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Over the last 13 years, has life improved in Indian Country?

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights wants to know if living conditions for American Indian and Alaskan Native people has improved over the last decade.

To answer that question, the commission will update its seminal report, The Quiet Crisis, later this year so it may continue to guide federal and state policy in Indian Country since its 2003 release, explained Martin Castro, chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

“I think what we’re going to be finding is that a lot of the unmet needs that we saw in 2003 remain unmet,” Castro said.

For hundreds of years, the U.S. government made treaty agreements in exchange for hundreds of millions of acres of land that had belonged to Native American tribes.

But one problem is that, often, treaty obligations simply aren’t honored, despite laws passed by Congress to help Native American communities. For more than 50 years, the commission has documented these discrepancies.

“[L]aws and policies are meaningless without resources to enforce them,” the 2003 report noted.

And the legacy of these broken promises play out daily in the lives of Native Americans today, Castro said. Lack of adequate access to healthcare, education, job opportunities and housing — Native Americans experience these disparities that are largely unmatched elsewhere in the United States, he said.

For example, a person’s average life expectancy in Indian Country was nearly six years less than the rest of the United States. More than a decade later, that figure has improved slightly, but a gap remains — 4.8 years.

And about half of all Native American high school students graduate from Bureau of Indian Education schools, compared to their peers from the same communities who instead attended public schools.

In its 2016 budget recommendations, the Obama Administration has placed greater priority to funding programs and services in Indian Country, but Congress gets final approval.

Supporting the 567 federally recognized Native American tribes serves two purposes, Castro said: “It’s one thing to meet our obligations, but we want to make sure that they are and remain independent peoples.”

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