For generations, Native Americans have been at the mercy of the United States government. They have fought tirelessly for their rights and the recognition, respect, and equality they deserve (and are rightfully owed as citizens of the U.S.), despite the government’s ongoing efforts to suppress them.
When European explorers (including the British, French, Spanish, and Russians) arrived in what is now called the United States, they forced Native Americans and Alaska Natives from their own homelands through coercion, exploitation, and force. There were explorers who actually did greet some indigenous tribes with respect, but they were in the minority. The majority of the Europeans were brutes.
Native Americans suffered greatly at the hands of these Europeans. Explorers raided indigenous communities, stole their food, exercised forced labor upon them, and murdered, raped, and kidnapped indigenous people. Native American and Alaska Native women were even forced into concubinage.
Europeans also brought with them germs, viruses, and diseases (e.g., flu, measles, and smallpox) of which Native Americans had never been exposed. This left their immune systems ill-equipped to handle the foreign the bacteria and infections. This epidemic killed at least 90 percent of the Native American population.
Suffice it to say, America’s Native peoples and Europeans did not get off to a warm and friendly start. Eventually, however, the U.S. government and America’s indigenous peoples established federal Indian law.
“From 1778 to 1871, the United States’ relations with individual American Indian nations indigenous to what is now the U.S. were defined and conducted largely through the treaty-making process. These “contracts among nations” recognized and established unique sets of rights, benefits, and conditions for the treaty-making tribes who agreed to cede of millions of acres of their homelands to the United States and accept its protection. Like other treaty obligations of the United States, Indian treaties are considered to be “the supreme law of the land,” and they are the foundation upon which federal Indian law and the federal Indian trust relationship is based.”
Treaty-making was terminated by Congress in 1871, a few years after the U.S. purchased Alaska from Russia through the Treaty of Cessions , so there are no treaties with individual Alaska tribes, but fundamental themes and principles of federal Indian law apply to Alaska Natives.
Unfortunately, the U.S. government has violated this federal Indian trust for generations.
How Congress Is Killing the Heart of Reservation Communities
In this high-speed, digital day and age, you may regard the post office as archaic, a relic of days gone by, but in fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Post offices still serve as lifelines for communities across the United States, but thanks to Congress and decades of neglect and hostility, the United States Postal Service (USPS) is struggling to stay afloat.
Truth be told, technology and monopolies like Amazon have badly bruised the USPS, but Congressional legislation (and lack thereof) is helping to seal its fate, instead of helping it thrive in modern times. This perfect storm has resulted in post office discontinuances across the U.S., as well as proposed layoffs and reduced hours of operation, all negatively impacting life on Native American reservations, as well as nonnative rural and remote communities.
A common misconception is that the USPS is a government agency like the Pentagon or Department of Commerce, but in fact, it’s a hybrid structure (50 percent business, 50 percent public enterprise) and effectively receives no financial support from the federal budget.
It’s “forced to make money even as it is constrained by preposterous rules and counterproductive meddling,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J., in an article he wrote for a recent edition of Washington Monthly. He added, “privatization advocates will continue to chip away at one of the world’s most impressive agencies.”
Unless Congress changes its behavior and helps the USPS instead of sabotaging it, the future of life on Native American reservations does not look bright.
American Indians heavily rely on post offices as their connections to the outside world; that’s why the U.S. Postal Service is so vital to their communities.
The importance of USPS’ role in America (including on Native American reservations), was best summed up in the Postal Policy Act of 1958 in which Congress declared “that the post office is a public service” and “clearly not a business enterprise conducted for profit.” It serves to promote “social, cultural, intellectual, and commercial intercourse among the people of the United States.”
That still rings true today and reverberates throughout reservations across America.
The majority of reservations don’t use standard addresses (e.g., 123 Main Street), they instead have mailing addresses because reservation residents use Post Office Boxes (PO Boxes). However, these PO Boxes are scarce (due to rampant vandalism and theft) and are located only along busy major highways. Chances are such vandalism and theft are symptomatic of the poverty native peoples are forced to live in due to the federal government’s intentional neglect and abuse.
Therefore, because Native Americans do not have residential addresses and PO Boxes are scare, post offices serve as the heart of reservation communities.
The essentiality of post offices was perfectly explained in an article by South Dakota’s Rapid City Journal:
“Reservation residents depend upon their local post offices to keep their mailed medicines and Social Security, veterans’ benefit and other checks safe. They do their business at the post office, buying money orders to pay their monthly expenses. Customers of the Allen, Manderson and Wounded Knee post offices [in South Dakota, for example] frequently walk long distances or wait days to use precious gas to collect their mail.”
Paying bills online is an impossibility for many reservation residents because not all reservations have access to utilities (i.e., water, electricity, telephone service, internet access), and others may not be able to afford a computer even if they have electricity.
Post offices even serve as sites to obtain voting materials and ballots.
Driving very long distances (i.e., 72 miles in some cases) to post offices far outside their own communities just to conduct business isn’t always a possibility for American Indians — especially for those who don’t have cars or the ability to travel. And, when roads and bridges are impassable from heavy rains or winter storms, for example, it’s definitely impossible. Many Native Americans across the U.S. have appealed to their state and federal officials for decades for infrastructure aid, but it’s been to no avail.
