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Native Lives Matter goes beyond police brutality

The US cannot achieve social and racial equality without the inclusion of its indigenous population

February 25, 2016 2:00AM ET

Native Americans are more likely to be killed by police than any other ethnic group in the U.S., but the national dialogue about racial bias and criminal justice reform continues to exclude them. The absence of American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians from conversations about police brutality and social inequality exemplifies the United States’ complicity to the continued marginalization and neglect of Native communities.

Not only do Native Americans need to be included in the debate over police violence against minority populations, but their inclusion must also expand beyond such discussions to other social issues. Native men and women, for instance, are overrepresented in the prison system and as victims of sexual violence. Yet black and Latino males have become the faces of mass incarceration. Native students are suspended and referred to law enforcement and even expelled from schools at disproportionate rates. And Indian reservations have disproportionately high rates of poverty and unemployment.

Most Americans are unaware that a Native Lives Matter campaign even exists. Established in 2014, it speaks to the historical and contemporary oppression of indigenous people in the United States. With the national spotlight on police and criminal justice reform, the Native Lives Matter movement has an opportunity to highlight numerous issues affecting Native Americans.

Even in states with large Native populations, Native Americans suffer the same fate. In Hawaii, for example, Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders make up 10 percent of state’s population but are 39 percent of its prison population. Natives make up 38 percent of Alaska’s prison population despite being only 15 percent of the state’s population. Given this dynamic, the current focus on black and Latino males in the debate on criminal justice reform has rendered incarcerated Native men and women insignificant.

The oppression of Native people is not limited to the criminal justice system. Native American women are twice as likely to be victims of sexual assault as women in any other race. On reservations, women are ten times more likely to be murdered than other Americans. Last month, activists raised concerns about the rise in the number of Native women murdered and kidnapped in northern Minnesota. Activists fear that some of these women have been forced into a sex trafficking and allege that the police were being apathetic. These issues did not rise to the level of national crises because many Americans are oblivious to the plight of Native people.

To be clear, the Native Lives Matter movement isn’t simply calling for the inclusion of Natives into the conversation along with blacks and Latinos. The history and legacy of colonialism is critical to understanding issues that still plague Native communities. More than 120 years after U.S. troops overthrew the Kingdom of Hawaii, Hawaiian Natives account for roughly one-third of the state’s homeless population. They still have high poverty rates and are profiled as criminals. 

The U.S. cannot achieve social and racial equality without the inclusion of its original inhabitants.

A sense of lost identity and isolation due to colonialism has led to staggering youth suicide rates for Native Americans. A 2015 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that of Native Americans who die from suicide, 40 percent are between the ages of 15 and 24. There are some similarities between Natives and other minority groups, but Americans must acknowledge the legacy of colonialism and government policies that created these inequalities.

Native Lives Matter transcends the plight of Native Americans. The oppression and marginalization of indigenous people is a global practice. The native populations of Canada, Australia and New Zealand face similar abuses including in the criminal justice system. In Canada, First Nations women in Quebec have alleged that police officers physically and sexual abused intoxicated Native women.

Yet the major U.S. media outlets appear uninterested in covering issues affecting Native Americans besides mascot controversies. Even intellectuals who criticize black underclass culture such as Heather MacDonald, a fellow at the conservative think-tank the Manhattan Institute, appear indifferent to the plight of Native Americans. In a recent Op-Ed for the Wall Street Journal, MacDonald sought to discredit the Black Lives Matter’s claim about disproportionate killings of African-Americans. She documented the murder of whites and Latinos by police, but not the deaths of Native Americans.

This lack of public interest in Native American issues is unjustifiable but not surprising. The groups’ history is rarely covered outside of the 19th century in school curriculums. This has made Americans to be unappreciative of Native American history. In “Violence over the Land,” historian Ned Blackhawk noted that the site of the 1893 Bear River Massacre, where approximately 250 Shoshones were slaughtered in Idaho, was used as a dumping ground until the 1990s.

The social neglect of Native people is not a relic of the distance past. Usually when Americans acknowledge Natives, it is to score political points. Pro-immigration activists reference Natives to make anachronistic arguments that European settlers were “illegal aliens.”

The leading Democratic presidential candidates, at least, have not totally ignored these issues. In October, Democratic presidential candidates, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered video messages to the National Congress of American Indians in San Diego, California. Both pledged to protect the treaty rights of Native Americans, create opportunities Native youth and strengthen policing and justice in the Indian Country. But activists shouldn’t depend on political candidates to highlight or address the problems that still plague Natives Americans.

Racial conflicts between Natives and non-Natives in the United States predate that of blacks and whites. Yet the Black-White binary remains emblematic of the discourse on race relations. Natives need to be incorporated into our national dialogue about race, and the media need to cover the Native Lives Matter movement and bring its cause into the mainstream. Academics and pollsters should incorporate Native Americans into studies and surveys about racial equality, and U.S. lawmakers and politicians must develop policies to address issues affecting them. The U.S. cannot achieve social and racial equality without the inclusion of its original inhabitants. 

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article misstated a statistic on the percentage of Native American suicide victims who are between 15 and 24 years old. We regret the error.

Aaron G. Fountain Jr. is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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