Sunday, April 26, 2015

Native Americans need a New Deal...more than they need another challenge

(WPA poster, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

Native American reservations are experiencing high rates of poverty, high rates of unemployment, and high rates of youth suicide. Also, in 2014, "Tribal leaders testified [before Congress] on the difficult transportation conditions on Indian lands and the budget constraints that endanger safety and hamper economic development" ("Transportation needs drastically underfunded in Indian country by $80 billion," Native News Online, March 16, 2014). 

In light of these problems, I would think that the last thing Native Americans need is another challenge, but that's exactly what the White House has in store for them with "Generation Indigenous Native Youth Challenge." The idea seems to be to engage youth ages 14-24 in volunteerism, brainstorming on issues, making videos of their accomplishments, and sharing stories online.

I wish the participants of Gen-I, as it is called, success. However, I can't help feeling that something more is needed - much more. 

Instead of a challenge, for people already in a very challenging situation, how about more concrete, straightforward action - for example, a direct job creation program along the lines of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Works Progress Administration (WPA), or the National Youth Administration (NYA)? Or, better still, all of the above.

During the New Deal, over 85,000 young Native American men enrolled in the CCC, working on agricultural, conservation, and infrastructure projects. The U.S. Office of Indian Affairs (now called the "Bureau of Indian Affairs"), highlighted the value of the program - both to Native Americans and the nation as a whole:

"The work accomplishments were impressive, and have contributed directly to the rebuilding of the reservations and the National Domain...The improved economic condition of the Indians has definitely influenced their morale. They were participants in the planning, they did the work, and they directly benefited by the results. Thousands of enrollees became skilled workers as a direct result of their participation in the Corps and are now contributing to the war effort as members of the armed forces, as skilled workers in war industries, and as producers of food...The program revitalized Indian life; it gave wage work where and when it was needed. It made possible the building up of reservation resources" (from Perry H. Merrill, Roosevelt's Forest Army: A History of the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942, 1981, pp. 44-45).

("Indian and Soldier," a mural created by artist Maynard Dixon in 1939, located in the Department of the Interior Building in Washington, DC. According to the Living New Deal, Dixon created this mural "with funding from the Section of Fine Arts," a New Deal arts program. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, provided courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

According to historians James S. Olson and Raymond Wilson, "Under the Civil Works Administration, thousands of Native Americans were employed during the winter of 1934...The Public Works Administration, the Works Progress Administration, the National Youth Administration, and the Resettlement Administration provided more relief in the form of jobs and improved reservation conditions. The PWA, for example, employed Native Americans in building or improving reservation hospitals, schools, and sewage systems. The WPA hired over ten thousand Native Americans a year to index and file records for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, while the NYA provided six dollars monthly to each student enrolled in day school for clothing, supplies, and lunches [NYA participants worked in part-time jobs]. The Resettlement Administration assisted Native Americans in North and South Dakota by constructing needed water wells. The agency also purchased nearly one million acres of grazing land for the Pueblos and Navajos" (Native Americans in the Twentieth Century, University of Illinois Press, 1986, p. 111). 

Call me silly, but if Native Americans are facing unemployment, poverty, and despair--and there are infrastructure problems on top of this--I would think that the best policy approach would be a jobs program - of the type President Franklin Roosevelt and his colleagues created during the 1930s. In other words, Native Americans need a New Deal...more than they need another challenge. However, with a Republican-led Congress, determined to give tax breaks to the wealthy and punishment to the poor, I guess a challenge is about all they're going to get.

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