The Meriam Report announced that Indians were "extremely poor" and locked in a "vicious cycle of poverty" that was perpetuated by inadequate housing, sanitation, nutrition, and substandard healthcare.

Murder By Poverty in Indian Country: Then and Now

Keith R. Burich

The recent story on the Indian Country Today Media Network website about the young Navajo woman who died from the Hantavirus brought to mind the findings of the Meriam Report of 1928. Although it is most often associated with bringing an end to the most serious abuses of the federal boarding school system, it was actually a survey of living conditions on reservations across America, and what it found was appalling.

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For example, it began by announcing that Indians were “extremely poor” and locked in a “vicious circle of poverty” that was perpetuated by inadequate housing, sanitation, nutrition, and healthcare that was substandard even by the standards of the teeming tenements in the cities or even the poorest white rural communities. And, as in the case of the young Navajo woman, it was the conditions on the reservations that led to the spread and high incidence of diseases among Indians.

The report cited shocking statistics about the higher rates of disease and infant mortality than in the general population, and the lower life expectancy among Indians. The death rate for children under 3 was more than three times the national average. The most serious diseases were tuberculosis and trachoma, the latter the leading cause of blindness. According to the report, deaths from tuberculosis among Indians were seven times the national average, and in Arizona it was 17 times higher than in the general population.

Overall, the death rate among Indians was two to three times higher than the national average, and in Idaho it was five times greater. While the report cited all of the causes listed above, the major problems were caused by government incompetence and wrongheaded or failed government policies and programs, especially those that undermined economic development on reservations. With regard to health, the report concluded that: “practically every activity undertaken by the national government for the promotion of health of the Indians is below a reasonable standard of efficiency.”

None of this would be surprising to Indians today, and that is precisely the point. Almost 90 years after the Meriam Report was issued, Indian remain poor, even extremely poor. The poverty rate among Indians is nearly 80 percent higher than the general population, with personal income nearly 70 percent lower. Ten of the 12 poorest counties in America are associated with reservations. Overall unemployment is nearly twice the national average, but that masks the nearly 90 percent unemployment rate on some reservations. And, just as the Meriam Report found, poverty coupled with poor housing and diet results in higher rates of disease.

Tuberculosis has been replaced by diabetes and heart disease, but the results are the same. The incidence of diabetes among Indians is more twice as high among whites and is increasing rapidly. Diabetes is a major contributor to heart disease, which is 20 percent higher among Indians than the general population and is also rising markedly, and both are related to poor diets. Both diseases also contribute to strokes and other physically incapacitating infirmities. In this way, poverty produces poor health, which produces more poverty, and poverty and poor health contribute to lower life expectancy and higher mortality rates than the general population. Sadly, those statistics are also driven by an alarming rate of suicides among young Indians, and an infant mortality rate that is 60 percent higher than among whites.

Some things have changed for the better. Indians are better educated than a century ago, although the number of high school and college graduates is below the national average. Indians have also found better economic opportunities off the reservations. Nevertheless, the striking similarities between the conditions described in the Meriam Report and the disturbing statistics outlined above tell the sad story of a century of neglect and failed government policies and programs. The “vicious circle of poverty” continues.

Keith R. Burich, Ph.D., is a professor of Native American History at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, and the author of the book “The Thomas Indian School and the ‘Irredeemable’ Children of New York” to be published next month by Syracuse University Press.

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WinterWindTeacher's picture
Submitted by WinterWindTeacher on
The facts are in and they are appalling. I would not expect any government office to be managing this crisis any better than they do protecting buffalo and public land. It does seem like there ought to be some brainy people in the room who see into problems and how to unravel them to stop the unraveling of Indigenous people being left behind. I think it takes some brains in a room and storm it out, all the parts and pieces to it to begin to start at solutions. If the government is the main player than they have to be sued for reneging on their responsibilities. Times are hard; the government spends all they can on war and privileges at the top, otherwise they don't have anything. Politicians are out raising hundreds of millions of dollars which nary a thin dime makes it's way back to the people. It seems to me that concurrently there ought to be a national Native Indigenous campaign to first inform people that first Americans are left out traditionally, and secondly it is a crisis that can not wait for another political campaign sweeping through and leaving nothing but the same old dust as yesterday. It has to be an armed force of volunteers to do the lifting and shaking awake because all funds would be needed to meet the needs of the people, Native Indigenous people who are in squalor. People have access to the computer and their cell phones and there are those who can do fund raising at events and put together an arts benefit or music benefit. The money raised in one large concert can put people in enough heating fuel for the winter. Putting out reports is well and good for those who read reports but for those on the ground who damn well know what they are going through - another report won't cook breakfast. It does not seem that a local campaign would do much being that the problem is too widespread. My point of view is that it would need to be a national campaign and some tireless workers to bring people together and say 'we got to get this done'. There are some smart heads out there and where they are sticking their brains I don't know but if they look around they could see they could do some real good instead of waiting for that nest egg some corporation is going to offer them. Taxes no one likes but some sort of referendum passed as a ballot measure that commits a certain amount of funds to direct assistance. I do not know myself, with jobs scarce and money floating at the top only. I am sure it is not impossible and this very problem represents what is lacking in education. Why are problems like this not presented to college students or even to high school students? Here's the problem and what solutions, the best solution wins and the student or students with the winning solution gets a college scholarship for their first year. Idle hands and empty minds do not make for fertile ground. I would say a lot of heads need to be together on this and the creative energy flowing, a solution will be forthcoming. If it is not viable than there ought to be a pick of the top 10 solutions and see if one out of them all will be a good fit. It is ridiculous to draft reports where the data stay the same or even worsen. The report should be no more than a preliminary, there has to be second, third, etc. steps taken otherwise the report is of no benefit other than an evening news story. A good place to start is to ask the people themselves who have to cope with these conditions what do they want for solutions because if a strategy is not right for them then it is not going to work anyway. I got lied to, cheated and stolen from and kicked into deeper poverty myself because a fascist system allows it and lies like hell that their viciousness caused it while they are in key positions to make sure only the 'right ones' make it through their economic feed the fiend kitchen take all you want. I am exiled to the no rights land disappear. Fascists that Hitler and Nazi Germany admired and watched their handy work so they could effectively build a prototype of it themselves.