I was reading a post called The inherent racism of “Tough on Crime” by Crommunist, and it got me thinking about natives, a topic I haven’t really brought up here. I think the real reason I haven’t brought it up is because it’s a doozy, and I don’t believe for a minute that I have any real answers. I’m by no means a scholar on the experience of natives, so please don’t assume I have a clue in hell what I’m talking about.
Natives in Canada often have a tough go, and a story that my mom experienced shows just what I’m talking about. She was teaching in a fairly poor elementary school in Calgary, and she had a student she was worried about. The kid was a native, and lived with his mom. If I remember the story correctly, she was one of those hard working people who work full time, raise a kid, go to school, and are constantly working to fix their lives. The dad lived in Brocket, which is a community in southern Alberta on the Peigan reserve that suffers from a very high alcoholism rate. The kid was around ten years old, and he was presented with two very different lives.
On the one hand, his mom was hard working and strong. But a ten year old kid doesn’t necessarily understand the benefit of hard work. He saw his mom as a mouse on a wheel, constantly working herself into an early grave and getting nowhere. Dad, however, was awesome. He and his buddies sat around all day getting paid to do nothing, drinking, laughing, telling stories… Think back to the ten-year-old version of yourself. Using those eyes, how hard is it to imagine the kid thinking Mom was insane and Dad was living the dream?
Much like the Catholics, communities with high alcoholism rates get ‘em while they’re young. Kids grow up with alcohol abuse being just a part of life. Normal, to any individual, is what you experience day to day, and kids who grow up in a community with heavy alcoholism see the problems as normal. If my children saw a guy lying passed out in a pool of vomit with a bottle of Jack Daniels in his hand, they would probably be upset and freaked out. If you see it all the time, and more importantly, if the people around you act like it’s funny or typical, you wouldn’t get upset or freaked out.
Not all reservations are high in alcohol, but it is a fairly common problem. Defeating alcoholism in an environment where it is so commonplace is extremely difficult. Just ask Russia.
Now, there’s a lot of misinformation about natives. It is generally assumed that they sit around getting free money from the government. This is not the case. Those bands that have money generally have it due to oil and gas rights, mineral rights, and the like. What that means is oil companies who want to exploit deposits that happen to be on reservation land need to make financial arrangements with those in charge. Often, that money is shared to some degree with the people, and there are often scholarships available for the people who wish to go through higher education.
The incorrect opinion that the government just gives natives money to sit around and do nothing leads to jealousy and contempt from outsiders. If you get paid to do nothing and you squander it drinking and buying vehicles (which is the stereotype) while I work my ass off just to pay the bills, people are going to have an awful lot harder time caring about your woes.
All this “free money” that they supposedly get doesn’t make their lives better. Reservations offer some of the worst conditions in the country, and natives represent (as Crommunist points out) nearly half of the inmates in Canadian prisons. Some of that will be related to an unfair system that judges natives more harshly than other cultures due to prejudice, but a lot of it comes from the realities of reservation life. Education may in some cases be paid for by the tribe, but the motivation to get an education is often quite limited. Poverty is rampant. Depression is massive.
It isn’t a hopeless situation, though. But I’m not sure what the answer is. Others are in better positions to come up with solutions than I, having more background in the legal aspects, the cultural aspects, and what works and what doesn’t. I will say that keeping things as they are will only further damage the native people. We can be complicit in that, or we can ask that the experts turn their attention to the problem.
I don’t, as I have said, know what the solution is, but I have a feeling it’s a complicated combination of solutions. My bets are that a lot of change has to come from tribal leaders making smart choices, from lawmakers to do things like removing mandatory minimum sentence legislation, and from the next generation of natives being shown other options. And I bet there’s a lot more to it than that. It isn’t too late to fix this, that argument is taking the easy way out. Like anything else, some unpopular decisions will need to be made before this situation can be well and truly fixed, but popularity isn’t the point. This is about helping our fellow man.