Treatment of Native Americans investigated by UN

Beautiful scenery contrasts with deep poverty on a Navajo reservation in Arizona © Getty Images

Indigenous rights expert James Ayala yesterday launched the first ever UN investigation into the situation of Native Americans in the USA. Life on the ‘reservations’ is a daily struggle.

European settlers arriving in America in the 16th and 17th Centuries called it ‘The New World’. They could not have been more wrong. The continents on which they built their colonial empires had already seen tens of thousands of years of human history. Colonisers saw America as a blank canvas. In fact, it was a rich and varied tapestry of peoples, languages and cultures.

But, from the moment the first white settlers arrived, the great American Indian nations were doomed. The Europeans brought diseases that had never been seen before on the American continent. Without natural resistance to these foreign plagues, the Native Americans died in millions.

The survivors of the great epidemics found themselves fatally weakened, as thousands of new colonists continued to arrive. The grim work that smallpox and measles had begun was finished with gunpowder and bayonets. By the end of the 19th Century, the last independent tribes had been subdued – herded onto ‘Indian Reservations’ which covered a small fraction of their old territory.

Many of the 2.7 million Native Americans alive today still live on these parcels of land. And although the Indian Wars are long over, conditions on many reservations are far from perfect. Rates of diabetes, alcoholism, suicide and violence are all higher than in the general US population. Life expectancy is lower. Continuing racism against Native Americans makes it hard for young people to find work.

The situation is so bad that yesterday, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples launched an unprecedented investigation into the state of Native American rights. He will try to establish whether the US government is living up to the commitment it made in 2010, when it signed up to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

Rights and wrongs

Defenders of the US record will point to the special legal privileges and protections enjoyed by Native Americans. Those living on reservations are eligible for special health care, they receive special welfare payments and extra income from the casinos that are only allowed on Native American land. And, of course, they have the same fundamental rights as any other American citizen. If life on reservations is hard, they are at liberty to move away.

But many Native Americans say this is not enough. Why? Because, deprived of their ancestral lands, they have lost the most important right of all: the freedom to pursue their ancient culture and way of life.

You Decide

  1. Should Native Americans be given back their ancestral lands?
  2. If you were a Native American, would you choose to live on your tribal reservation or move to the big city?


  1. Choose one Native American tribe. Put together a presentation on the culture and history of your chosen tribe. What was their life like before the Indian Wars, and what is it like today?
  2. Should the US government pay compensation to modern Native Americans for injustices carried out more than a century ago? Make a list of three events from history where you think a compensation claim might be justified, and three where such a claim would be unfair.

Some People Say...

“In a democracy, no group should get special treatment.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t think there are any ‘indigenous peoples’ where I come from.
Perhaps not, although the rights of indigenous people are under threat across much of North and South America, Asia and Africa.
What if I live in Britain, say?
Then you have to go a little further back through history to the 6th Century AD, when the Celtic inhabitants of Britain were conquered by the Saxons and Angles (who gave England its name). Some inhabitants of Britain’s ‘Celtic fringe’ still regard the English as oppressors.
So the Celts are Britain’s indigenous peoples?
Actually, they were invaders themselves – originally from Switzerland and France – who migrated to Britain during the First Millennium BC, displacing the island’s Bronze Age inhabitants. If you go back far enough, almost all peoples have been invaders at one point or another.

Word Watch

American Indian
There is much debate over the proper term to describe America’s indigenous peoples. ‘Indians’ has bad associations with the ‘Cowboys and Injuns’ movies of the early 20th Century. ‘Native Americans’ has echoes of condescending colonial terms like ‘native’. And anyway, Native Americans inhabited the land long before anyone thought to call it America. Despite these problems, no preferred term has yet been settled on.
Smallpox was a highly infectious disease that killed millions of people all over the world before it was finally eradicated in 1979. Its impact on vulnerable Native American populations was horrifying. In some places, death rates were up to 90%.
Indian Wars
The American Indian Wars were a series of conflicts fought during the European colonisation of America, from the war of Independence in 1775 all the way up to the beginning of the 20th Century. The most famous battle – and one of the only Native American victories – was the Battle of Little Bighorn, where a force of Sioux Indians wiped out a US cavalry detachment under General George Custer.
Casinos are banned across much of the United States, but a legal loophole means they are allowed on Indian territory. They bring significant income to reservations which host them, but are also accused of encouraging gambling and alcohol addiction among locals and destroying traditional culture.


PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.