The challenges that native people face are experienced socially, economically, culturally, and on many other fronts. The following are only some of the challenges faced by Native Americans, which include:
The issue of impoverishment and unemployment is substantial within the tribal communities. Fundamentally, there is a lack of resources which contributes heavily to the poverty and unemployment issues. In addition, the average household income for those living on reservations ranges from $11,000-$29,000 annually. However, approximately 20% of Native American households make less than $5,000 annually.
The lack of adequate income and the high unemployment rates facilitate dire living conditions for Native American people. According to the World Population Review, 1-in-3 Native Americans live in poverty, which has increased since the last Census in 2010. Comparatively, in 2020, 29.8 million Americans lived below the SPM poverty threshold, or approximately 9.1% of the U.S. population.
The pandemic (COVID-19) decimated the global economy and the global population. The aftereffects of COVID-19 can be seen around every corner of America. However, within tribal communities, this decimation is amplified and exacerbated by the lack of adequate wages, access to healthcare, and dire living conditions. Furthermore, the aftereffects of the pandemic on tribal communities are generational.
Due to the high poverty rate among the Native Americans, many live in overcrowded and poorly conditioned houses on Indian reservations. There are over 90,000 under-housed or homeless Native Americans. The living conditions of some Native Americans have also been compared to those in third-world countries.
"We can't have a ceremony without memorizing all of the songs, songs galore," said Lawrence Wetsit.
"We're not supposed to record them: We have to be there. And when that doesn't happen in my grandchildren's life, they may never catch up."
Native American ceremonial gatherings have been scarce over the past year as communities have tried to protect elders from COVID-19. Assiniboine elder Lawrence Wetsit, at home in Wolf Point, Montana, says he worries that the combination of deaths and lockdowns will permanently harm the tribe's ability to share traditional knowledge and oral history. This epitomizes the added aftereffects of COVID-19 on tribal communities, especially since Native Americans are nearly twice as likely to die as other Americans. These deaths are significantly more devastating to Native American communities when they strike elders, who are seen as the keepers of tribal history and culture.
Another challenge the tribal community faces is violence against Native American women, girls, and Two-Spirit (gender-nonconforming) people that occurs at an elevated level. According to the Department of Justice, 84% of Native American women report having experienced violence at some point in their lives. Native American women and girls are also murdered at a rate ten times higher than other ethnicities. While most of these murders take place on Indigenous land, the perpetrators are most often not Native American, according to Native Women's Wilderness. A report by the Urban Indian Health Institute says that while 5,712 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls were reported in 2016 (the last year for which data is available), only 116 of these deaths were logged into the Department of Justice's database.
The climate crisis faced by tribal communities is complicated, but in summary, climate change is rapidly making their marginal lands uninhabitable. According to an unprecedented new data set, Native Americans in the United States have lost nearly 99% of the land they historically occupied. The data set, which is the first to quantify land dispossession and forced migration in the United States, also reveals that tribes with land today were systematically forced into less-valuable areas, which excluded them from critical sectors of the U.S. economy, including the energy market. The adverse effects continue today; thus, modern native lands are at increased risk from climate change hazards, especially extreme heat and decreased precipitation.
Another critical issue tribal nations are facing is fewer educational opportunities. In comparison, Native American children have the highest dropout rates of any ethnic group in the United States. Recent statistics from the Bureau of Indian Affairs have noted that 29% to 36% of all Native American students drop out of school, mainly between the 7th and 12th grades. These numbers are even higher in areas where the parents complain of a significant lack of understanding of Native American culture within the schools or communities their children attend. By comparison, only 65% of Native American students graduate high school, which is the lowest graduation rate among American students. Their post-secondary success rate is even more discouraging, with only 9.3% of all Native Americans earning a college degree.
The tribal nations face many challenges, but none are more significant than the lack of access to adequate healthcare and mental health care. Tribal communities are facing an alarming lack of health equity. Native American people continue to die from many preventable illnesses at higher rates than other ethnicities. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Native American adolescents are up to 30% more likely than white adolescents to be obese.
Furthermore, Native American adults are 50% more likely to be obese, which increases the risk for diabetes, high cholesterol, stroke, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Their situation is exacerbated due to so many Native Americans living below the poverty line. They often lack access to fresh produce and healthier foods and rely on highly processed packaged foods, which promotes obesity.
Also, many tribal communities have alarming rates of untreated mental illness. Furthermore, Native Americans die by suicide at higher rates than any other ethnic group in America. They also struggle with substance abuse at much higher rates than other groups in America. These health discrepancies are unrelated to any susceptibilities inherent to Native Americans but rather a lack of culturally-competent care allotted to their communities, funding, and health resources. There is also evidence that cultural loss and historical trauma have generational adverse health effects.
Issues with voting rights are an ongoing issue for tribal communities, and these violations are extensive. Although Native Americans have the right to vote, those who live on reservations often struggle to get to polling sites. This recurring problem for Native populations was especially prevalent during the 2020 Presidential election. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, some polling areas are located too far from reservations.
In addition, many Native American reservations do not use traditional street addresses, so their applications for voter registration are often rejected. However, at least there is some hope on this front; Vox has reported that an exceptionally high turnout within Arizona's Navajo Nation may have helped clinch Biden's win in the state.
Communication is the cornerstone of every civilization, and it is centered around at least one native language. Therefore, when a civilization's native language is threatened and on a gradual path heading toward extinction, there is cause for extreme concern. According to the Indigenous Language Institute, only 175 of the more than 300 native languages remain today. Furthermore, it is also predicted that without preventative measures set up to salvage the remaining languages, approximately 20 will be left by 2050. Although many abecedaries desire to teach Native American children the native languages, they face funding and resource challenges.
