If you attend a college or university, like Tufts University, particularly on the east coast, chances are you don’t identify as a Native American. Like most of you, I do not call myself Native. However, I do count myself among the population that feels responsible for the mess the American government thrust upon the Indigenous populations as our country was established. Settlers came to begin life anew: to start from scratch and work their way to a standard of living higher than the place they had left. Yet to see that dream realized, they had to acquire land—land already inhabited by Natives.
In 1851, the Indian Appropriations Act created the reservation system out of vast expanses of unwanted land in some of the least fertile areas in the country. Since 2011, I’ve spent time each summer and winter with the Lakota people on the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota. There, the land is particularly poor: a paradoxically beautiful landscape of rolling hills that offers little protection against the sun’s harsh rays in the summer, the torrential downpour of spring, or the snowy, sub-zero temperatures that persist for a good portion of the year.
Reservations are also among the poorest areas in the country. In fact, a recent National Geographic article cited two reservations as having the country’s highest SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or what was formerly known as food stamps) and poverty rates. Depending on where one is on a reservation, it can take between 30 to 45 minutes to drive to the nearest town with job opportunities—and that’s if you have a working car. It’s no wonder that unemployment can reach a staggering 80 percent.
One Lakota tribal council member I spoke to (who would prefer to remain anonymous) expressed frustration at the lack of job opportunities. “I have ten kids. When I went a couple days being unable to put food on the table, I took matters into my own hands—I created a burrito food truck that I took to local events to try to make money.”
Theoretically, this kind of entrepreneurship could lead to big returns such as supporting kids through college or maybe even expanding to a restaurant—the American Dream in action.
For this Lakota woman, however, it was a dead end. “There’s no industry!” she explained in discontent. “The way the land is distributed—it’s communal. You can’t dig 12 inches to build anything without Tribal consent, and that has to be renewed every couple of years. Ideally, I would begin a restaurant and sell my burritos there, but there’s no way I could get consent to pour the foundation—and I’m on the council.”
It is not that there is a lack of effort to capitalize on dreams—the resources are just not there. Some people have the means to leave, but leaving means step- ping away from hundreds of years of fighting for land rights, sacred ceremonial grounds, and family.
Treaties used to guarantee that at least those grounds would be protected, but because we have broken over 400 treaties with continental tribes, it is as if Indigenous people have become immigrants to their own land. Throughout the 1900s, American officials used to go onto reservations and take unaccompanied children off the streets to send them to boarding schools, where they were mistreated and often forced to assimilate. It was only in the 1970s, after attention was drawn to reservation life by the protests at the Wounded Knee Reservation to reopen inter-governmental negotiations (which resulted in casualties), that the boarding schools were acknowledged and shut down. Yet racism and anti-Native sentiment are still pervasive around reservations today: when I went to eat at a commercial establishment just outside of Crow Creek with many of my Native friends, we were refused service after being bombarded with a slew of racial slurs.
It is no wonder, then, that the Indigenous feelings regarding the American Dream are different.
Terzah Tippin Poe, an Inupiat Eskimo from Northern Alaska who is currently a Tufts TA, is part of the first generation of native English speakers from her Far North Village. Her people were the last to be touched by colonial “dream-makers.” “The American Dream was a distant mirage seemingly unattainable for someone who looked like me and came from my socio-economic background,” she offered. “I have learned to be adaptable, one of the qualities I believe is strong within the Inupiaq, to the world on the Outside. But this striving to attain more and more, this focus on never-ending growth for growth’s sake that seems to epitomize the American Dream, is a way of being that feels disorienting and ultimately wholly unsatisfying.”
Joseph Wells, a Lakota father of three girls, shared a similar sentiment, “I cannot say that my dream is any different from the next, nor can I say that as a Native American my dream is the same as the next Native American. What I can say is that my dream is not to be wealthy, say in control of a big company, but rather to have a country where walking down an alley isn’t a concern. I would like to wake up one day and have there no longer be drug problems, sexual assault, or crimes that plague our country.”
It was those problems that drove 19 year-old Terry Curley to move from Crow Creek to Iowa. “Life on the reservation is hard because it is often about drinking, doing drugs, and getting high. I wanted to go somewhere and save money for college.”
As more Native students look to attend colleges and achieve their own dreams, whether or not the phrase “American” is attached to the front, there will be obstacles. It is time to wake up and address the nightmare we created before dreaming freely again.