Gains on the reservations
American Indians are better off today than they were a decade ago. Per capita income is up, poverty and unemployment rates have dropped, overcrowding in housing has decreased, education levels have risen.Skip to next paragraph
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Some of this is tied to casino income. But Harvard researchers, analyzing the most recent census data, find that the economic and social improvements on reservations and other Indian-owned land have occurred in tribes without gambling revenues as well.
Along with the economic and social progress, native Americans (who didn't win the right to vote until 1924) have been registering and voting in record numbers. In South Dakota, nearly 70 percent of reservation voters took part in the 2004 election. The Tohono O'odham Nation in Arizona, with just 24,000 people in an area the size of Connecticut, registered 1,300 new voters.
This, plus a tribal population growth rate that far exceeds that of the country as a whole, is giving Indians new political clout. In the process, tribes have been gaining greater self-determination as Uncle Sam gradually relinquishes control to the country's 562 tribal entities.
"Our [tribal] governments are stronger, more vocal, and more visible than ever before," said Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians, in his recent State of Indian Nations address at the National Press Club in Washington.
Among the key findings from the most recent US Census data:
• Even with the Indian population rising a substantial 20 percent between 1990 and 2000, real per capita income rose by about one-third - three times the increase for the US population as a whole.
• Indian family poverty rates dropped 10 percent in those areas with gambling facilities, 7 percent in areas without such facilities. The overall US poverty rate dropped less than 1 percent over the same period.
• Indian unemployment rates dropped 2 and 1/2 percent in nongaming areas, 5 percent in gaming areas - several times the figure for the US as a whole.
• The proportion of adult Indians on reservations who have less than a 9th-grade education dropped substantially. In areas with gambling facilities, the figure now is on par with US levels. Meanwhile, the number going to college grew as well.
"The census data show solid socioeconomic improvements in the lives of Indians living on reservations with and without gaming," says Jonathan Taylor of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, coauthor of the report.
Advancing toward economic and social parity with the rest of the country is not without its challenges, however.
Alcohol has been a big problem among native Americans for generations. There has been a series of alcohol-related deaths among young people on the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs reservation in Oregon, for example. But illegal drugs are a growing concern as well - especially among young Indians. Last week, the Navajo Nation's governing council voted to outlaw methamphetamine on the reservation.