Living or Surviving on Native American Reservations

Are Native Americans living or simply surviving on reservations set up by Canadian and United States governments?

A concerned Northwestern tribal member sent me an e-mail some months ago. She suggested that people in her community were mostly trying to survive, but were not living as individuals or as a community. She asked how is it possible to move beyond survival mode and create communities where people are living or flourishing. By living, she probably meant having the time and energy to realize the central values of culture, community, and individual life. Immediately it is possible to think of many reasons why tribal members are often focused on economic survival.

The high unemployment rate on many reservations does not provide a stable economic base. Most reservation people either work at low paying jobs or receive some government assistance. Since a significant portion of tribal members are supported by government resources, they often have time, but few funds. The Canadian reserve system provides an interesting comparison. Canada is a much more socialist country than the United States, and the Canadian reserves are modeled after the British work house. Unemployed people were fed and housed in the work house, and were trained to find employment. The administration of the work house greatly constrained the individual freedoms of the participants.


The Canadian reserve system, like the United States reservation system, were designed as temporary places of transition to work and life in mainstream society. Most reservations are small and without enough resources to support tribal communities, and often became places of dependency, marginalization and poverty. The Canadian reserves provide a cradle to grave support system for tribal communities, but one where most economic and political actions were controlled by the Indian service administration. Sometimes reservations are called total institutions, like prisons or mental institutions, where extensive external control resulted in limited choices for tribal members.

Like inmates in other total institutions, many tribal members find reservation life economically and politically challenging. Since the 1960s, some reservation administration has changed for the better, but many reservations remain subject to substantial external control. Most contemporary Canadian reserves remain subjects of considerable external economic and political control. Many U.S. reservations continue to experience considerable economic, political and legal dependency on federal administration and resources. The reservation system has created considerable distress among tribal members, which is seen in intergenerational trauma, excessive addictions, poor health, few economic opportunities, and family violence.


Perhaps the people who are surviving within reservation communities are doing fairly well. However, the tribal member’s point is well taken. Many contemporary tribal people and communities are not in a position to fully realize their community values and individual goals. Should indigenous peoples settle for less? The reader says no, she says she wants her community to live, not just survive the holocaust of reservation conditions. How can we do that? The vision around the world is that indigenous peoples seek greater cultural, political, and economic autonomy. The total institutional model of reservation management has been challenged by most tribal communities in the United States.

Since 1980, U.S. government policies, legal decisions, and economic support has declined in real terms, despite emphasis on self-determination policy. Perhaps the most significant change has been the broader and greater understanding of indigenous identity, community, legal, and human rights. Indigenous communities have become more politically self-aware, and have mobilized to realize their political and human rights at national and international levels. Nation states, however, continue to be willing to provide human and civil rights within national jurisdictions, but seem to have little knowledge or willingness to engage indigenous communities and indigenous rights.

National governments should be helpful materially and politically, but indigenous peoples cannot look there for full realization of their communities and values. Indigenous communities are their own strongest asset. Ultimately, indigenous peoples must look inward to themselves for leaders, institutions, innovation, and community consensus for taking on the task of developing healthy, sustainable, culturally grounded indigenous communities that will be satisfying and sustainable into the indefinite future.

This story was originally published on October 8, 2011.