USCCB addresses Indian reservation poverty

“We have no hope; it will always be like this.”  Lakota Sioux resident of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation South Dakota.

There are 7 million American Indians in the U.S., one-fourth living and dying on reservations under conditions rivaling third world countries. Most are Christian, many are Catholic. They are the poorest of all American ethnic groups with the highest rate of poverty.

Pine Ridge, the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre, is the home of the Lakota Sioux and is a microcosm of the worst of problems existing on some reservations, and one of the two poorest counties in the nation.

Here, the Oglala Lakota struggle on meager government subsistence. Men have a life expectancy of fewer than 44 years, 97% live below the poverty line, unemployment is greater than 80%, and the median annual income less than $3,500. Many of the substandard homes need repair and lack clean water and sewage, 40% lack electricity or propane, addictions affect 9 in 10 families. Diseases—tuberculosis, diabetes, cancer, are 800% higher than the national average, so too for suicide—many of the youth do not reach the age of 25.  A typical grocery store is smaller than a gas station convenience store, primarily stocked with processed food, no fresh produce.

The abysmal state of education is among the worst in the nation. Built in 1958, and like many reservation schools, Wounded Knee elementary school facility in Manderson is in desperate need of repair and needs replacement. Lacking basic supplies, fresh food is in short supply, asbestos underlies the flooring and hangs on the pipes, lead-based paint still exists, and there are serious fire code violations.

The root cause of the economic situation is tied to the land, much of it held in trust and controlled by the government.  As such, the American Indians have become the most regulated people on earth.  Homeownership here isn’t possible.  Most only have the right to occupy the land.  Since they do not own their homes, they have little incentive or the money to repair them—nor any collateral to start a business.

How did it get this bad?

We must first go back to the Doctrine of Discovery first appeared in Spain, and then was adopted by the British, and then worked its way into the U.S. Constitution and federal legislation ever since.  When the “New World” was being discovered—the question was: who is to take possession of these newly discovered lands? 

In 1492, acting under the international laws of Western Christendom, Columbus was to “take possession” of the land for Spain.  These “laws” took shape from two papal bulls (1452 and 1493).  The intent was to recognize and defend any Spanish claim and that Spain was to bring the people of the new land to Christianity and prevent enemies of Christ to lay any claims, at a time when Islam was spreading across Europe.

The controversial 1452 bull, Dum diversas was written before Columbus or any knowledge of a new world or the existence of any indigenous people.  Popes Nicolas and Alexander I did not intend that they should be mistreated or lose their land.   Pope Paul III in 1537 (in Sublimes Dues) clarified that … Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be enslaved, deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ. Catholic social teachings have since repeated this stance. Over time the driving force of the Doctrine of Discovery was money and has had dire consequences as it has unfolded in U.S. Indian law that includes three related Supreme Court cases under Chief Justice John Marshall (1810, 1823 and 1835).

Loss of Sovereignty, Loss of the land

In 1887, after the dissolution of the treaties, the General Allotment Act in 1887 provided the means to take millions of reservation acres guaranteed to Indians and marked the beginning of misguided paternalism by the federal government toward Indian people that continues today. Additional losses resulted from the Burke Act (1906) and the Reorganization Act (1934) and amendments to the Land Consolidation Act. Lands not fully owned by individuals were placed into a “trust” system wherein the government has final authority over the land and its use. The fractionated patchwork of land remaining with its restrictions is a major obstacle to housing and business development.  Since, there has been a continuing erosion of Native powers to govern and manage their lands and resources.

The legal framework as it exists today is not only inconsistent with the Constitution, but also with basic human rights having adverse consequences for the Indian and their ability to correct the social and economic injustices.   Toward self-sufficiencytribal members and their governments are trying to piece together their homelands through purchases, gifts and the return of government-held land. The continuance of tribes as sovereign nations, their individual cultures and language is at stake when the land base is diminished.

What can the Church do?

 “We have no hope. It will always be like this.” No hope leads to despair, and despair leads to many of the social issues such as suicide and the widespread substance abuse. We must restore their hope that things will improve.

The reservation poverty issue touches the core of Catholic social teachings, as we find on the battlefields of pro-life and religious freedom. Responding to this social disparity is part of our Catholic identity and requires effective social justice advocacy. Public awareness is crucial and the Catholic news media can play a major role.

While credit has to be given to organizations such as the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), Catholic Home Missions, etc., charitable donations are just a band-aid on the problem.  A long-term solution requires major reforms at the Federal level and begins with the Church’s presence on Capitol Hill, supporting the tribes and pro-Indian legislation. It must become a national priority with all Americans engaged to solve it.

Toward this end, the USCCB Subcommittee on Native American affairs is now actively meeting with Native American leaders to listen to their concerns.   They have issued the “Two Rivers” Report (on the USCCB Website) providing useful statistical data and the initial steps the Church will take to deal with this crisis.    Besides citing the gifts the Catholic Native American communities have given us, it discusses the Church’s role in evangelization, the need to strengthen the schools, and to put pressure on Congress to reform Federal Indian laws governing reservations.  You are encouraged to review its content.

Let us all become involved; and this begins with prayer.

Prayer to Help Native Peoples

Lord Jesus Christ, Lord of compassion and strength, we ask for your guiding hand as we come together to assist our brothers and sisters who are struggling on Indian reservations throughout our great nation.  Help us to overcome the challenges we face in this most difficult undertaking. In the spirit of reform, open the minds and hearts of our government leaders so they may come together and devise a system that is fair and equitable to those Native Peoples who have suffered so long from many social injustices that have extinguished their hope. Assist us in our work. Allow us to be a beacon of light.  Give us your grace to reach out to the most vulnerable, create jobs and opportunities where they are most needed, to help families subsisting on meager government incomes, those in substandard housing and the dispossessed First Peoples of this land, so that we may achieve the needed changes inspired by the Gospel. We ask these in your name.  Amen

Rich May is from the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. He has been actively working with the Lakota Sioux and the USCCB Subcommittee on Native American affairs.