WASHINGTON (CNS) — Trying to advance the economic status of American Indians is like playing a game of Monopoly they can never win, panelists said during a January 30 plenary session of the January 29 to February 29. 1 Catholic Social Ministry Gathering.
“Imagine coming to the game late… and seeing what properties remain. On this monopolized array, all the properties are taken. This is where we come in. We were invited to play the game decades later,” said Lakota Vogel, executive director of the Four Bands Community Fund in South Dakota.
“We come to the Monopoly board with no money to buy the property, and we can’t even build houses there. We just hope we build something that makes everyone pay taxes,” said Tara Mason, historical trauma coordinator for the Niibi Center, a nonprofit serving members of the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. .
“We are disadvantaged in several ways,” added Mason, herself a member of the Minnesota Chippewa tribe, White Earth Band. “It’s not even the same Monopoly game we get to play.”
Vogel said one solution would be to “rewrite the rules of the game. Or maybe we create a whole new board that we can operate in.
Pete Upton, Chairman of the Board of the Native CDFI Network – CDFI stands for Community Development Financial Institution – is trying to rewrite those rules. And if he can’t, he suggested Congress can.
There are elements of the current image that show the steep climb they face.
Native Americans make up about 1.5% of the population, according to the 2020 census, Upton said. There are 3.7 million people who “identify uniquely as Native American or Alaska Native,” he added. But more than half of this population lives in urban areas and at least three out of eight American Indians live below the poverty line.
Upton described a recent gathering, with some context. “In 2017 I came across a letter from 1925,” he said. “There were 63 young Ponca and young Santee Sioux who were taken to an Indian school. My mother’s name was on that list. There were four or five names on this list which were the same as those present at my gathering.
“So the descendants of the people who were my mother’s classmates, they were at the table with me. But nothing had changed in almost a century. They were still in poverty,” added Upton, a member of the Ponca tribe.
“We’ve had a lot of different challenges, like the introduction of diseases … that were never in our communities before,” Mason said, “plus the federal policy” that created the reservation system.
“Often the lands and reservations we were moved to did not support the traditional ways of life we had as Indigenous people and could not make an economic difference in our lives,” she said.
The boarding school era has “really affected every aspect of our lives,” Mason added. “How do we reconcile many of these difficulties that we face and how do we improve our life on the reserve as much as possible?”
Upton said the native CDFI network is growing, with 56 member networks in 27 states. “Our passion is broad and our impact is truly powerful,” he said. “The Native CDFI Network has succeeded in bringing legislative victories to Indian Country,” with the help of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, which funded the organization.
One win is $16 million in CDFI Native American relief program. What Upton is considering next is fairer funding, as that figure has stagnated since 2016, he noted. The unmet need, he estimated, for all Indigenous CDFIs is $48 million. He would like to see Congress give $30 million. The House is at $21.5 million, the Senate between $27.5 and $28 million.
Another injustice that needs to be corrected, according to the panelists, is tribal recognition by the federal government. The government “delisted” many tribes beginning in the 1920s, according to panel moderator Father Henry Sands, executive director of the American Church’s Black and Indian Mission Office in Washington.
The CCDH provided grants to tribes regardless of status, he added, noting that in the 1990s, tribes began asking the government to recognize them once again. Father Sands said three Michigan-based tribes, including his own, have been re-recognized by the federal government since 1994.
Father Sands, priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit, belongs to the Ojibway, Ottawa and Potawatomi tribes.
Upton said the Ponca tribe of Nebraska was reinstated in 1990, having been delisted just 26 years earlier, in 1964.
Vogel said his own tribe, the Cheyenne River Sioux, made the difficult choice at the start of the coronavirus pandemic to issue an executive order shutting down all businesses in the 5,000-member community for 10 days.
It was a choice of “people on the economy,” she added, noting that her tribe’s economic goal is “not about wealth, it’s about circulation… keep the money in the reserves”.
Sometimes the personal touch helps. Upton recounted when he “gave a kid a $5,900 loan to buy a vehicle. I met him a month later in Omaha, Nebraska, where he said the child told him, “I quit my job.
Upton was scratching his head, “Well, why would you want to quit your job?” The surprising answer: “I don’t need to work for minimum wage anymore. I can work for an insurance company in West Omaha. … They asked me if I would be interested in some sort of leadership position.
“There were a few challenges, but he pulls it off,” Upton reported. “I don’t think the rules of the game will ever be level. … You don’t give up. Native Americans, we just have a fighting spirit and we will never give up on our communities or what we do.