A Legacy of Negligence: The Historical Mistreatment of Indigenous Peoples in the United States

By Andrew George via Unsplash

By Genevieve Kaplan


Those indigenous to the United States have proven vital to the country’s prosperity historically, yet are treated with discrimination, stemming from the lack of historical accuracy surrounding the group’s influence. Reservations were created to accommodate the many native people displaced from the time of colonization, but with the concealed purpose of controlling the group, pertaining to their access to resources and rights as citizens. Because of the control they obtain, the United States has manipulated the story of indigenous peoples by limiting the knowledge surrounding native realities, shaping the public perception of what it means to be indigenous in the United States. The manipulation of native history is ultimately to blame for the unrelenting actualities that surround being indigenous in today’s world, making education on the subject the ultimate solution to resolve the centuries of neglect the indigenous community has faced.

Indigenous History in the US

From Columbus’s initial discovery of the West Indies, indigenous people in the Americas have been mislabeled and misperceived. Consequently, this falsity has misshapen indigenous identity and the public perception of indigenous cultures and communities. The way in which history has been misconstrued romanticizes Columbus’s mistake and ignores the indigeneity that roots the people to the land. An article published by the University of Massachusetts explains that, “American Indians’ derives from the colonizers’ world-view and is therefore not the real name of anyone. It is a name given to people by outsiders, not by themselves.”[i] Columbus’s legacy has oppressed the native community by mislabeling them, neglecting indigenous peoples by recognizing them solely in accordance with the name forced upon them by colonizers, yet is the label that has represented indigenous peoples throughout the entirety of American history.


Once America became independent from Britain’s rule, a relationship was sought between the newly formed United States and the indigenous communities, both inhabiting the same land. Treaties were created to set clear boundaries and limit disagreements between the groups. However, to this day, every single treaty made with indigenous peoples has been broken by the United States government, exemplifying neglect on the federal level. America as a country did not see the value of indigenous peoples, especially when the creation of treaties was completely halted in 1871. This was because, “Congress ceased to recognize the tribes as entities capable of making treaties.” The United States government devalued native correspondence to control the entirety of the indigenous community. A prime example of this negligence was Congress’s decision to retract the Treaty of Fort Laramie. In 1868, this treaty was created to leave the area of the Black Hills untouched for the Lakota people but within one singular decade, the United States reversed the treaty for its own personal exploitation of the land.[ii] In this way, the United States imposed neglect on the community as a whole, disrespecting the mutual agreements between the two groups for America’s gain.


Post-colonization and maintaining tribal lands as separate from the United States, reservations created a distinct division. The Indian Removal Act, promoted by President Andrew Jackson, was the legalized action of pushing native peoples off of their land for America’s benefit. Even the rhetoric in the legal act uses the incorrect terminology of “Indian”, that continues to diminish the natives’ rights in America and was used in legal contexts until the mid-twentieth century.[iii] Many indigenous people opposed this act, leading to the Indian Wars, but native opposition was defeated and still to this day, “about 22% of our country’s 5.2 million Native Americans live on tribal lands.”[iv] For almost two centuries, the indigenous community has endured the hardships brought by reservation life because of the historical events in which America exercised negligence and forced indigenous peoples off of their own, rightful lands.


Not only do reservations contain and restrict the indigenous population, they also perpetuate some of the highest rates of poverty in the country. The indigenous communities living on reservations have limited access to resources and are sheltered within the confines of the land delegated to them. Poverty has been exacerbated by a lack of substantial employment, addiction problems, and inadequate health care. According to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition,[v] in 2018, the percentage of indigenous peoples living in poverty was 25.4%, considerably higher than the national average for the year being 11.8%.[vi] The poverty that consumes the indigenous community is more than double the national average, proving that poverty disproportionately affects the native community. This poverty has persisted since the time of the Indian Removal Act into today, with little emphasis placed on the issue at the national level.


A consequential issue faced by indigenous peoples, especially those living on reservations, is alcoholism. Because of the extreme rates of poverty in such condensed areas, alcohol has become a widely-used coping mechanism to endure the harsh realities that come with reservation life. According to American Addiction Centers, “the loss of population, land, and culture caused unresolved grief to be transmitted across generations of Native Americans, likely leading to the development of negative coping mechanisms such as drinking.” The history suffered by indigenous peoples is directly linked to the alcoholism occurring among the current population. “The rate of Native Americans with an alcohol use disorder (7.1%) is higher than that of the total population (5.4%).”[vii] Alcohol is a tool used to cope with the trauma indigenous peoples have faced as they are constantly reminded that the land they are confined within was originally theirs but weaponized as a tool of oppression against their own community.


Not only do indigenous communities rank amongst the highest in rates of alcoholism and poverty, but also hold the highest rates of sexual assault in the nation. The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) highlights that, “American Indians are twice as likely to experience a rape/sexual assault compared to all races.”[viii] According to High Country News, “of over 2,000 women surveyed, 84 percent of Native American and Alaskan Native women have experienced violence, 56 percent have experienced sexual violence, and, of that second group, over 90 percent have experienced violence at the hands of a non-tribal member.” Because of the poverty and alcoholism that are common within the indigenous community, the stresses brought on by daily life alone results in outbreaks of violence. High Country News addresses that, “many Native Americans find it hard to fight the cultural stigma of reporting rape, and leaving the reservation is out of the question for many women,” and because of the constant battles that come with living on the reservation, behaviors of assault have become normalized. However, of the many rapes and assaults that do occur on the reservation or toward women of indigenous background, most are committed by non-tribal members. Native women are targeted by members of their own race and by outsiders portraying a serious issue of perpetual violence taking place toward indigenous women. However, the issue is intensified as, “tribal courts do not have the jurisdiction to prosecute non-tribal members for many crimes like sexual assault and rape, even if they occur on tribal land.”[ix] The procedures surrounding assault cases are worse on the reservation because of the lack of full judicial powers that can be exercised since the cases would not go through the federal government. Because the statistics keep increasing with less attention being placed on the matter, assaults persist and without tribal governments able to fully prosecute those, the indigenous community is constantly in danger.

