Commentary: Human rights for Native Americans should be a priority

It didn't get much fanfare around here and I missed any mention on TV, but on Nov. 5, hundreds of Native American tribal leaders gathered in Washington, D.C., fulfilling a campaign promise President Barack Obama made.

One representative from each of the 564 federally recognized tribes was invited and nearly 400 came to the White House Tribal Nations Conference.

As perhaps the most forgotten Americans, they came hoping to be recognized, acknowledged and helped.

In his opening address, Obama called the leaders "our first Americans," and acknowledged that this country and this government had a violent history with Indians, one that was filled with broken treaties and broken promises.

In recent years, Washington decided what was best for the tribes, he said, without consulting them.

Because of that, "some of your reservations face unemployment rates of up to 80 percent," Obama said, telling them what they already knew. "Roughly a quarter of all Native Americans live in poverty. More than 14 percent of all reservation homes don't have electricity. And 12 percent don't have access to safe water supply.

"In some reservations, as many as 20 people live together just to get by," he said.

This is America. How can that be?

True enough, this is an America that is struggling economically, but our struggles as a whole look pretty good to some Native Americans.

According to official population figures, there are fewer than 5 million Indians in the U.S., and they have a life expectancy nearly five years shorter than other Americans. They die from pneumonia, influenza, diabetes, tuberculosis and alcoholism at a far higher rate than the rest of the country.

High school and college dropout rates for Native Americans are higher than for any other group in the U.S. And the suicide rate for American Indians and Alaska Natives is about 70 percent higher than for Americans in general. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for American Indians age 15 to 24 years of age and two thirds of those suicides in that age range are males.

Why aren't we doing anything about that?

And the worse statistic Obama cited was that one in three Indian women will be raped in their lifetimes.

The reservations, run by autonomous governments, need better educational facilities, better access to health care, and better public safety.

To get the ball rolling, Obama signed an executive order giving all federal agencies three months to submit proposals that would lead to "regular and meaningful consultation and collaboration" with Native Americans when decisions are being made that affect them.

The time limit was set because President Bill Clinton signed a similar order 10 years ago, but there were no parameters for accountability. Very little happened during President George W. Bush's administration.

Now, if nothing happens in 90 days, tribal leaders can knock on Obama's door and demand answers.

I like that.

Black people know from our experiences during the civil rights movement that we had to have a voice in how policies were made regarding our treatment. We had to have a say in what was good for us. And there had to be accountability for the government in order for anything substantive to get done.

It is so scary to see this being played out again with different players.

We demand quick reactions from the government when utilities are disabled because of storms or hurricanes. Some of these folks have been without electricity for years, if they ever had it.

We demand police protection when one person is threatened, raped or murdered in our cities. Can you imagine what we'd do if 33 percent of our women were raped?


There are a lot of issues to be worked out as there always is between governments. But those negotiations can't be as difficult as the ones this country tries to mediate in the Middle East or with various African nations.

This embarrassment can be cleaned up. It should be cleaned up. And, hopefully, it will be cleaned up.

That's what the champion of human rights would do.