Earlier this year the United States Congress urged the owner of the Washington Redskins as well as the commissioner of the NFL to change the name of the team due to offense caused amongst Native Americans. This was to be a reawakening of a controversy that has existed over the team’s name dating back to its coinage in 1933, when it was supposedly changed as homage to the then head coach and several players on the team who were Native heritage. In recent weeks the debate has gained significant traction with everyone from sports casters to President Barack Obama weighing in against the team owner’s vow never to change the name.
On face value this outrage seems justified, even if the National Annenberg Survey suggested that 90% of Natives polled were not offended by the name. However, I suspect that to a large extent society has feigned outrage here. After all, where is the outrage over the current issues that are wreaking havoc with the frail Native population?
Few would argue against the historical injustice of their displacement on the American continent. However, there are equally few pragmatic remedies for their disadvantaged descendants. The nomadic ancestors of the natives made their way to the continent 12000 years ago, and by the time European explorers arrived there were already over 50 million people living in the Americas. Today only 2.9 million Americans report to be exclusively of Native ancestry, which amounts to less than 1% of the population. All hope of ever recovering the land of their ancestors has long since been extinguished and the Indian reservations have become the last dying sanctuaries of those hoping to maintain their cultural identity. The question about their heritage and future success is not one of restoration but of survival.
Today 61% of all natives reside outside reservations, up from 38% in 1970 and only 8% in 1940. Relatively speaking this urbanisation is faster than any other ethnic group in American history. This trend, however, appears to have been overlooked largely because it is dwarfed in comparison to other demographic shifts, such as that of African-Americans to the industrial north and subsequent urbanisation.
One would think that this fast integration into main-stream society would bode well for American natives. With better education, greater opportunity for employment, and access to the federal and state justice system this is true for some natives, who have managed to adjust well into urban life. However statistics tell a darker truth. The most recent US census revealed that overall 27% of Natives in America lived in poverty compared with only 14,3% of Americans. For example in Rapid city, South Dakota, 50% of Native Americans live in poverty.
The poor socio-economic conditions many urbanised natives face has likely led to a combination of many other symptoms including higher rates of accidental deaths, diabetes, liver disease, alcohol related deaths, and child abuse. Their destitution has also led to more widespread drug abuse and the proliferation of violent street gangs.
The American Indian is one of the most disadvantaged ethnic groups in the USA. This is not surprising given the injustice and loss of heritage they have suffered and continue to suffer. However, what is on some level surprising is the lack of discussion about their fate and contemporary issues. It is hard to see how Native society can successfully address and resolve these issues without greater public interest and debate.