UN sends a strong message to U.S. about the state of its indigenous people

January 21, 2010

The United Nation’s first report on The State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, released on January 14, 2010, contains figures and an assessment that are both shocking and illuminating, even to those who are familiar with indigenous rights issues. The report evaluates the state of indigenous populations in specific countries and situations, in both the developed and developing world.

The report states that,

“Indigenous peoples suffer from the consequences of historic injustice, including colonization, dispossession of their lands, territories and resources, oppression and discrimination, as well as lack of control over their own ways of life. Their right to development has been largely denied by colonial and modern States in the pursuit of economic growth”

The United States is by no means exempt from the report’s critique. Despite increased state and federal acknowledgment of the challenges that Native Americans and Alaska Natives face in the U.S., the U.S. has made only incremental change and continues to generate appalling statistics and significant disparities. A recent study that applied the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index (HDI) – which measures health, education and standard of living — to indigenous populations in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand found that while the U.S. ranked seventh overall (globally), U.S. American Indians and Alaska Natives ranked thirtieth.

The State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples notes that nearly a quarter of Native Americans and Alaska Natives live below the poverty line in the U.S., compared to about 12.5 percent of the total population, and pinpoints the direct relationship that the educational deficit has upon economic opportunities and employment rates.

Native Americans and Alaska Natives in the U.S. face higher death rates than other Americans from diseases such as tuberculosis and diabetes, motor vehicle crashes, alcoholism, unintentional injuries, homicide, and suicide. The UN report also addresses the particular vulnerability of indigenous women to violence and sexual violence.  It cites our Maze of Injustice report statistic that Native American women are 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually violated than women in the United States in general.

In 2009, both Congress and the Obama Administration took instrumental steps to begin addressing some of the most pressing issues that Native Americans and Alaska Natives face in the United States. Our Amnesty team is also working to ensure that Congress and the Administration will make addressing issues of sexual assault and domestic violence against Native women a top priority. We are hopeful that passage of the Tribal Law and Order Act in 2010 will be a significant step in the right direction.

As President Obama remarked during the White House Tribal Nations Conference in November 2009,

“Together, working together, we’re going to make sure that the First Americans, along with all Americans, get the opportunities they deserve.”

We could not agree more.