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Native Americans are invisible. So is their suffering

LINDA PENTZ GUNTER highlights how Amerindians are living a Third World existence in the richest country in the world

ON JUNE 8, Ian Zabarte posted a Native Lives Matter sign on his Facebook page. There were no words beside it. Just the simple hashtag, #BLM.

For Zabarte, principal man of the Western Bands of the Shoshone Nation of Indians, the message is self-evident.

But a backlash is under way, in the US, Britain and elsewhere. It is orchestrated by those who, as Burnley FC captain Ben Mee pointed out, “completely missed the point,” after a plane trailing a White Lives Matter banner flew over the pitch before his team’s June 22 home loss.

For the five million Native Americans living in the US today, there is a feeling that they have been missed altogether. 

Native Americans have endured centuries of genocide, discrimination, the abduction of their children, deliberate infection with smallpox, forced labour in cancer-causing uranium mines and other abuses inflicted on them by their non-indigenous oppressors. 

Banished by the 1830 Indian Removal Act to largely barren reservations in the American West, they have remained invisible to the rest of the country ever since.

“We have an 80 per cent unemployment rate,” said Milo Yellow Hair, who lives on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, one of the poorest in the country. 

It is a Third World existence in the richest country in the world.

In the US today, Native American households are 19 times as likely as white households to lack indoor plumbing; African-Americans and Latinx are twice as likely. 

Some Native American families have to drive an hour or more to retrieve fresh water. 

The 300,000 members of the Navajo Nation, which spans New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, represent 75 per cent of all households in the United States living without electricity.

As a result, the vulnerability of Native Americans to Covid-19 is disproportionately high compared with other populations. 

Were the Navajo Nation considered a single state, its rate of infection would rank third-highest in the country.

Complicating the situation, violence on Indian reservations has become a way of life, an unstoppable scourge brought on by severe deprivation and hopelessness.

American Indian women living on Indian reservations suffer domestic violence and physical assault at rates 50 per cent higher than the next most victimised demographic. 

The overall death rate from suicide for Native American adults is about 20 per cent higher than the non-Hispanic white population.

Alcoholism is chronic and widespread, spanning all age groups. Heroin use among some tribes is four times higher than elsewhere.

Almost none of this makes the press. “Media bias and racism kill Indians,” says Zabarte, whose Western Shoshone homeland was misappropriated for the US atomic tests at the former Nevada test site and the proposed, then cancelled, Yucca Mountain high-level radioactive waste repository. 

Now Covid-19 is killing Indians, too. Their record mortality rates have been aided and abetted by Donald Trump’s Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, who, for three months, withheld $679 million in emergency Covid-19 relief funds meant for Indian tribes until a judge ordered its distribution in a June 15 decision.

“Sovereign nations shouldn’t have to fight for money that Congress approves, ever,” tweeted Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico, one of two Native American women in Congress.

That issue of sovereignty is at the heart of a struggle being waged by the Cheyenne River Sioux in South Dakota, who set up Covid-19 health checkpoints on main roads entering their reservation. 

As the tribe’s chairman Harold Frazier said, the measure has proven effective, largely preserving the reservation as “an island of safety in a sea of uncertainty and death.”

But South Dakota’s Republican governor, Kristi Noem, is taking legal steps to dismantle the checkpoints, claiming they are “unlawful” as they prevent the free passage of non-native truck drivers and others whose business requires they traverse the highways inside the reservation boundaries.

Noem was also a staunch supporter of the Dakota access pipeline, scene of a months-long standoff at Standing Rock in 2016, where protesters were met with armed soldiers, police in riot gear and the use of water cannon in freezing weather. 

To Yellow Hair, Noem’s is just the latest example of the traditional white reaction to Indian activism, which has always been seen as a threat. 

Indians, he said, are “supposed to know their place.”

He recalled the menacing response of a previous South Dakota governor, Bill Janklow, while still the state’s attorney general, who said of then American Indian movement leader Dennis Banks: “The way to deal with Dennis Banks is with a bullet between the eyes.”

Linda Pentz Gunter is the curator and editor of Beyond Nuclear International and the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear, a non-profit membership organisation in Maryland. 

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