Map of Indian reservations
Map of Indian reservations in 1890

The federal government of the United States recognises 566 Native American tribes while more than 200 have not received this recognition. Achieving federal recognition as a tribe is a tough ordeal for tribal elders who have to submit extensive genealogical proof of tribal descent and also evidence of the continuity of the tribe’s culture.

Not all tribes consider that the end result is worth the effort but there are some benefits. A tribe thus recognised has earned itself the right to label as Native American any arts and crafts it produces, and its members can apply for grants which are reserved for Native Americans.

Having federal recognition as a tribe does not, however, prevent multinational corporations from exploiting its land and natural resources. The Navajo are a case in point. They have been forced to move from their traditional homelands because of the coal and uranium discovered there. Extraction of these substances has depleted the tribe’s aquifer, and created radioactive waste which has had damaging effects on the health of both the people and their livestock.

So what does the Navajo tribe have in exchange? They have 42% unemployment, 38% are without running water or electricity, half live below the federal poverty line, and they lack access to fresh produce and fruit.

Across Native Americans generally, more than one in four lives below the poverty line, but for those living on reservations, the percentage can be substantially higher. There are huge numbers of homeless Indians, while others live in crowded conditions often because they feel unable to refuse shelter to a homeless relative. Very frequently there is no connection to a mains sewer.

Indian Health Services is supposed to provide healthcare for Native Americans, but it is sorely underfunded. In practice, there are long waits, a lack of local provision necessitating long journeys, and basically a huge discrepancy between their experience and that of other elements in society

The fast food curse hits Native Americans extra-hard
The fast food curse hits Native Americans extra-hard

The average life expectancy for Native American is 5 years less than that of other Americans. One of the factors is the horrific prevalence of suicide among the young – two and a half times the national average. Another is diabetes at nearly three times the national rate. This last is in very large part due to the imposition of a white American food culture onto people who at one time were entirely self-sufficient on the land which they still occupy.

The Tohona O’odham, a federally recognised tribe in the Sonoran Desert, once grew a multitude of crops such as cholla buds, acorns, tepary beans and mesquite seed pods. Now they eat processed foods like other Americans and they have a nearly 50% incidence of Type 2 diabetes. Ironically, their native foods can prevent and reduce diabetes, so there is a move towards restoring the tribe’s health by promoting an indigenous diet.

Very broadly speaking, the closer that American Indians remain or return to their native ways, the healthier they are. This is due in part, of course, to the psychological benefits of tribal identity and pride in their race.

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