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.

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.

Notable census findings

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.

Challenges remain

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.

"This legislation is a matter of urgency," said Hope MacDonald-LoneTree, who sponsored the bill. The highly addictive drug is made from easily obtained materials whose aftereffects include schizophrenia-like symptoms and a propensity for violence. The FBI estimates that up to 40 percent of the violent crime cases it handles on the Navajo reservation are meth-related.

And economic progress does have its costs. A housing development near Sacramento owned by Miwuk Indians was the target of a recent arson attack by environmental radicals.

"It's just ironic," tribal spokesman Rich Hoffman told the Sacramento Bee newspaper. "Really, when you think about it, the native Americans were the first environmentalists. It's a slap in the face to the tribe because they worked so hard from an environmental standpoint to put this project together."

Strong economic progress

Most tribal lands are off the beaten path and therefore a particular challenge for economic development. Still, the number of native-owned businesses in the US grew from fewer than five in 1969 to nearly 200,000 today, according to the US Census Bureau.

"What a remarkable achievement in just 35 years," writes Kenneth Robbins, a Standing Rock Sioux and president of the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, in a recent issue of the weekly newspaper Indian Country Today.

Since passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988, the number of casinos has grown to more than 300 with a total annual business of nearly $13 billion. But many tribes are not in a position - geographically or economically - to have successful gambling operations, or they have seen that they need to diversify.

The Warm Springs reservation in Oregon, for example, has a resort and casino. But it also built a power generating and transmission facility that sells the electrical output to PacifiCorp, and it runs a forest products business as well. The White Mountain Apache Tribe in Arizona owns and operates the Sunrise Park ski area and summer resort. In addition to a casino, the Tohono O'odham have an industrial park near Tucson that includes heavy equipment maker Caterpillar and a 23-acre foreign-trade zone.

The 56 million acres of tribally controlled lands, most of it in the West, include substantial portions of the nation's oil, gas, and coal resources, and tribes have begun to develop wind and solar energy facilities as well.

The legacy of broken treaties, stolen lands, tribal "termination," and other official acts that led to the decline of native Americans remains in important ways. The average income for Indians living on reservations remains less than half the national average, and the unemployment rate is double the US figure. Indian families still are more likely to live in overcrowded homes. Only half finish high school. Life expectancy for American Indians hovers five years less than other races in the US.

But, says Mr. Hall, "Indian Country is moving forward and in the right direction."

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