These are clear violations of the federal Indian trust responsibility, which is defined by the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs as “a legal obligation under which the United States “has charged itself with moral obligations of the highest responsibility and trust” toward Indian tribes (Seminole Nation v. United States, 1942).”
The Bureau of Indian Affairs goes on to say:
“This obligation was first discussed by Chief Justice John Marshall in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831). Over the years, the trust doctrine has been at the center of numerous other Supreme Court cases, thus making it one of the most important principles in federal Indian law.
The federal Indian trust responsibility is also a legally enforceable fiduciary obligation on the part of the United States to protect tribal treaty rights, lands, assets, and resources, as well as a duty to carry out the mandates of federal law with respect to American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and villages. In several cases discussing the trust responsibility, the Supreme Court has used language suggesting that it entails legal duties, moral obligations, and the fulfillment of understandings and expectations that have arisen over the entire course of the relationship between the United States and the federally recognized tribes.”
It Gets Worse
With states across the U.S. implementing new voting laws as a way to “safeguard against voter fraud,” Native Americans have been disproportionately affected.
Due to inherent discrimination, Native Americans didn’t even win the legal right to vote until the passing of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, and even after the law’s passage many states, including Montana, barred American Indians from voting because of tribal enrollment or living on a reservation. Many of those discriminatory laws were in existence through the 1970s. As a result, American Indians in some states didn’t even get to participate in elections until the 1970s, despite being citizens and having the legal right to vote. The Native vote has no doubt been suppressed, and in many cases, Native peoples have been disenfranchised altogether.
As I mentioned earlier, the majority of reservations don’t use residential addresses, they use mailing addresses associated with PO Boxes. As a result, Native Americans living on reservations usually don’t have standard addresses reflected in the voter rolls or printed on their photo IDs, which are now required to verify a person’s polling location and voting eligibility.
Many in reservation communities participate in early voting or they vote by mail, which has been very difficult in the aftermath of post office closures and reduced hours of operation. These voting methods don’t require the use of a photo ID; therefore, many Native elders have never needed a photo ID to vote. And, many tribal elders only possess tribal IDs (which used to be an acceptable form of voting identification).
Additionally, after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, a law now makes it illegal for one person to mail a ballot on behalf of another (unless that person is a caregiver or family member). This has made it even tougher for indigenous peoples to vote.
Those who haven’t been able to cast an early ballot or haven’t been able to vote by mail vote in person on Election Day (if they can even physically get themselves to the polling site, that is). And those who participate in in-person voting do so for the following reasons:
- They don’t own a vehicle because they can’t afford one and weren’t able to mail a ballot
- They don’t live near a mailbox to mail in a ballot
- They don’t have an acceptable person to mail their ballot for them
The problem with in-person voting is it now requires a photo ID, something many Native Americans don’t have. As a result, they have been turned away at the polls, and that’s after driving hours to get there.
There are fail-safe provisions with the new voter Identification laws, however, they can be very confusing. For instance, in North Dakota, if an individual arrives at a polling place to vote but doesn’t show a photo ID at the ballot box, they are allowed to mark a ballot, which the poll worker sets aside. In order for that individual’s ballot to be counted, the person must return within six days of the election to present a valid form of ID to the poll worker and do so before the polling site closes.
However, the fail-safe law does not indicate where this employee can be found. It also doesn’t state the employee’s job title; therefore, the law is nearly impossible to comply with and is meant to suppress the Native vote (which tends to be Democratic). The fail-safe provision still requires voters to have a standard residential address. U.S. passports aren’t even enough to allow individuals to vote who don’t have a photo ID reflecting a standard address.
Gerrymandering is another big issue. In Arizona, for example, one county “changed everyone’s address, so that people’s addresses didn’t match the voting roster, so people were turned away from the polls,” per Vox. If a voter arrives at a polling site in Arizona, they can describe their address to Arizona county officials who then decide whether their ID reasonably matches the voter rolls. If the officials think the address matches, the voter gets a regular ballot, but if the official doesn’t think it’s a reasonable match, the voter doesn’t get a ballot on Election Day. In regards to Native Americans, these officials will have both the voter’s physical address (which could be the address listed on a state driver license) and their mailing address. But, if neither address is a standard residential address, then the address won’t align with Arizona’s voter registration database.
This is just an overview of the voting issues American Indians throughout the United States have faced for generations, and, of course, at the hands of Republicans. This has been an uphill battle that’s left many Native Americans feeling dejected and distrustful of the federal government. And, it has resulted in low voter turnout in many states (although not all the time).
Fortunately, there are advocates within Native reservation communities fighting to change that as has been seen in San Juan County, Utah and other places. Native peoples are “running for local, state and national offices, and suing jurisdictions that try to curb their political participation,” as reported by the Pew Research Center. And, with the help of the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), a nonprofit law firm founded in 1971 that defends the rights of Indian tribes, organizations, and people nationwide by “focusing on applying existing laws and treaties to guarantee that national and state governments live up to their legal obligations,” per NARF.
Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court must stop violating federal Indian law and finally uphold the federal Indian trust responsibility without exception. I hope, one day, universal justice will permanently prevail, and those who are the true settlers of the land we now call the United States of America can gain the recognition, reverence, and equality they deserve.