Am Indians want own voice in policy - homelessness rate high FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Thu, 2 Apr 1998 12:11:32 -0800 (PST)


FWD http://www.denverpost.com:80/news/news2548.htm

"Policymakers make uninformed decisions about (American Indians) because
they don't understand us,'' Harper says. "Misinformation reigns. Policies
are based on what they think our communities want, which often doesn't
comport with the reality of what we want.''

"While our 1 percent keeps us a fairly invisible population,'' she says,
"our high percentages of poverty and homelessness . . . get attention and
make us visible - in all the negatives.''

"But sometimes I think you have to . . . shake things up a little,'' Harjo
says. "We're not getting heard in boardrooms, the conference room or the
classrooms. . . . A lot of people could relate to what (AIM) was saying.''

[For more, see article below.]

STATE'S TRIBES FEEL OVERLOOKED

By Electa Draper
Denver Post Staff Writer

March 29 - The city was billed as the "Crossroads of Indian Country.'' The
poster on the wall of the Bureau of Indian Affairs office that Lisa Harjo
remembers from her childhood said "the chance of a lifetime'' awaited
relocating families in Denver.

In the mid-1950s and early 1960s, Denver, Phoenix and other urban centers
near large Indian populations were meant to absorb families leaving the
reservations for assimilation into the larger American society.

Harjo, a Choctaw from Oklahoma who is director of the Denver Indian Center,
still laughs when she recalls the poster's depiction of an Indian family in
the city with a house, a job and a nearby school.

Assimilation of American Indians hasn't been U.S. policy for about three
decades, but tribes still live with the results of the failed social
experiment. One of the biggest results, Harjo and other leaders of Indian
advocacy groups will tell you, is that American Indians are often
overlooked.

She offers as evidence the exclusion of a representative of American
Indians on the advisory board to the President's Initiative on Race, which
met in Denver last week to discuss race relations. The panel was hit with a
protest by members of the American Indian Movement angry about the lack of
representation.

Although AIM doesn't always speak for the majority of American Indians - as
other groups that generally work quietly within the system will tell you -
they took some satisfaction that last week's protest raised the visibility
of a host of American Indian issues that have been around for hundreds of
years.

"It was crazy we were left out of such a thing,'' Native American Rights
Fund attorney Keith Harper says. "On the one hand I was shocked, and on the
other hand I wasn't shocked. We're so invisible. It made me angry, but I
also expected it. We're often left out of the discourse.''

The Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs' executive secretary, Karen
Rogers, works as a liaison between the state's tribes and the Legislature.
Protests are far removed from her duties, but she says she strongly
supports what AIM and other protesters did and how they did it. Sometimes,
Rogers says, American Indians have to go to such lengths to get attention.

Harjo says shouting at people isn't necessarily what she would do, and when
some American Indian group shouts, she usually must spend the next several
days on the phone answering questions for the media.

"But sometimes I think you have to . . . shake things up a little,'' Harjo
says. "We're not getting heard in boardrooms, the conference room or the
classrooms. . . . A lot of people could relate to what (AIM) was saying.''

Harjo estimates, based on 1990 census numbers, that of the state's almost
28,000 American Indians, 14,000 to 18,000 are living in the Denver area.
About a third are members of the Navajo Nation, a third are Lakota, and the
rest are a mixture of roughly 200 tribes.

By contrast, the Southern Utes and Ute Mountain Utes, the only two tribes
with reservations in Colorado, both along its southern boundary, have a
combined total tribal enrollment of just over 3,000.

The Ute reservations combined spread out over 1.3 million acres. Ute tribal
officials have often said they doubt most Coloradans even know the
reservations exist.

Although American Indians are 1 percent of the overall population in the
Denver area, they account for about 4 percent of the homeless population,
Harjo says. They have the highest dropout rate, the lowest graduation rate
and the lowest retention rate at institutions of higher education.

The director of the Denver Public Schools Project for Indian Education,
Darius Lee Smith, says 65 percent to 70 percent of all Indians live in
urban areas.

At least half of the urban American Indian population lives below the
poverty level, Harjo says.

"While our 1 percent keeps us a fairly invisible population,'' she says,
"our high percentages of poverty and homelessness . . . get attention and
make us visible - in all the negatives.''

In testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs early this
month, tribal representatives said that more than one-third of Indian
children are high school dropouts, as they were in 1970.

