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What a Fool Believes...
by Todd Ziebarth : Editor, Terrain.org

A Different Kind of Warfare?

Earlier this year, the United States Justice Department released its first nationwide survey of violence in the life of Native Americans. Its primary finding: Native Americans are victims of violent crime at a rate more than double that of the rest of the population. The average annual rate at which Native Americans are victims of crimes is 124 per 1,000 people over the age of 12, about 2½ times the national average of 50 crimes per 1,000 people over the age of 12. The average for whites is 49 per 1,000; for blacks, 61 per 1,000; and for Asians, 29 per 1,000.

All of this points to a larger question. It is a difficult question, though, and one that we want to assume has been sufficiently addressed. To face the truth, to admit that the question is inadequately answered, is too unbearable, for such an admission is likely to darken the ideals of the American experiment. To ask the question means searching into a part of the American character as wide open as the Great Plains, and as harsh and as unforgiving as well. Entering this inquiry forces one to attempt a reconciliation of the rhetorical and literal foundations of the United States of America, and calls into question the fundamental basis of our society, its past, present and future. The question: What is the quality of life of this nation's indigenous people?

A people's quality of life can be determined by looking at an almost endless amount of factors. Poverty rates, unemployment rates and numerous health-related issues are a few that come to mind. In my opinion, given our assumptions about the connections between poverty, unemployment, sickness and violence, and given that so much of the United States of America's evolution is based on warfare against Native Americans, violence is an especially appropriate indicator.

Sidney Harring, a professor of law at the City University of New York School of Law and an expert on Native American crime and criminal law, provided an almost irrefutable summary of the U.S. Justice Department's findings. According to Harring, much of the violence against Native Americans by other racial groups is attributable to racism and alcohol, with Native Americans most often being victimized by poor, drunken whites. Essentially, people on the margins are hurting each other. Furthermore, there are still high levels of prejudice against Native Americans in the West, where most Native Americans live, and the culture that lives on the edges of Native American reservations, including law enforcement officials, tolerates this violence.

How do we respond to these troubling trends in violence rates, and the others, such as poverty and unemployment rates, that may lie closer to the heart of the problem? In answering this question, it is important to remember the various perspectives among Americans and Native Americans that form the contemporary context of this conversation. For the sake of space, I will simplify these perspectives, and present the two American perspectives and the two Native American perspectives that I am most familiar with. These perspectives represent the extreme views among Americans and Native Americans, and there are many perspectives that lie in between them.

First, there is the view among some Americans which holds that we owe very little to Native Americans. According to this view, people have been killing people for their land since the beginning of time. In this case, we won and they lost, and they just need to deal with that fact and move on with their lives. Another perspective views Native Americans as noble savages, and mythologizes their lives as blissfully peaceful before the arrival of Europeans. From this perspective, white Americans are solely responsible for the current quality of life among Native Americans.

Among Native Americans, there are some who believe that Native Americans need to enter the mainstream of American society, and this belief has been put into practice. According to Peter Iverson, a professor of history at Arizona State University, there has been a significant shift in Native American population over the past 20 years, with a majority of Native Americans now living in urban areas. On the flip side, though, some Native Americans strongly believe in a wall of separation between the two cultures. According to this view, the United States of America destroyed a way of life over the course of a few hundred years, and can offer nothing of value in consolation. In fact, what if offered is not even wanted. The crux of this view: You have done enough harm, so leave us alone, and we will leave you alone.

With these perspectives in mind, as well as remembering that there are a multitude of others that exist, how do we improve the quality of life among this nation's indigenous peoples? When answering this question, some of the more practical solutions involve, to one extent or another, the integration of the American and Native American cultures, with the former usually assuming precedence over the latter. To Americans, integration usually means that others adopt our values and assume our habits. As an example, one needs to look no further than to one of the pillars of American vices: Gambling. It appears that building and operating casinos on Native American reservations is one of the current responses to the problems of poverty and unemployment among Native Americans. Is this the most viable solution that we can create, and one that speaks to the better parts of all of us?

No matter how one answers the questions raised in this column, it appears that both these questions and whatever answers we can offer are on the periphery of this nation's concerns. Maybe this is how some Americans and Native Americans prefer it, and maybe this is how it ought to be, although I doubt it. For good reason, this nation is attempting to deal with how our ancestors treated many minorities. As evidence, listen to the raging debates within this country over affirmative action, multiculturalism and school busing. What will it take to move the question about the quality of life of this country's indigenous people to a more prominent and substantive part in the evolving American experiment? If and when it does arrive, how will we answer it, both individually and collectively, as Americans, Native Americans, and human beings?


Todd Ziebarth is a policy analyst at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. He is also a founding editor of Terrain.org. In addition to his regular Terrain.org column, Ziebarth sometimes reviews books and CDs for the journal. He has a master's degree in public administration and a master's degree in urban and regional planning.
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