Challenges facing American Indians

There are 2.4 million American Indians living within the territorial boundaries of the United States, according to the 2000 census. Although a full picture is less than clear and statistics vary from tribe to tribe, there are challenges that exist across Indian country. Median wages for both American Indian men and women are below the national average. Many tribes have poverty rates above the national average. The poverty rate for Cherokee is 18.1 percent, for Chippewa, 23.7 percent, and for Navajo, 37 percent, based on the 2000 Census. The Associated Press reported in July that the results of a Freedom of Information Act request show that the Navajo Nation lost $9.2 million a year in Head Start funding due to broken playground equipment, heaters, and a host of other problems.

There is also rampant drug abuse facing many tribes. According to congressional testimony of William P. Ragsdale, director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, methamphetamine use "is destroying lives in Indian country."

"Tribal leaders are using terms like 'out of control' and 'epidemic' when describing to me their tribe's experience with meth," Ragsdale said in the testimony. "Some leaders are suggesting that on their reservations, a whole generation of young people may soon be lost to this one drug. The social effects of meth use go beyond destroying the body and mind of the user. Addicted parents are neglecting to care for their own children and meth is fueling homicides, aggravated assaults, rape, child abuse, and other violent crimes."

Some see a direct connection between the lack of access to official tribal records and proceedings and social ills facing reservations.

"My position is that it's the number one cause of poverty and corruption on reservations," said Bill Lawrence, editor of the Native American Press/Ojibwe News in Minnesota and a member of the Red Lake band. "Until that's changed, reservations will never improve and they'll continue to deteriorate and get worse."