The Navajo Nation, the largest and most populous in the country, recently won $554 million from the U.S., the largest ever to a single Native American tribe. This will settle an eight-year lawsuit over the government’s gross mismanagement of Indian lands and resources for several decades.
When the government started stealing Indian territory in the 19th century, it thought Native Americans were being shoved onto dry and useless land. It turns out the Navajo Nation sits on earth that is rich in resources, as do other Indian nations. But Native Americans have little say-so on how the coal, gas or even their own water is used. Instead, 14 million acres of Navajo land is “held in trust” by the United States, which in turn leases it out for mining, agricultural, energy and other businesses, all of which live and breathe for profit.
The lawsuit charges that the U. S. failed to negotiate fair compensation for companies’ extractions of natural resources on Navajo land; failed to make sure the companies paid what they agreed to; and failed to intelligently invest funds. In short, when it comes to managing Indian lands and resources, the U.S. government is negligent in the extreme. You might say, downright untrustworthy.
Tribal governments have broad social service responsibilities: building adequate roads and maintaining public buildings; providing public services including decent schools, water and electricity, public transit, a judicial system, waste management, law enforcement. But over the years many of the tribes have had little funds to take care of these basic societal tasks, because of profiteering companies and the inexcusable mismanagement by the U.S. government.
Life on the rez. Many Indians living on the Navajo reservation have long gone without electricity or running water because there are no public pipelines or power lines. Water is scarce because the mighty Colorado was dammed up to provide water and hydroelectricity to other cities throughout the southwest such as Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas.
These third-world conditions make life hard on the reservations. Lack of access means hauling water for drinking, bathing, or cooking or getting ice for refrigeration. Homes are often far away from each other, and scarce public transit makes it very difficult to go to a doctor, buy groceries, or get help for abused women and children. The current Navajo unemployment rate is 48.5 percent, and average household income is $8,240 — well below the federal poverty guidelines.
The U.S. government, with its “hold in trust” power, has played a heavy hand in creating these harsh conditions. For several decades, federal authorities have allowed other Indian lands to be exploited by mining corporations that get obscenely rich off of precious resources that don’t belong to them. Native Americans still endure an impoverished standard of living with high unemployment and record suicide rates among the youth who see no future ahead. The feds have been forced to pay out more than $2.6 million to settle similar lawsuits with other sovereign nations.
Major win for all Native Americans. The Navajo’s huge settlement is a major victory for all the tribes. Though it does not give them total autonomy over land usage, it does help wrench more lands out of the government’s “in-trust” pockets, and puts the U. S. on notice that no longer will mismanagement and theft of Native lands go unchallenged. How about making the companies pay back the government’s tax-payer money — all $554 million of it, to be used for necessities like food stamps, Medicaid, Medicare, childcare, etc.?
The Navajo are holding public hearings on how the settlement money should be used. Some of the suggestions include improving roads, education, and housing. Other ideas focus on addressing social problems, highlighting the urgent need to fund youth centers, domestic violence shelters, substance abuse and job training programs.
A tradition of struggle continues. The settlement deal does not affect the tribe’s separate claims over water rights and health issues from uranium pollution on the reservation. Moreover, the Nation will not abandon its fight for a toxic clean-up requirement, and it continues to block uranium transport through its lands.
Corporations are still lining up to exploit reservation lands, and currently are on the move to do more fracking on reservations. Native Americans and other environmental rebel groups are on the move to resist this endless profiteering and destruction.
The $554 million settlement does not, of course, solve the historic genocide waged against indigenous people in the United States. Nor will it end the criminal justice system’s racism against Indians, who are imprisoned at a rate 38 percent higher than the national rate.
Short of radical change, discrimination, poverty and social hardships will continue to be a way of life for Native Americans.
The struggle is not over. Like the indigenous people in Latin America who are mobilizing to fight corporate abuse of their lands, Native Americans in the United States are in the lead of a resurgent movement for saving planet Earth which Indians, more than anyone, know is the foundation of life.
Contact the author at FSnews@socialism.com.
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