Lloyd Top Sky, a Cree Tribe member, is helping to build a teaching program in Montana and says language preservation is "vital to preserving culture." He told the Great Falls Tribune, "The language is a focus point in communication, and when you lose that communication pattern, in the way it is most effective, you lose a lot of the communication when you translate and try to interpret it in another language."