The Erasure of American Indians Impacts Policy

For Native American Heritage Month, MBPC discussed why American Indian representation and visibility in Montana’s Legislature matters, but the importance of representation and visibility extends beyond Helena. Representation and visibility impact conversations, perceptions, decisions, policy, the information we consume and how we consume it, and the larger public narrative.

Narrative, or information that is repeated over and over, becomes the story that people accept without question. Take the common misconception that American Indians do not pay taxes as one example. In fact, both tribal governments and individual tribal citizens pay taxes. Yet, misinformation like this and lack of information impacts policymaking.

According to IllumiNatives, 72 percent of Americans almost never encounter or seek out information about American Indians. Without accurate representation, we instead see stereotypes about American Indians, which influence how non-Indians see American Indians. Stereotypical views of American Indians and tribal nations often historicize, racialize, and sexualize American Indians. Lack of representation and information about American Indians and tribal nations negatively impacts legislation and policy.

Historicizing American Indians and tribal nations is a form of narrative erasure because it reduces an entire people to the past. This form of erasure ignores the contemporary existence of American Indians and tribal nations, as well as their histories, contributions, cultures, and rights. History, as presented through this settler-colonial narrative, is intentionally one-sided and inaccurate. In fact, 87 percent of state-level history standards fail to cover the history of American Indians and tribal nations after 1900.

Montana was the first state to invest in Indian Education for All (IEFA), a state constitutional mandate requiring educators to integrate American Indian content in all instruction. IEFA’s intent is to provide an inclusive and more comprehensive curriculum on the history and contributions of American Indians. However, implementation and integration of IEFA curriculum are ongoing issues. For example, the majority of public school teachers in Montana are non-Indian, and it can be difficult to teach curriculum about an identity one does not hold.

American Indians do not belong to a racial group but are citizens of tribal nations, which are political and sovereign entities. Tribal nations have been sovereign since time immemorial and existed long before the United States constitution, pre-dating settler-colonists and their occupation of this land. In addition, each tribe has its own unique practices, cultures, beliefs, and knowledge systems.

Misconceptions about tribal sovereignty and tribal citizenship can influence policies that chip away at tribal sovereignty, spur dehumanized views of American Indians, and have lasting negative impacts. For instance, 50 percent of Americans believe that American Indians receive “free stuff” from the federal government. This stereotype about American Indians can impact perceptions of tribal sovereignty and the federal trust responsibility.

For instance, the obligation of the federal government to provide health care to American Indians stems from what is known as its trust responsibility to tribes. Between 1778 and 1871, the U.S. negotiated nearly 400 treaties with American Indian tribal nations. Treaties with tribes were made under the U.S. constitution, and are at the same legal status as treaties with foreign nations. Through these treaties, tribes ceded control of billions of acres of their homelands to the U.S. in exchange for resources and services that oftentimes included medical services, like providing tribal nations with doctors and hospitals.

Congress created the Indian Health Service (IHS) in 1955 and authorized all Indian health-related facilities and management functions to IHS. However, current funding for IHS covers only 60 percent of the health care needs of eligible American Indians. Misconceptions and lack of representation of American Indians and tribal nations marginalize these significant issues about American Indian health.

As a final example of the impact of narrative erasure on policy, it is necessary to talk about the sexualization of American Indian women. The sexualization of American Indian women is not something new but has been a narrative tool since first colonial contact, combining the conquest of indigenous land with the conquest of indigenous women. Montana has the fifth highest incidence of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) cases in the country. An estimated 26 percent of missing persons in Montana are American Indian, and this may be a low estimate.

Governments like Canada have begun to recognize the connection between the extractive industry and violence against American Indian women. A recent report by the Sovereign Bodies Institute states one in five Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) cases in the U.S. has occurred in regions near where the Keystone XL Pipeline is proposed to be built, which includes Montana. Tribal nations often do not have the jurisdiction or resources to respond to these crimes. In November, the Montana Legislature’s interim State-Tribal Relations Committee sent a letter to Montana’s Congressional delegates about the northeastern pipeline, encouraging a more rigorous public comment process and tribal consultation.

We all have a responsibility to unlearn harmful misconceptions and challenge how we contribute to narrative erasure.

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