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Murder By Poverty in Indian Country: Then and Now

The Meriam Report announced that Indians were "extremely poor" and locked in a "vicious cycle of poverty" that was perpetuated by a number of things.

The recent story on the Indian Country Today Media Network website about the young Navajo woman who died from the Hantavirus brought to mind the findings of the Meriam Report of 1928. Although it is most often associated with bringing an end to the most serious abuses of the federal boarding school system, it was actually a survey of living conditions on reservations across America, and what it found was appalling.

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For example, it began by announcing that Indians were “extremely poor” and locked in a “vicious circle of poverty” that was perpetuated by inadequate housing, sanitation, nutrition, and healthcare that was substandard even by the standards of the teeming tenements in the cities or even the poorest white rural communities. And, as in the case of the young Navajo woman, it was the conditions on the reservations that led to the spread and high incidence of diseases among Indians.

The report cited shocking statistics about the higher rates of disease and infant mortality than in the general population, and the lower life expectancy among Indians. The death rate for children under 3 was more than three times the national average. The most serious diseases were tuberculosis and trachoma, the latter the leading cause of blindness. According to the report, deaths from tuberculosis among Indians were seven times the national average, and in Arizona it was 17 times higher than in the general population.

Overall, the death rate among Indians was two to three times higher than the national average, and in Idaho it was five times greater. While the report cited all of the causes listed above, the major problems were caused by government incompetence and wrongheaded or failed government policies and programs, especially those that undermined economic development on reservations. With regard to health, the report concluded that: “practically every activity undertaken by the national government for the promotion of health of the Indians is below a reasonable standard of efficiency.”

None of this would be surprising to Indians today, and that is precisely the point. Almost 90 years after the Meriam Report was issued, Indian remain poor, even extremely poor. The poverty rate among Indians is nearly 80 percent higher than the general population, with personal income nearly 70 percent lower. Ten of the 12 poorest counties in America are associated with reservations. Overall unemployment is nearly twice the national average, but that masks the nearly 90 percent unemployment rate on some reservations. And, just as the Meriam Report found, poverty coupled with poor housing and diet results in higher rates of disease.

Tuberculosis has been replaced by diabetes and heart disease, but the results are the same. The incidence of diabetes among Indians is more twice as high among whites and is increasing rapidly. Diabetes is a major contributor to heart disease, which is 20 percent higher among Indians than the general population and is also rising markedly, and both are related to poor diets. Both diseases also contribute to strokes and other physically incapacitating infirmities. In this way, poverty produces poor health, which produces more poverty, and poverty and poor health contribute to lower life expectancy and higher mortality rates than the general population. Sadly, those statistics are also driven by an alarming rate of suicides among young Indians, and an infant mortality rate that is 60 percent higher than among whites.

Some things have changed for the better. Indians are better educated than a century ago, although the number of high school and college graduates is below the national average. Indians have also found better economic opportunities off the reservations. Nevertheless, the striking similarities between the conditions described in the Meriam Report and the disturbing statistics outlined above tell the sad story of a century of neglect and failed government policies and programs. The “vicious circle of poverty” continues.

Keith R. Burich, Ph.D., is a professor of Native American History at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, and the author of the book “The Thomas Indian School and the ‘Irredeemable’ Children of New York” to be published next month by Syracuse University Press.