November is National Native American Heritage Month. This time is dedicated to recognizing the many sacrifices, contributions, and history of Native Americans and celebrating their culture and heritage, that has deeply enriched the character of our nation.
More than 570 federally recognized tribes are in the United States, all with their own customs and traditions. Each tribe has its own governing principles. In fact, the United States Constitution is based on the Iroquois Constitution, also known as the Great Law of Peace. In 1988, the U.S. Senate recognized the Great Law of Peace as inspiration for the U.S. Constitution, stating, “The confederation of the original 13 colonies into one republic was inﬂuenced by the political system developed by the Iroquois Confederacy, as were many of the democratic principles which were incorporated into the constitution itself.”
Despite their contributions to our nation’s guiding principles (and beyond), Native Americans are wildly underrepresented in legal professions. A 2014 study from the American Bar Association found that there were only 2,640 Native American attorneys, which compromises 0.2% of the 1.2 million total attorneys in the U.S. In 1980, 0.32% of law students were Native American compared to 0.82% in 2010. These 2010 numbers may be over-representative, however, as there is a phenomenon of checking the Native American box when individuals are actually not Native American.
A contemporary example of systemic racism as it relates to Native Americans is COVID-19. COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted indigenous communities. In 23 states with sufficient race/ethnicity data, Native Americans were 3.5x more likely to have contracted COVID-19 than a non-Hispanic white person. Even this is a “gross underreporting,” comments Abigail Echo-Hawk, the director of the Urban Indian Health Institute. At the end of April, the Navajo Nation had the third-highest per capita rate of COVID-19 in the country, behind New Jersey and New York. This is dangerous given other systemic issues, such as Native Americans being less likely to have health insurance, being lower on the socioeconomic ladder, and the exclusion of indigenous communities from data sets and analyses used to make health policy decisions.
COVID-19 has also had economic consequences for Native Americans. For example, the Hualapai tribe decided to close down the Grand Canyon horseshoe skywalk to keep in line with CDC regulations; however, that was their primary income source. Also, there is no single Native American-owned casino open, and many other tribal businesses are closed. Joseph Kalt, a politics professor at Harvard, said, “The economic impact of COVID-19 on Native American communities could be devastating.”
The American government removed many indigenous peoples from their land and confined them to reservations, which cut them off from traditional diets and lifestyles. As a result, Native Americans are not only being infected and dying from COVID-19 but are also suffering from higher rates of obesity, diabetes, asthma, and heart disease [than white Americans]. They also have higher rates of suicide. In a socioeconomic vein, the median income for a Native household is $39,700, nearly a third less than the overall American average of $57,600. So, while it is essential to have a Native American Heritage Month to recognize the contributions and struggles of indigenous communities, it is arguably more important to acknowledge that we are honoring a group of people that are still actively being oppressed.
What can you do?
Here are some best practices and organizations to donate to/get involved with:
Native American Inclusivity: Native Americans are underrepresented in most professional realms. This should be recognized and righted within your organization. The INAERP (listed below) is an excellent resource if you do not know where to begin.
Indian and Native American Employment Rights Program: The Indian and Native American Employment Rights Program (INAERP) advances awareness of employment rights and job opportunities for American Indians and Alaska Natives. INAERP accomplishes this mission through compliance assistance and outreach to federal contractors and coordination with tribal representatives, community-based organizations, apprenticeship programs, workforce development agencies, and other national stakeholders. INAERP can help your company with affirmative action efforts by researching Native American recruitment sources that match your organization’s unique employment needs.
Network with Tribal Colleges and Universities: 37 accredited Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) in the United States. So, there is a pipeline of approximately 30,000 full-time and part-time students seeking post-secondary education in over 350 educational programs.