The Moment newsletter

Published — October 21, 2020

Native Americans and the racial reckoning

Randall Akee (UCLA)


Welcome to The Moment. I’m Susan Smith Richardson, CEO of the Center for Public Integrity.

Their voices may not be elevated in national news coverage of this moment of reckoning about racial justice, but Indigenous people in this country have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus and other issues at the center of today’s public discussions. Death rates for American Indians have been 1.5 times those for whites and infection rates have been 3.5 times those for whites.  And Native Americans are most likely to be killed by law enforcement, at a rate three times higher than whites. 

The issues affecting Indigenous peoples, who didn’t become U.S. citizens until 1924, are rooted in a legacy of colonization and displacement within the United States, says Randall Akee, a professor of public policy and chair of the American Indian Studies Interdepartmental Program at the University of California, Los Angeles. Akee says land and self-governance remain key issues of equity as the country reflects on its historical subjugation of Native Americans and communities of color.  

And now a moment with Randall Akee…

*This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

How is this moment of national reckoning about racial justice affecting Indigenous peoples in the United States?

There’s a lot of allyship going on [with Black people] and there are similarities in terms of the negative impact of overly harsh policing and intrusion into communities of color in general. … The incidents of police brutality and murder are approaching those of African Americans. Overall, the Indigenous community is smaller, and sometimes cases are less reported, but nonetheless the case rates are quite high. This is not something that’s foreign to Indigenous peoples in the United States by any means.

One important differentiation, however, is that for [Native Americans] reckonings of race and equality also stem from the political status of the inherent sovereignty of tribal nations and Indigenous peoples. … that is an added dimension that sometimes may complicate the conversation or the discussion. So, there are ways in which there are these consummate topics that are aligned with Black Lives Matter because some of the impacts are similar. But there are other dimensions which significantly differ in that regard.

President Calvin Coolidge stands with a Native American group at the White House in 1925, a year after they were granted the right to citizenship. (Library of Congress)

Explain more about the importance of self-governance and sovereignty.

With regard to the sovereign insured rights of Indigenous peoples, it all derives from their relationship to the land and specifically the lands on which their ancestors lived from time immemorial. That relationship generally doesn’t exist for anyone else in the continental United States. That differs from immigrant groups in the United States and/or the descendants of former slaves. They obviously have different histories. Indigenous peoples have a distinctly unique relationship to particular places, particular land. That is a claim that is recognized in the U.S. Constitution … understanding that these are separate different peoples and at the time of the writing of the Constitution were not included or considered citizens. We conflate [Native American issues with those of other communities of color], but they are distinctly different legally, politically, socially and culturally.

How does sovereignty affect economic justice and equity for the communities? 

In many cases, the resources available for Indigenous peoples were primarily with land and access to land but also water rights, mineral rights, access to resources like rivers and ocean fronts that [produced food], forests and other aspects of the environment.

When those rights were taken away either forcefully or through unequitable treaties and/or treaties that aren’t completely enforced, then the resources available to these communities were hampered for generations, if not centuries. So the idea that returning land, returning resources to Indigenous peoples might have had a potentially beneficial impact on their ability to self-govern, No. 1, but also to do it in an equitable way and an economically successful way is one of the biggest sort of revisions of federal Indian policy in the United States.

Historically, in the early part of the 20th century, there was a lot of paternalism from the federal government towards Native nations. That  has changed in that tribes have been allowed to take on much more of their administering of programs and projects and service to the community. And the federal government has stepped out and provided the funding in many of those cases. In other cases, the tribes have gone even beyond the existing funding and invested their own resources into expansion of housing programs or health programs or education programs that go above and beyond what the federal government even provides for. … When there is self-governance, when there’s control over local jurisdictions through things such as the ability to arrest and police non-Natives residing on the reservation, you see an improvement overall in reduction in crime and the improvement in local conditions. Previously those things were done by outsiders. So, having local control has also improved local conditions. That’s why it all comes down to jurisdiction, self- governance and having the land base to be sustaining.

On the home page for your program at UCLA you reference a “global reckoning for colonization, displacement and structural racism.” What does equity look like for Indigenous peoples globally?

It’s the very simple phrase “land back.” Whether or not it’s the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Bolivia, Mexico, the Amazon. All these places where Indigenous peoples reside, it’s clearly about land. It always starts from the land.

Randy’s must-reads:

How Does Measuring Poverty and Welfare Affect American Indian Children?”  discusses the challenges in tracking poverty data on American Indian and Alaska Native children, as well as the impact of anti-poverty programs on them.

Indigenous Data in the COVID-19 Pandemic” explains why there’s little data about the impact of the virus on Native peoples and how that affects the ability to address the problem.

Thanks for reading The Moment. What questions do you want to explore? Send them to me at Until next time.

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