Thursday, November 26, 2009

Squanto Should Have Thought Twice

Happy Thanksgiving, good people. May your tables groan with plenty and may your families stay away from forbidden topics.

Thanksgiving is an odd holiday, but in many respects it is a truly American holiday. Yes, it represents the celebration of a nation at its very earliest, but it also signifies what is best and what is worst about this nation. Many of us will sit down to a huge meal and be thankful that we can do so. Too many people, however, will not have that blessing, not this year, and probably not next year. The irony is that many of those people who will not be eating themselves into a tryptophan coma had ancestors at that first dinner.

Merlene Davis of the Lexington Herald-Leader offered an incredible (and appalling) reflection on the status of Native Americans in a column featured by McClatchy DC. Here are some of the statistics she cites:

According to official population figures, there are fewer than 5 million Indians in the U.S., and they have a life expectancy nearly five years shorter than other Americans. They die from pneumonia, influenza, diabetes, tuberculosis and alcoholism at a far higher rate than the rest of the country.

High school and college dropout rates for Native Americans are higher than for any other group in the U.S. And the suicide rate for American Indians and Alaska Natives is about 70 percent higher than for Americans in general. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for American Indians age 15 to 24 years of age and two thirds of those suicides in that age range are males.

Why aren't we doing anything about that?

She also notes that one in three Native American women are raped in their lifetime.

These are all statistics that President Obama is aware of, and he cited them at a meeting he held with representatives from the federally recognized tribes on November 5, 2009. Ms. Davis noted at the start of her column that not too many people were aware of that meeting. It was one of those meetings between heads of governments (yes, each tribe is a sovereign nation) that just didn't make the evening news in most places.

It should have. It was one of those times that President Obama kept one of his campaign promises by doing something positive.

The reservations, run by autonomous governments, need better educational facilities, better access to health care, and better public safety.

To get the ball rolling, Obama signed an executive order giving all federal agencies three months to submit proposals that would lead to "regular and meaningful consultation and collaboration" with Native Americans when decisions are being made that affect them.

The time frame included in that executive order is significant. President Clinton issued a similar order without one, and nothing ever came of it. Mr. Obama is not taking any chances on this one, as well he shouldn't. Ms. Davis explains the obvious, although apparently not too many people see it as obvious:

We demand quick reactions from the government when utilities are disabled because of storms or hurricanes. Some of these folks have been without electricity for years, if they ever had it.

We demand police protection when one person is threatened, raped or murdered in our cities. Can you imagine what we'd do if 33 percent of our women were raped?

Now the "First Americans," as President Obama called them (although I much prefer the less Eurocentric Canadian term "First Nations") have gotten some badly needed attention, and it appears that it is attention that is respectful. That is a good start. If President Obama continues in this vein, and meaningful change is carried out, then he will have done a good thing, as good a thing as bringing peace in the Middle East, in my opinion.

May it be so.

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