Over one-third of all Native people live on reservations. Income levels on some reservations are extremely low. Pine Ridge reservation in Allen, SD, has the lowest in the country, at $1,539 per year.
Overall, the per capita income of Native Americans on reservations is half that of other people in the United States. The “extreme poverty” rate of a population is defined as the percentage of families earning under half of the poverty threshold.
In 2010, the extreme poverty threshold for a family of four was about $11,000, or $2,750 a year per person. The rate of extreme poverty on the largest reservations averages four times the national average.
In addition to high poverty rates, Native people suffer many other conditions of material hardship. Nearly 10 percent of all Native families are homeless. At over 14 percent, the rate of Native homes without electricity is 10 times the national average. Twenty percent of Native households lack running water. The unemployment rate on some reservations can be as high as 75 percent, while the infant mortality rate is about 300 percent higher than the national average. The life expectancy of Native men is 50 years of age.
In addition, there are blatantly exploitative practices imposed on Native American communities. Native lands become the site of garbage landfills, while uranium mining and disposable uranium tailings pollute many reservations. Nuclear waste is stored on some reservation sites, and up until 1991, atomic bombs were tested on some reservations.
To quote Native Community Action Council Vice President Ian Zabarte: “The Western Shoshone are the most bombed nation in the world. … The United States has violated the very essence of this treaty by testing its nuclear weapons on our lands and people.’’ Although most reservation lands are considered sovereign, testing has been conducted without any consent or compensation.
Recently, the Obama administration signed the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This non-binding declaration recognizes the rights of some 360 million Indigenous people around the world. The document was introduced in 2007, when 143 countries approved it, 11 abstained, and 4—the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand—voted against it. Since then, three have switched their votes, leaving the U.S. as the last holdout.
The declaration affirms, amongst many other things, that Indigenous peoples, “in the exercise of their rights, should be free from discrimination of any kind,” and “that indigenous people have suffered from historic injustices as a result of ... their colonisation and dispossession of their lands, territories and resources, thus preventing them from exercising, in particular, their right to development in accordance with their own needs and interests, … recognising the urgent need to respect and promote the rights of indigenous peoples affirmed in treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements with states, ... bearing in mind that nothing in this declaration may be used to deny any peoples their right to self-determination exercised in conformity with international law.”
So why did it take the U.S. government so long to sign the document? Why did they hold out until they were the only country in the entire world that would not recognize basic human dignities of Indigenous peoples? Perhaps it has to do with the policy of genocide that began when the colonists first set foot in this country. Since then, the United States has waged a continuing effort to totally annihilate the Indigenous population and to steal all of their lands and resources, by economic exploitation, cultural imperialism and violent removal.
This is frequently accomplished by creating conditions that cause great economic hardships for Indigenous peoples.
All of this indicates the blatant hypocrisy of the signing of the declaration in the first place. Imperialist countries such as the United States will never hold the rights of Indigenous peoples as a priority—not as long as there is a blade of grass, speck of sand or drop of water to be consumed will the insatiable thirst of capitalism be quenched.
The recognition of sovereign rights of Indigenous peoples must begin with reparations here and around the world. No UN declaration can amend the fact that the roots of this country are bathed in the blood of Indigenous peoples, and the actions continued against them today cannot be wiped away with a signed piece of paper.