Reservation Life

The town of Shiprock on the Navajo Reservation. Many houses on reservations, similar to the ones pictured, are second-hand FEMA structures not equipped to be permanent housing.

The Indian reservation system was established in the late 1800’s by the U.S. government to subdue Indigenous people and take claim over their ancestral lands. The reservations were like a prisoner-of-war camps as Natives were forced there under federal guidance and not allowed to leave. They were left hungry, in extreme poverty and unable to sustain themselves through hunting, fishing or collecting traditional foods that they were normally accustomed to. Sometimes, multiple tribes (even feuding tribes) were thrown together on tracts of land and forced to live there together with empty promises that it would only be temporary.  As European settlers moved in and westward expansion grew, the need for more privatized, land ownership became increasingly vital but the Indians stood in the way and reservations were the solution. 

Vincent (Pyramid Lake Paiute) is one of many that suffer from the diabetes epidemic among the Native American population in the U.S. It is estimated that 30% of American Indians suffer from pre-diabetes today. The disease can lead to kidney failure, blindness and limb loss.

Because they were not encouraged to hunt and fish anymore, food rations were provided by the government which introduced these people to foods foreign to their bodies such as: wheat flour, unhealthy greases, dairy and sugar. Because these foods were never part of their diet before, especially sugar, many Native Americans would suffer devastating health issues that continue to this day. According to the U.S. National Research Council Committee on Population, Native Americans suffer from diabetes diagnoses at a rate 2.5 times higher than the U.S. all-races rate. In fact, the Pima Indian Tribe in Arizona has the highest recorded prevalence of non-insulin dependent diabetes in the world. A food commodities program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture continues to provide food to about a hundred thousand Native Americans living on reservations today. Rarely is any of the provided food fresh and the commodities are usually canned and boxed with high amounts of chemicals and preservatives. Interestingly, these foods are put in distinct packaging that differentiates them from any non-Native American supplies. These include items such as canned meats, sugary juices, processed blocks of cheese, flour, evaporated milk, peanut butter and oils. Because government-funded food commodity programs have been going on for over 140 years, many Natives today consider foods like fry bread, boxed cheese and canned meats like Spam, as traditional or characteristic Native American foods. Interestingly, these foods symbolize the historical conflicts between the American Indian and the government and the struggle for identity of Indigenous people of the U.S.

I was hostile to the white man… We preferred hunting to a life of idleness on our reservations. At times we did not get enough to eat and we were not allowed to hunt. All we wanted was peace and to be left alone.

– Tȟašúŋke Witkó (Crazy Horse), Oglala Lakota Leader (1840-1877)
Indians getting their beef rations on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, 1893. Source: Library of Congress, photographer J.A. Anderson

The housing crisis on Indian reservations is also a very desperate situation; thousands are homeless and there is a large waiting list, sometimes for years, to obtain tribal housing. This leads to overcrowding and multiple families residing in tight living quarters. On the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, there is an estimated average of 17 people living in each family home; homes that may have 2 or 3 bedrooms at most. According to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, about 40% of homes are extremely inadequate. Many are not connected to sewer or running water and it’s not uncommon for these houses to not have proper kitchen facilities, cooling, or heating. Out of curiosity, many people ask: “what is it like on a reservation?” It wouldn’t be a far stretch to say they are like third world islands within the biggest economy on Earth.



Ula and Tim: This Eastern Shoshone couple have been married for 54 years and have experienced reservation life before there was electricity or running water on the Wind River Indian reservation in Wyoming. They proudly sit in their living room with a collage of family photos behind them. “Traditionally, the firstborn grandchild would be given to the grandparents so that we can teach them our stories and traditional ways”, explains the couple.

Gina: She is single mother, Army veteran, and a federal police officer for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. After her brother’s mysterious death that left her family with unanswered questions, she was motivated to become a tribal police officer to bring justice for other people that may be facing the same. Sovereign Indian reservations have their own police force and judicial system, but do not always have jurisdiction to solving crimes that happen on federal lands. Unfortunately, this often leads to cases that often go unsolved.

The grave of Wamni Whitecloud: Wamni is one of many teenagers on reservations who have been killed in a car accident. Car accidents and suicides are tragically common among young Native teens and adolescents.  Teen suicides among American Indian and Alaskan Native populations are triple that of the U.S. average. “‘Suicide pacts are common among kids in high school”, reveals one woman we spoke to on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Out of 12 teens in her graduating class, only four survived due to a suicide pact.

Elijah in Pine Ridge, South Dakota: Elijah lives on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota with hopes of becoming a professional skateboarder. The skate park on the Reservation was the constructed and funded by the Stronghold Society in collaboration with Levi Jeans with the aim of shifting focus to more positive activities for the younger generation. Since the park has been completed, a noticeable change has come over the community, particularly the youth. “We’ve created a spark of life on that Reservation that they haven’t seen in a long time,” says one of the project leaders.

Julian and his son, Elijah: Julian is a single father who works at the local casino on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Shortly after the birth of his son, the mother abandoned them both, leaving Julian to be the sole caregiver of Elijah. Both parents had succumbed to alcohol addiction and Elijah’s mother wasn’t able to cope. Julian himself was abandoned by his mother for the same reasons and his own childhood experiences motivated him to sobering up and be a strong role model for his son.

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