Reservation Life of Native Americans Essay

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During the 18th and 19th centuries, the United States pursued a strategy of ethnic cleansing to force hundreds of linguistically, culturally, and politically distinct indigenous peoples with their own rich histories of alliances, trade, and cultural exchange onto Indian reservations—remote, poor vestiges of their vast former holdings. The prevailing political discourse cast Native Americans as savages standing in the way of progress and the Manifest Destiny of the white race to settle the continent all the way to the Pacific. On the reservations, proud independent peoples were classified as wards of the federal government, denied individual and collective rights, and subjected to a variety of measures designed to destroy their cultures and assimilate them.

A variety of often contradictory policies, administered at first by the Department of War, and later by the Department of the Interior through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, wrought havoc on the lives of Native Americans but failed to achieve the overall aim of assimilation. Resistance was widespread and sustained. Native leaders often turned the tools of the colonizer to their own account in ongoing efforts to define their own futures. Many Native Americans today express pride in being survivors of a disastrous and vast experiment in social engineering, in having retained significant aspects of their cultures, and in their increasing success at asserting control over their own lives.

Indian reservations, including pueblos in the Southwest and rancherias in California, occupy 56.2 million acres, or 2.3 percent of the United States, a startling figure compared to the 2.38 billion acres they occupied before contact with Europeans a half-millennium ago. Reservations range in size from the 16-million-acre Navajo Nation that sprawls over parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, to tiny homelands with less than 100 acres. There are nearly 300 in 36 states, with concentrations in the West and Midwest. Some were delineated through treaties with the U.S. government; others were established by Congress or through executive orders.

Maintaining a land base is critical to Native American identity, although today only 34 percent of the 3.1 million Native Americans who identify as members of a specific tribe live on Indian reservations. Nevertheless, reservations are seen as homelands, are the locus for the assertion of tribal sovereignty, and have served as enclaves sustaining kinship relations and preserving and elaborating rich cultures.

Tribal governments exercise inherent, albeit limited, sovereignty and officially enjoy government-to-government relationships with the United States. Although situations vary, tribes generally raise revenues, promulgate and enforce laws, manage natural resources, enter into contracts with private companies, negotiate with state and federal authorities, and administer federal programs including education, health, and welfare.

Nevertheless, life for Native Americans on Indian reservations is fraught with the difficulties associated with limited resources, poor economies, inadequate health care and education, and a legacy of ruinous policies promulgated by a colonial or quasi-colonial regime. Too often, the people themselves are blamed for the problems that continue to beset them. But in virtually every instance of a social problem identified on reservations today, other instances of Native people hard at work, attempting to provide creative, culturally sensitive solutions to problems, exist as well.

Health problems on reservations are especially severe when compared with the rates for the United States as a whole. Native Americans on reservations are 7 times more likely to die from cirrhosis and nearly 4 times more likely to suffer from diabetes. The suicide rate is nearly double the national average, and in some reservations in the Dakotas is 3 to 4 times the rate, with many young people taking their own lives. Deaths from accidents, often related to substance abuse, are 2.5 times the national average for youth ages 15-24.

Federal resources directed toward addressing public health concerns are simply inadequate. The Indian Health Service (IHS), charged with providing health care to an expanding service population, a charge understood by many Native Americans as a treaty obligation, routinely denies care if it determines that the need is not life threatening. In 2006, IHS determined that its hospitals and clinics were funded at less than 60 percent of parity with the benchmark mainstream health plan. Individual tribes and intertribal organizations like the National Congress of American Indians routinely lobby for increased support, but their efforts are seldom successful. Some tribes, alarmed at the toll taken on their youth, are taking the lead to hold intertribal conferences to develop collective responses to the carnage.

Native Americans on many reservations are tapping into their indigenous knowledge and practices, actively using them to design and deliver mental health services that are otherwise unavailable or culturally inappropriate. They effectively use new knowledge and practices, rooted in tribal traditions, to intervene on behalf of high-risk youth. Also, youth and their families are rediscovering their traditions in a process that branches beyond the field of mental health, spilling over into areas including language preservation and treaty rights.

Education, like health, is shamefully underfunded. Allocations for Bureau of Indian Affairs schools and schools contracted by tribal governments under the Indian Education and Self-Determination Act of 1975, amount to only about half the per pupil rate of nearby public schools. Dropout rates are higher than national averages, as is attainment of higher education. The response by Native Americans on reservations includes development of consortia to study and address the problem, the creation of departments of tribal education to review and enhance curriculum, and sustained, successful efforts to supplement meager federal allocations with soft money from grants.

In the 1970s, Native Americans on several reservations determined that their members needed more access to higher education to secure jobs, to strengthen tribal culture and tradition, and to better serve the people. They organized an effort to establish their own institutions of higher learning, and now there are 32 tribal colleges providing associate’s, bachelor’s, and some master’s degree programs. Native students overwhelmingly emphasize that their motives for seeking higher education are to help their people—a sentiment in keeping with the communal impulse that continues to mark tribal communities in contradistinction to more individualistic U.S. values. Graduates have been very successful at securing employment among their people on reservations. In some instances they have transformed the service delivery sector, effectively changing the composition of the workforce away from non-Native to Native. The old situation, where non-Natives provided necessary services on reservations, is giving way. Now it is not uncommon to find that the preponderance of teachers, nurses, administrators of tribal programs, and counselors in schools are Native American. Vocational and business education provided by those institutions has swollen the ranks of entrepreneurs who provide a wide range of services and employment opportunities. The phenomenon is not yet well studied, but its existence is supported by anecdotal reports, surveys of students, and observations by trained observers. A hope some tribal educators express is that a critical mass of graduates will create a tipping point leading to systemic change.

Living conditions on reservations vary greatly, but privation is widespread. The overall unemployment rate is 49 percent. Jobs that are available often pay poorly, with 32 percent yielding wages below the federal poverty line. Theories advanced to account for the vast disparities in the unemployment rate that exist among reservations—around 20 percent on White Mountain Apache in Arizona, compared with more than 70 percent on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, for example—tend to focus on variations of dependency theory and resource theory.

In recent years, however, a paradigm focusing on institution building within the context of the policy climate of self-determination ushered in during the mid-1970s, and supported by a large number of case studies, supports the notion that tribes that create strong governments to effectively assert their sovereignty are more successful at sustained economic development. The model stands the conventional wisdom that polity follows economy on its head. The more successful tribes have instituted separation of powers, strengthened their judiciaries, reorganized governance to ensure a cultural match, worked toward transparency and accountability, and made themselves, instead of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the chief decision makers in tribal affairs. Determining what factors move some tribes to take steps to strengthen their institutions of governance, or that keep others from doing so, continues to be an open question, though analysts have advanced theories of action and models of leadership as explanations.

Reservation homelands distinguish Native Americans from other minorities. Their sovereign status and their special relationship with the U.S. government, which entail a raft of similar problems and opportunities, bring them together in a community of interest that cross-cuts their rich cultural diversity. Tribal leaders are collectively engaged in a battle—in state, regional, and national arenas—to sustain reservations as viable homelands; leaders on the reservations are engaged in the complementary work of cultural recovery and affirmation in a bid to help their people and the future generations. Sensitive, collaborative studies of those phenomena could help infuse the mainstream of discourse.


  1. Deloria, Vine, Jr. [1969] 1988. Custer Died for Your Sins. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
  2. Lemont, Eric D., ed. 2001. American Indian Constitutional Reform. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
  3. Robertson, Paul. 2002. Power of the Land. New York: Routledge.
  4. Wilkinson, Charles. 2006. Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations. New York: Norton.

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