2020 has magnified long-standing structural racism in the United States. This has been most visible in regards to black Americans, as the legacy of slavery, violence, and repression over centuries have led to lower wealth and income, poorer health outcomes and access to care, higher levels of police brutality, and other injustices, now brought more strongly into the national spotlight by the pandemic, the killings of unarmed black men and women by police, the #BlackLivesMatter marches, and the removal of Confederate symbols.
There is hope that the United States is finally undergoing the kind of systemic and social change that will address the grievous wrongs against black people. I also hope that our country will acknowledge and redress the wrongs against the indigenous peoples of the Americas, who have suffered many centuries of oppression, violence, theft, and dehumanization at the hands of the United States government and society.
[A note on language: Generally, if I were referring to an individual, I would identify them by the tribe/nation to which they belonged. In this post, which is about all the indigenous peoples, I have decided to use the term “First Nations” even though it is more often used in Canada than in the United States. I hope that this term conveys the respect I intend.]
The First Nations have suffered many, many losses since the arrival of Europeans, from disease, violence, forced dislocation, theft, broken treaties, environmental degradation, attacks on language and culture, and more. People of the First Nations who live on reservations have high rates of poverty and chronic disease and sometimes lack access to running water, electricity, appropriate medical care, and educational and employment opportunities. There are also terrible problems with legal protection that have led to an alarming rate of murder or disappearance of women and girls.
This year has brought attention to the plight of the First Nations in two ways. First, COVID has afflicted some of the reservations very badly, as one might expect among communities that were already struggling. The Diné and Hopi Nations in the Southwest have some of the highest infection rates in the United States. Second, the public debate on removing statues of Confederate figures and/or slaveholders has broadened to consider those involved with oppression of the First Nations. This was heightened further by the president’s July 3rd speech and fireworks at Mount Rushmore. The monument there desecrates a site holy to the Lakota, who, by treaty, should have sovereignty in the Black Hills.
I hope that this greater awareness will result in concrete action to redress the centuries of damage done to the peoples of the First Nations. 2020 is increasingly appearing to be an inflection point in United States – and, perhaps, world – history. May the United States finally embody its highest ideals of equality, justice, and promotion of the common good.