On October 11, 2017 the American University Washington College of Law Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law hosted a Counter-Columbus Day Coffee Hour discussion of the rights of indigenous peoples in the United States. Professor Ezra Rosser, who also grew up within the Navajo nation and is an expert on Indian nations and poverty law, gave his perspective on the issues indigenous communities face today.   

Professor Rosser started out by discussing the vast income inequality and poverty that many indigenous peoples in the U.S. face. He stated that although there is some truth to the Native American casino-owner stereotype, many indigenous communities live in extreme poverty. He claimed that although urban African American’s are generally financially worse off than Native Americans, Native Americans on reservations are worse off than Urban African Americans. Thus Native Americans on reservations are one of the poorest communities in the U.S.. He further stated that over forty percent of Native Americans on reservations live in poverty.

To illustrate this poverty, Professor Rosser talked of the situation in the Navajo nation where he grew up. Although he is not a member of the tribe, Professor Rosser grew up on the reservation. He stated that where he is from there is one movie theater, only twelve stop lights and no Walmart in the entire Navajo nation, which includes portions of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. Although there are casinos, the main economy is in sheep, which are used for the informal economy and are very important for tribal members, who mainly value their wealth in sheep. Professor Rosser explained how this economy works. The people working in formal sector jobs are paid in cash, which is used to buy hay, which is then traded to the people in the less formal jobs for sheep or mutton. There are parts of the economy that are based entirely on the barter of sheep for hay. He next stated that although the area has a great need for a Walmart, and a Walmart would do very well there, there isn’t one because outside corporations are not allowed to own the land. As such, Walmart will not build a store within the reservation. Those living within the Navajo nation have to travel multiple hours to get to a superstore.

Professor Rosser explained that having to leave the reservations in order to access stores and other necessities contributes to another stereotype that has developed about indigenous peoples.  He claimed that the stereotype of extreme alcohol problems in the Native American population is exaggerated as a result of many reservations being dry. When reservations outlaw alcohol consumption, any Native American who wants a drink has to leave the reservation to do so, which means that when non-indigenous people encounter indigenous people outside of the reservation they are more inclined to be drinking.

Professor Rosser next discussed why extreme poverty exists in many indigenous communities. He started off by saying that not all indigenous communities are impoverished, emphasizing that some are very well off. The Seminole tribe of Florida, for example, made enough off of its casinos in 2013 to give every member of the tribe $13,000 a month. However, Professor Rosser stressed that this is the extreme exception rather than the rule. Although many Tribes do operate casinos, most are not nearly as successful, and even where there is money, not every tribe distributes the money evenly. Even with the wealth of casinos, poverty is still a major issue for Native American Populations. This is partially because indigenous populations are not given the same rights to development bonds. Professor Rosser explained that most hotels are owned by cities which put up capital to build the hotel, which brings money into the local economy. Indigenous peoples are not allowed to do this because the IRS does not allow this for non-indigenous projects on reservations.

In 2016 the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People was signed by the Organization of American States, which included the U.S.. While this Declaration acknowledges the problems faced by indigenous populations, and Native Americans often see it positively, the gap between the ideals of the Declaration and the reality of the indigenous population’s rights within the U.S. is huge. When U.S. law conflicts with the declaration, courts and lawmakers tend to ignore the Declaration. Professor Rosser stated, “There are generally good things happening for Native Americans on reservations and tragic things happening in Federal Courts.” He further clarified that, in the Supreme Court, only Justice Sotomayor is viewed favorably by indigenous people’s rights advocates, and the rest of the justices are generally viewed as against indigenous people’s rights. Because of this, indigenous rights lawyers are currently trying to avoid the Supreme Court, believing it is very unlikely to win a case on indigenous people’s rights under the current direction of the Court.

More needs to be done. While the Declaration of Indigenous People is a great start, the U.S. needs to uphold the Declaration to its fullest. This means that federal courts need to start making decisions that are consistent with the Declaration, and lawmakers need to make it easier for Native Americans to have the same legal rights as everyone else, especially the rights to develop their communities.