To summarize, culture equates to identity; when a culture disappears, so do its people. America has always been considered a melting pot of cultures because it brings together a myriad of identities, languages, and religions. America's diversity is a core part of its citizen's identities, and many people have dedicated their lives to preserving their own cultures. However, for Native Americans, this is a daunting task faced with extreme resistance.
Despite decades of oppression, violence, relocation, and forced assimilation, Native Americans remain resilient and thrive. Furthermore, they draw strength from traditional ways of living, places, relationships, and collective successes. Their resilience is accumulated through their spirituality, culture, shared values, and a strong sense of identity, accountability, and responsibility. So, for Native Americans, preserving their culture is preserving life.
In addition to the overriding moral implications for preserving Native American culture and language, there are practical and academic reasons for doing so. According to the longitudinal study of self-esteem, cultural identity, and academic success among American Indian adolescents, students who are immersed in their culture perform better academically, have higher self-esteem, and lead more productive and happy lives. This is especially important since it is the responsibility of today's Native American children to pass their culture to the next generation.
Cultural responsiveness is the most effective tool in our arsenal for preserving Native American culture and languages. Cultural responsiveness enables individuals and organizations to respond respectfully and effectively to people of all cultures, languages, classes, races, ethnic backgrounds, disabilities, religions, genders, sexual orientations, and other diversity factors in a manner that recognizes, affirms, and values their worth. Being culturally responsive requires having the ability to understand cultural differences, recognize potential biases, and look beyond differences to work productively with children, families, and communities whose cultural contexts are different from one's own.
Tribal nations face many challenges, and addressing them is a challenge within itself due to a lack of access to resources and solution-oriented information. However, due to the severe aftereffects of the pandemic on tribal nations, the need for new and more effective methods of communication prompted the inclusion of technologies to help preserve their culture.
Tribal nations are now using technology to preserve their culture and keep traditions and languages alive during and after the pandemic. Social media groups and platforms have provided some remedies that may continue after the pandemic fades. One Facebook group, Social Distance Powwow, has helped its native members connect by sharing videos of drumming, dancing, and other traditions. Since its founding in March, the group has accumulated more than 308,500 members and taken on a life of its own, with people sharing prayer requests, birthday celebrations, and death announcements.
Approximately 300 distinct native languages flourished among Native American nations before European colonization. However, only about half of those languages exist today, and of those, nearly 90% are at risk of becoming extinct by 2050, according to the National Congress of American Indians. For that reason, Native language scholars rely on technology to combat the loss of these crucial parts of the Native American culture. The method of choice is digitizing. Scholars are using digitizing technology to preserve Native languages.
"There's a saying that every time one of our elders passes away, a library burns down," says Caroline Running Wolf, a Ph.D. student at the University of British Columbia researching Indigenous languages and artificial intelligence (AI).
"Nobody wants to be that spark that sets the library on fire, so you're in that difficult situation where the clock was ticking before, but now it's ticking even faster."
Two components must be reliable and omnipresent in today's all-digital world: internet access and communication continuity. However, it all pivots around connectivity. At the same time, the U.S. continues to transition from analog-based services to digital technologies capable of handling broadband speeds while tribal nations persistently vacillate.
To ensure that tribes are prepared to lead the way in America's digital future, NCAI has consistently championed for increased broadband deployment and access for tribal communities. However, tribal communities still lag behind the rest of the United States in access to broadband, wireless, and radio services. This disparity underscores the critical opportunity to ensure the advancement of telecommunications access throughout native lands.
Despite these limitations, tribal nations across the U.S. use social media and technology to connect, promote their language, and protect their culture. Once again, COVID-19 spotlighted the need to address preservation gaps in Tribal Nation culture. When the pandemic hit in 2020, Tracy Kelley, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts, saw an unexpected opportunity for her website, Kun8seeh, which means "talk to me" in Wampanoag.
She encouraged her tribe to launch a website dedicated to the learning, reclamation, and teaching of their oral traditions and their language. However, her proposed solution met some opposition from tribal members. Although the tribal community acknowledged the increasing role of technology, they felt protective of their language and did not want it exploited or used as a commodity.
"The language circle was broken for some time in our community," Kelley says.
Kelley is just one of many Native Americans in the U.S. and Canada who use social media and digital technology to help share their cultures, preserve their language, document history, and correct misperceptions.
"Tribes are creating digital repositories of language and online cultural learning tools," says Dr. Traci Morris, director of the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University and member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma.
"There's starting to be some seriously amazing, innovative examples."
The benefits of technology in tribal nations are significant, and its continued integration into their society is pivotal in preserving their culture, languages, and traditions. The use of technology also helps provide more significant educational opportunities and access to better healthcare through platforms like telehealth. Also, technology helps tribal nations connect and remain connected, facilitating communication continuity and allowing continuous open dialog between tribal communities and the U.S.
Tribal nations face a myriad of challenges, both historical and current. The solutions for these issues must address various areas while maintaining continuous effectiveness. The answer to these challenges lies in the effective use of customizable devices, communication continuity, uninterrupted internet connectivity, and technology that functions across multiple platforms. As previously stated, culture equates to identity; when a culture disappears, so do its people. Therefore, for tribal nations, the stakes are exceptionally high, and time is of consequence. The NCAI states that by 2050, nearly 90% of all Native American languages will be extinct if measures are not taken immediately.
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