Beyond Sports Mascots & Columbus Day: Urgent Issues for Native Americans

When many non-Native people talk about Native Americans and political issues, the topics are usually pretty limited. We often hear wry comments about Columbus Day or debates on the use of Indian images as sports mascots. But while cultural issues are important to many Native people, they aren't the ones that impact well-being and survival on a daily basis. Those of us who aren't Native don't hear about the more urgent needs. With key bills before Congress, now's the time to get informed and take action.

American Indians and Alaska Natives have the poorest rate of cancer survival of all ethnic groups. Diabetes-related deaths, infant mortality and SIDS deaths are at higher rates than for other Americans. Ten percent of Indian homes lack access to safe and adequate water supplies. The bill that seeks to address these problems, a newly expanded Indian Health Care Improvement Act, has passed both houses of Congress as part of the health care reform legislation. Advocates will closely watch what happens to the bills in the coming weeks. For more information, check with the National Indian Health Board.

Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse
While these forms of abuse are found in all US communities, they are being reported at epidemic levels in Indian Country. The Tribal Law and Order Act would address these and other urgent safety issues, such as unsafe detention centers. Both the House and Senate versions need cosponsors. Please write your Representatives and Senatorsto ask for their support.

Cobell lawsuit
This case should be all over the news, but isn't. The Friends Committee on National Legislation summarizes it best: “In the 1996 class action suit the plaintiff, Elouise Cobell, charged that the government mismanaged more than $100 billion in oil, timber, grazing and other royalties on land owned by some 500,000 individual Indian beneficiaries. These properties were held in trust by the US government, with all royalties to go to Native American individuals and tribes. The royalties were never transferred to the Native American trustors, though many if not all of the rightful recipients continued to live in poverty for generations.”

In December 2009, the case was settled for what was thought to be the best possible outcome under lousy circumstances. That, however, amounts to only $1,000 per plaintiff.

Here's where you can help. Congress has until February 28 to approve funds for the settlement. Please ask your members of Congress to specify that these payments will not be taxed or offset against benefits that Native Americans may be receiving from federal programs. Any improvements to the settlement will be valuable to recipients.

I plan to bring you other updates on Native issues in the future. From tribal sovereignty to lack of phone service, there's a lot that many of us don't hear about. I welcome your feedback and suggestions.