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Native Americans' true past informs their future

Every major cultural, ethnic and racial group in the United States sets aside time to celebrate its heritage and accomplishments. Some notable occasions like Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanza serve as reminders that we are a pastiche of nations and histories, bound together by our democratic values and our mutual respect for identity and systems of belief.

But what of our country's oldest, arguably most deeply rooted group — American Indians and Alaskan Natives? What do we know about native heritage? What is true? What is myth?

This is not one of those "we all should feel so guilty" moments. Instead, let's recognize where we are as a society and how we can work together to strive for better outcomes for the peoples who were here before there was a United States. In my work on native culture issues, I see some positive signs of change.

First, a bit of math, and a reality check: Right now, only 5.2 million individuals claim American Indian or Native Alaskan ancestry. They are spread across all 50 states, 22 percent living on reservations. Most are concentrated in a handful of states, including New Mexico, Oklahoma, Montana, Alaska and the Dakotas. But even in cities or states where there are measurable concentrations of native population, the numbers are too low to be considered a constituency with real political power. This doesn't mean that Indians have zero impact on local and national politics — but it does indicate that there is serious work to do in order to strengthen their status.

Indeed, unless you live in a city or a state with a large number of American Indians or Native Alaskans, you might believe that they simply don't exist. Our government's 150-year-old decision to encapsulate the Indian experience on set-aside tracts of land has made them virtually invisible to many of us.

Generally, we're content with the foundational myths of idyllic times for American Indians and white settlers, which is perpetuated during elementary school pageants held just before Thanksgiving. It's here where we learn to believe stories about benevolent pilgrims and natives, joining together to make it through the cold winter months.

Of course, the facts are much more robust: American Indians governed territories, managed disputes, conducted business — the things that we would expect of leaders.

Their descendants head big companies on Wall Street. Some are doctors, professors, lawmakers, writers, scientists, and so on.

But many also face contemporary problems shared across American cultures.

It's the disproportionate number of Indians who are victims of crime or the relatively high rate of serious health problems and suicide among the various tribes that is the real issue.

Imagine another group in the United States dealing with these problems, plus the added burden of struggles over land rights or competition over economic development. American Indians and Alaskan Natives are not simply trying to get a larger slice of the American pie, they are engaged in a daily fight to have a seat at the table.

Many know that our government and large corporations have exploited natives for centuries. The public has heard about the epic battles like Little Big Horn, and repressive laws such as the Indian Removal Act. They understand that a proud and inspiring people have been left behind in an era of globalization and technology.

Frankly, many American Indians and Alaskan Natives are ashamed of the current state of their affairs. Visit a lot of reservations, and what do you see? Poverty, disorder, crime, drugs, rusting cars and battered homes.

This is not about a handout or reparations, as was promoted in a recent United Nations report. It's not just a matter of improving the management of tribal relations. Where we are now, I believe, entails a notable shift in perspective — both mainstream Americans' and that of American Indians, too. Among policy makers inside and outside of Indian country, I sense a willingness to explore new methods of achieving a positive way forward — methods that are meaningful, measurable and scalable. To do nothing, to keep the Indians, in essence, "on reserve," is to waste a heritage. And that, absolutely and with finality, damages our nation.

During the past two decades many American Indians and Alaskan Natives have exercised greater control over their education, health care and legal stature. Individual tribes have made important strides to preserve their language and improve protections under affirmative action, and they have helped usher in numerous laws, including the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010, which provided more resources for better criminal justice services on reservations than previously existed. Even though many Americans have false beliefs or skewed realities about American Indians and Alaskan Natives, in the future I hope that Indians are both better appreciated and more tightly woven into the fabric of our society.

Eventually, I believe, democratic societies mature in their attitudes about virtually everything — in this case there is a growing sense that in the 21st century, the promise of political autonomy and sovereignty accorded to reservation life must be rethought. The question is, what does a more equitable place for natives look like? What work must we do, collectively and as individuals, in order to let go of mythologies, ensure the long-term survival of the native peoples, and embrace a better future?

The future looks promising, but it requires vigilance and tenacity in order to protect hard earned gains in the legislative and policy arenas.

Hundreds of years into our history, the fabric of American culture, despite its frayed edges, is careworn but still cared for. I see natives everywhere among those threads, and I believe that others do as well. Let's do two things: Save it, and use it.

Jeffrey Ian Ross is a professor in the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Baltimore. His most recent book is American Indians at Risk. His website is www.jeffreyianross.com and his email is jross@ubalt.edu.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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