Basic Needs

Among the rates of poverty, substance abuse, and assault, the indigenous community faces tremendous difficulty in gaining access to basic, fundamental resources. Items like clean drinking water are not guaranteed on the reservation and, “many reservation families live without these amenities…Overcrowding, substandard dwellings, and lack of utilities all increase the potential for health risk.” Reservation conditions lack the needs that modern society has become accustomed to, while native peoples are relegated to small plots of land in which they do not have full freedoms or conveniences. Native American Aid explains, “to survive, extended families pool their meager resources as a way to meet basic needs. The relative poverty still experienced by these blended families is best understood as the gap between the overall need and the need that goes unmet.” Even when reservation residents try to accommodate their most basic needs, they find it is nearly impossible to do so. Even on the plot of land designed for indigenous Americans, houses are not guaranteed. Native American Aid continues to describe the lack of necessity and attention brought to the indigenous community as, “there are 90,000 homeless or underhoused Indian families, and that 30% of Indian housing is overcrowded and less than 50% of it is connected to a public sewer.[x] The housing that is present is sub-par at best, barely meeting any standard of living for the native community. The lack of access to a sewer affects plumbing, cooking, drinking water, etc. It makes sense in this regard that indigenous peoples have more needs and struggles as, “compared with all other racial groups, Native Americans are at a greater risk of suffering from psychological distress, poorer overall health, and unmet medical and psychological needs.[xi] All of these factors that affect the indigenous population combine and exemplify the harsh realities of being native in America.

Conclusion and Resolution

Native Americans face adversity in American society and have throughout history; yet continue to suffer when solutions are available. There is a fundamental lack of attention placed on the group as a whole, which is a direct result of the lack of emphasis placed on the indigenous community and the horrors of history that are repressed and unspoken. This first needs to be tackled through education. Education of native cultures should be synonymous with American history as the indigenous peoples have played a large part in the past, especially in the colonization process. The harshness of indigenous history must be shared for American society to fully understand what it means to be Native American today, and how that reality is shaped by the past. To additionally address this neglect, the reformation of reservations with the incorporation of accommodations necessary to live a comfortable life is essential. Indigenous Peoples’ Day has begun to recognize the terrors brought onto the indigenous community by America, celebrating the native cultures and acknowledging their rightful presence in the United States. Small steps in recognizing the disparities that plague the indigenous community will ultimately make tremendous efforts in reconciling the relationship between the United States and its native peoples.

Genevieve Kaplan is graduating senior at UC Berkeley, majoring in Political Science, and minoring in Public Policy. She is passionate about indigenous rights and bringing justice to the indigenous community through human rights expansion and reform in the United States. 

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal, the Goldman School of Public Policy, or UC Berkeley.

[i] d’Errico, Peter. “Native American Indian Studies – A Note on Names.” UMass Amherst. Last modified 1998. https://www.umass.edu/legal/derrico/name.html.

[ii] National Geographic Society. “The United States Government’s Relationship with Native Americans.” National Geographic Society. Last modified December 11, 2019. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/article/united-states-governments-relationship-native-americans/.

[iii] Prime Pauls, Elizabeth. “Tribal Nomenclature: American Indian, Native American, and First Nation.” In Encyclopedia Britannica. 2008. Accessed April 14, 2022. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Tribal-Nomenclature-American-Indian-Native-American-and-First-Nation-1386025.

[iv] Native American Aid. “Native American Living Conditions on Reservations – Native American Aid.” Helping Native American People Improve the Quality of Life – Partnership With Native Americans. Accessed April 14, 2022. https://www.nativepartnership.org/site/PageServer?pagename=naa_livingconditions.

[v] Asante-Muhammad, Dedrick. “Racial Wealth Snapshot: Native Americans » NCRC.” NCRC. Last modified February 14, 2022. https://ncrc.org/racial-wealth-snapshot-native-americans/.

[vi] US Census Bureau. Income and Poverty in the United States: 2018. September 10, 2019. https://www.census.gov/library/publications/2019/demo/p60-266.html.

[vii] American Addiction Centers. “Alcohol Abuse in the Native American Population: Statistics & Risk Factors.” American Addiction Centers. Last modified June 21, 2021. https://americanaddictioncenters.org/alcoholism-treatment/native-americans.

[viii] RAINN. “Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics.” RAINN | The Nation’s Largest Anti-sexual Violence Organization. Accessed April 14, 2022. https://www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence.

[ix] Gilpin, Lyndsey. “Native American Women Still Have the Highest Rates of Rape and Assault.” High Country News – Know the West. Last modified June 7, 2016. https://www.hcn.org/articles/tribal-affairs-why-native-american-women-still-have-the-highest-rates-of-rape-and-assault.

[x] Native American Aid. “Native American Living Conditions on Reservations – Native American Aid.” Helping Native American People Improve the Quality of Life – Partnership With Native Americans. Accessed April 14, 2022. https://www.nativepartnership.org/site/PageServer?pagename=naa_livingconditions.

[xi] American Addiction Centers. “Alcohol Abuse in the Native American Population: Statistics & Risk Factors.” American Addiction Centers. Last modified June 21, 2021. https://americanaddictioncenters.org/alcoholism-treatment/native-americans.