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I was not born on a reservation. A majority of Americans of Indian descent don't live on reservations anymore.  I have been comparatively blessed (and only comparatively) in terms of career and financial opportunities compared to many American Indian people. There is great poverty, disease, and suffering among Indian peoples as a result of generations of genocide, from contact through the wars of the 19th century to the mid-20th century.  It tends to be more concentrated on reservations because of generations of malfeasance by government and private interests. And they almost never want any part in fixing their long-lasted harm to native peoples. Instead, the people are left in isolation to deal with everything on their own. Or, if there is a fix, it's by an unprepared and ill-educated outsider.

A recent New York Times article discusses the high crime rate on the Wind River Reservation. I am not an expert on life there.  But there are problems with the way the story was written.

The gist is a reservation of rampant crime, murder and mayhem, to the point of banality.  Mentions of drug-abuse and school dropouts are casual.  The article doesn't explain anything about why Indian students historically have problems with education--and educators are typically outsiders. Or that many tribes traditionally had low rates of of family violence. These products of history are not investigated.

Why would anyone want to stay there? is a natural wondering after reading the piece. It's unfortunate that this article is all that's offered to educate in its isolation. With little context. One tribal member named Larry McAdams pushes back against the conversation that the NYT article sparked:

Another point, and a major one, is that the Wind River Indian Reservation has, like many Western states and Wyoming itself, long distances between communities. Yes, there are vast distances to travel that have sage brush, hills—distances that seem “scrub” to an Eastern individual whose vistas comprise pavement, city blocks and communities melding into one another by comparison. Wyoming and the Reservation are blessed with the natural resources that are not always available in the environment from which the writer of the “Brutal Crimes Grip Wind River Indian Reservation” obviously comes. The Eastern Shoshone people were blessed with a prescient leader of the 1800’s, our Chief Washakie. He was a man of peace and vision, who wanted to retain this great and beautiful land nestled between snow packed mountain peaks, lush valleys abundant with game, and clear rivers and streams for the Shoshone People. The Shoshone Tribe was one of a very few Indian Tribes that was allowed to settle on their own land, and we are a PROUD people.

I am very perplexed by the article and comments. I have lived most of my life on this wonderful and beautiful Reservation and have never heard of “murderers’ row.” I am sure that individual people have their own names for local places, but that is downright misleading.

...Hard work, family support, and determination were the basis of my education. In growing up on the Reservation, I never found it gloomy nor was aware of horrendous murders.

During my early years, we didn’t have Meth, Cocaine and other drugs, not to mention prescription drug abuse. People cared for each other and were involved with each other. Indeed, times have changed. Today, as a result of the alcohol abuse that is rampant on this reservation and many other reservations, most major crimes are alcohol related. I do not see Tribal people, or any people on the Reservation for that matter, deliberately, with premeditation, planning these major violent crimes. People can safely visit this beautiful reservation, rich in natural resources and culture, without the fear of being a target of crime, to learn about a history rich in tradition and tribal lore.

Many if not most Indian people would surely prefer to be living in their tribal communities if they had the chance to find meaningful work and a livable wage. I'd go a step further: I would rather be an outsider, working on another nation's reservation, than I would be the marginal minority I always am within the context of the dominant national culture.  I will gladly stick by my belief that Indians are, as a whole, among the most considerate and generous people you can know.  

Reservations are still beautiful and worthwhile places to be. I would prefer to wake up to the snowy mountains outside my window. Native songbirds and deer on the prairie. To be near momentous, sacred places, rather than a sea of concrete and 'busy' people (code word for 'distracted').  There's places in our country still lacking in the worldly addiction and the mindlessness of much of American life now.  You don't tend to see a lot of shopping malls or endless suburbia on reservations.  There's still a strong sense of community and obligation to one another--pure social libertarianism is not compatible with any Indian culture with which I'm familiar.

One other statement I need to make after reading the comment section to the article is this: Comments advocating getting rid of the reservations and assimilating Native Americans into the majority society are so wrong. I read several that admonished Native Americans to “get over it”, and “that happened 150 years ago, ancient history.” We, as Indian people, have a connection to this land, whereas the white majority who immigrated to this country has no connection to the land that resembles what we have. We not only have a spiritual connection to our land but a history that is not “ancient history.” Many of us have grandparents who were born in the 1800’s and can relate to our ancestors not as “ancient history, get over it,” but with that direct connection. I can see why the non-Indian can make this kind of statement because of their disconnect to the land and local history.
Those feeling a lack of heritage and identity can easily tell Indian peoples to forget the past.  But how can a people forget the past when the government has disrupted them and attacked them, physically, legally or culturally, with every generation? The armchair commentators always reveal their ignorance and their complete disregard for the actual well-being of Indian peoples.  It's not about stopping crime, educating young people or creating prosperity and harmony. Instead, it's not having to feel guilty. And not having to be bothered with the doings of the dispossessed and oppressed over there.

Yes, there is horror and tragedy on reservations. More should be done about that. But there is also great beauty, in the deepest sense, in Indian communities. The relationships and incarnations of traditional culture have endured at great cost across time.

Read more:

Originally posted to Native American Netroots on Wed Feb 29, 2012 at 05:50 PM PST.

Also republished by Invisible People.

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