The Indian Health Service reports that the suicide rate for Indians is
nearly double that for all Americans, and alcoholism is "six times as
prevalent among Indians as among other Americans.'' Compounding this misery
and promoting non-Indians' ignorance of Indians, Harjo says, is the media's
general lack of interest in covering positive stories about American
Indians.

A state law requiring public schools to teach American Indian history has
passed the Colorado Senate and is awaiting final approval in the House.
Harjo says it's a long time coming - education will "eliminate a little
layer of the ignorance'' and help build the relationships among different
ethnicities, which is needed to combat bigotry and misguided government
policies.

"Policymakers make uninformed decisions about (American Indians) because
they don't understand us,'' Harper says. "Misinformation reigns. Policies
are based on what they think our communities want, which often doesn't
comport with the reality of what we want.''

A half dozen leaders of diverse American Indian groups say their issues
are: tribal sovereignty, the ability to make their own rules and preserve
their lands; the means to perpetuate their languages and cultures; the
health, safety and welfare of their people; and, some said, a sense they
are connected to everything and everybody in the world.

"These were our issues 100 years ago, they were our issues 500 years ago,
and they are our issues now,'' Harjo says.

There are about 560 federally recognized tribes, of which 275 are based in
the lower 48 states. Each tribe is a distinct nation that dislikes being
lumped culturally with all the other tribes into one group, Harper says.

"But we choose to be together because we have issues that bind us
together,'' he says.

"We've gone through common oppressions. . . . But we've always had rules
for ourselves. Even though we're engulfed by this wider society, it doesn't
mean our distinctiveness in our nations should be robbed, as it has been.''

Many Indians are descended from several different tribes, Smith says, and
so cannot be enrolled as a member of a given tribe and afforded the rights
that come with membership.

"They're full Indian, but they can't get enrolled,'' he says.

Many urban Indians lack the support systems available to tribal members
living on reservations.

"Not all Indians get per capita (payments from tribes to help in their
support),'' Harjo says. "Most don't.''

And, she says, many tribes can't afford to make any payments to members.
The perception is that all tribes are raking in huge profits from Indian
gaming, but only 20 or fewer tribes have gaming enterprises that support
the tribes in a major way. Colorado's Ute tribes are two of the tribes with
profitable casinos.

Indians living on reservations also enjoy more programs, role models and
opportunities for education, jobs and medical care than urban Indians, she
says. For example, the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes are two of
the largest employers in their rural counties, La Plata and Montezuma.
Smith says much of the federal money available goes to tribes and bypasses
Indians living off the reservation.

Indians living in the city, Harjo says, "are constantly concerned that they
can't teach their children the language, can't go to tribal ceremonies, are
separated from their families . . . can't go see the elders. . . . The
people who stay at home don't know what they can lose.''

But she acknowledges that Indians living on the reservation still have many
hardships.

"The real issues'

Southern Ute Community Action Program staff members and consultants say the
tribe's prosperity of the past one or two decades has not had time to
rectify generations of discrimination and lost opportunities in education
and the workplace. Many tribal members are still poor and struggling, the
bitter legacy of a century of oppression and poverty, tribal officials say.

"The real issues for Indians are not blood on statues on Columbus Day . . .
or (sports) mascots that offend Indians,'' Harjo says. "The real issues are
trying to hold down a job, hoping to have enough money to visit relatives
in the summer, . . . making it to parent-teacher conferences, picking up
kids from schools, finding health insurance.

"A real issue is 4 percent of homelessness.''

AIM of Colorado Chairman Glenn Morris, reflecting on Monday's protest in
Denver that rocked the planned panel discussion, says that "it's
unfortunate that power must be confronted that way.''

Morris, an associate professor of political science at the University of
Colorado at Denver, says that, by and large, the week in Denver was a
success.

"It's a continuing process,'' he says. "Avenues have opened that otherwise
wouldn't have been opened. . . . Bureaucrats' complacency needs to be
shaken with a reality check from the grass roots. I think that's what needs
to happen.'

END FORWARD

HOMELESS PEOPLE'S NETWORK  <http://aspin.asu.edu/hpn/>  Home Page
ARCHIVES  <http://aspin.asu.edu/hpn/archives.html>  read posts to HPN
TO JOIN  <http://aspin.asu.edu/hpn/join.html> or email Tom <wgcp@earthlink.net>