They’re sometimes called Native Americans. Sometimes American Indians or First Americans. And occasionally the “forgotten minority.”
Their American experience is fundamentally different from that of white immigrants — and still partly defined by the long, dark shadow of the removal era in the 1830s and 1840s. Another term for “removal era” was “forced relocation.” Native Americans — forced off their lands. Others were killed.
The Trail of Tears is probably the best known of mass relocations of Native Americans. It involved five tribes in the Southeast region of the United States. One-hundred thousand people were pushed from their homes to territory west of the Mississippi. In the end, fifteen thousand died during the journey.
Tribes in the Northeast and Midwest were also relocated during this period.
Indian Territory shrank as more and more white settlers headed west. That led to the Indian Appropriations Act of 1851, which established the reservation system. These were incredibly restrictive rules. People were not even allowed to leave the reservations.
Next came the Dawes Act in 1887. It decreased reservation land by more than half and opened more land to white settlers and railroads.
Dawes was replaced by the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934. This time, some land was returned to Native Americans.
Today, there are 573 federally recognized American Indian tribes and 326 federal reservations. But not all tribes have a reservation. The largest is the 16-million acre Navajo Nation Reservation located in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. The smallest? A 1.32-acre parcel in California where the Pit River Tribe’s cemetery is located.
Some reservations are remnants of a tribe’s original land. Others are the results of the federal government forcibly resettling groups.
Life on the reservations has always been hard. Starvation. Disease. Feuding tribes forced onto the same reservation together. Hunting tribes were forced to be farmers. And the list goes on and on.
And even now, life is still hard on many reservations. A 2016 Census report shows:
— The median household income of single-race American Indian and Alaska Native households was $38,530 in 2015. That compares with $55,775 for the nation as a whole.
— Poverty in the Native people was 26.6 percent, the highest rate of any group. For the nation as a whole, the poverty rate was 14.7 percent.
— And those lacking health insurance? 20.7 percent. For the nation as a whole, that percentage was 9.4 percent.
In 2018, more Native American candidates than ever are running for public office. It’s part of an awareness and a determination to boost visibility and equality in the years ahead.