Indigenous people have been forgotten throughout history, and yet the survivors today still stand resilient in America to keep their presence known and to fight for their rights. According to the National Congress of American Indians, the total Native American population is 2.9 million or about 0.9 percent of the US population. While the population is small, the statistics of violence against their communities is immense. The organization reported that the rate of aggravated assault among American Indians is roughly twice that of the country as a whole (600.2 per 100,000 versus 323.6 per 100,000). Also, Indian youth have the highest rate of suicide among all ethnic groups in the US and is the second-leading cause of death for Native youth aged 15-24.
Eva Baudler, junior English and history major, sat down with me late on a hot Thursday night to share her experience with her summer internship. Her quirky and bright heart lit the air as she explained to me she was expecting an internship consisting of simple paperwork at Honor the Earth. The organization is a non-profit founded to raise awareness and financial support for Indigenous environmental justice through art. Laughing to herself, she told me that she experienced the opposite when she arrived at the White Earth reservation in Minnesota. When she met Winona LaDuke, the head of the organization, she threw Braduler straight into manual labor side by side with the Indigenous community on the reservation.
Before going into her full experience she gave me full context of the issues that Indigenous people are facing today. With pipelines being built in the middle of reservations, many took to protesting, but rejected the label of being a protestor and called themselves water protectors instead. The word takes away the colonizer connotations when in reality Indigenous people are just protecting their land and way of life.
Honor the Earth uses artwork such as handmade beadwork and sowing made by Indigenous women to help raise money for the reservation. The art also acts as a form of therapy for Indigenous women as Eva explained to me that they experienced many forms of abuse and trauma. Baudler’s main struggle with grasping Indigenous people struggles was the fact that their voices were not heard. For her, this is her chance to tell the story of many Indigenous peoples’ struggles.
Indigenous peoples’ voices are being ignored. Women go missing and police reports aren’t filed for months; while on the other hand, we can see mass news coverage on white people who go missing. The government and media never give attention to Natives. There are large statistics being ignored about Native people as well. All statistics about the American public are amplified on reservations. We have shirt sizes that went up to 5XL because obesity and diabetes were rampant, along with alcoholism.
There were so many strong and powerful women running this organization and there were a lot of men too who were helping with hard work, but the women were the brains of the operation. It was very common for Indigenous women to go missing and never have any news coverage at all. It’s awful because people were not able to find closure for their loved ones. They don’t receive support from the predominantly white towns outside of the reservation either as they’re usually given the cold shoulder. I remember when I was walking in a restaurant with Winona and we were immediately stared at. People moved closer to our table to confront us and show microaggressive signs. It gave me a look into how Indigenous have to navigate their lives on a daily basis.
When I was in Minnesota, I realized that the service I was doing came from a place of privilege because I was doing it as a choice. I would eventually return to my privileged college life where I could choose where I dedicate my time to, but for these people, it’s their life. They were simply satisfied with a couple of meals a day and spending time with loved ones. The kind of life away from all of the superficiality and complaining forced me to check my privilege as I watched these people who knew their limits fight the impossible every day.
Many Indigenous people revert to drug use to cope with their stressful and trauma-filled lives. One particular boy I met lost his mother in February due to an overdose. The reason that she became addicted was that a white drug dealer from a larger city came to the reservation to capitalize on the Native Americans’ vulnerability to addiction. This dealer did not get caught until half a year later when the police finally got around to serving the kid’s mother justice. What’s worse is that the kid would self-harm with rocks in front of her grave to cope with her death. He blamed himself for his mother’s passing because he thought that he could actually break the cycles of trauma and addiction that he witnessed on the reservation. This trauma has been passed down from generation to generation while the government has stood there and done nothing, which they have gotten used to while still persevering.
I saw a lot of high school dropouts and children who were experiencing teen pregnancy. Many of them grew up way too quick and in return they experienced a lot of depression, anxiety and some reverted to self-harming and suicide. They had no one to talk to because of the poor medical resources and all of these atrocities are not being addressed by our government.
I felt like I was living in a third world country at times due to the lack of basic necessities. For example, Winona LaDuke’s own land was harmed by water that was contaminated with arsenic from the pipelines, which causes her food supply to get poisoned. Children and adults were all using the same contaminated water and they had no choice because the next town with clean water was 30 minutes to an hour away. The access to clean water, food and healthcare are unfortunately beyond Native people’s control because the Minnesota government does nothing to help. That’s why people on the reservation took things into their own hands with their organization.
They reached out to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission and were denied any assistance to help protect their land against the pipelines being built. The PUC didn’t stand up for Indigenous peoples rights and took the side of the oil company Enbridge,who was building pipelines on their land. Even though there were years of research put into these pipelines claiming that there was a 70 percent chance of them collapsing and contaminating the Ojibwe food, animal sanctuaries and land, they still went through. It was neglect, which is deep- rooted in our history from the moment Columbus set foot on this continent. Sadly, some states still celebrate Columbus Day.
Native Americans are still being pushed to the edges of society today as more and more pipelines are being built that are destroying the little land that they have left. They have their own established nations, and are very self-sufficient as they hunt, fish and recycle. They love this earth because it gave them everything and when pipelines are constructed in the middle of their lands, it destroys their way of life.
I encourage LMU students to do more research on Native Americans. They’re not people of the past, they are still here and very much present in a lot of the movements that we see today. Indigenous women are apart of the ‘me too’ movement and are also leading environmental movements.
One of the things I learned on the reservation was an Ojibwe prophecy called the Seventh Fire which represents the fact that people now need to consider their actions because there will be generations after us who will live on this earth. It shows in the way that younger people today are trying to undo the damages that the older generations did to the environment. Millennials are now even more present in politics as they are starting grassroots movements to enact change in their own communities, and LMU students can do the same if they wish to see change.
Teachers need to speak of Indigenous people in the present tense and show how history has made Native cultures assimilate. There are so many more complex and beautiful pieces of native history and culture that we don’t even touch on because of this erasure. Departments like English, history and women & gender studies would definitely benefit from advertising these types of internships more. It was life-changing for me. The short time I was there, I felt like I had seen so much as I met beautiful Ojibwe people who are survivors. I think an experience like this should be mandatory for all students.
Service organizations would benefit from having talks about more different groups of people. We should always have a constant dialogue about Indigenous people because they have been forgotten for too long. We can not just solely focus on what social justice issues are popular in mainstream media.
The Ojibwes are happy to have anyone reach out to them to help. I come from a complete opposite background, being a lanky Chinese-American city girl, yet they accepted me with open arms and taught me so much about and how quitting is not an option. Despite all of the problems in their lives, these people are beautiful, and I’m not saying it in a shallow sense. I really mean that being with them was one of the first times that I felt like I could be myself. They took pride in their community and accepted everyone with open arms and treated each other with respect and dignity.
What we Lions can learn from Eva’s experience is that we should never forget Indigenous people’s struggles— even when the government and media do not address their issues. It is more than just reading about the little media coverage of Indigenous people fighting against pipeline construction. We need to educate ourselves on the people who lived on this land first, and who respected and loved it the most. Social justice is not just fighting for what’s being presented on the news, but the ability to keep every marginalized group, regardless of media coverage, in the dialogue of what needs to be done to make America a better place.
This is the opinion of Alex Myers, a senior French and philosophy major from Edmond, Oklahoma. Tweet comments to @LALoyolan email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article previously appeared in the Los Angeles Loyolan on September 12, 2018.