poverty and lack of opportunity on modern reservations

Coping With Life on Indian Reservations Today

The modern Indian reservation is at once a far cry from what these set-apart lands were once intended to accomplish as well as an unfortunate continuation of decades of neglect toward the American Indian people by the U.S. Government. To hear the Bureau of Indian Affairs talk about ‘life on the rez’ today, conditions have vastly improved on these native lands.

Rez Life by David Treuer

But not everyone feels that way. Ask most tribal leaders and residents and they’ll tell you that the old problems still persist and years of nonchalance in regards to the welfare of those living on reservations has taken a considerable toll. There is a cycle of poverty that just will not end.

Right now, a little over a fifth of all Native Americans live on reservations. The living conditions of many of these areas has been compared to that of third world countries. There are far too few jobs, affordable housing is in short supply and essential resources are lacking. However, there are still many American Indians who call these places their homes and they are proud to at least live on their own lands – lands that are owned by the tribes and no one else.

But that pride is regularly compromised by pressure from the outside. Even now, the U.S. government is asserting eminent domain to force North Dakota Indians to sell their property to the principals who are building the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).


Eminent domain makes it legal for the government to move property owners around based on national priorities. And it’s clear to many that this pipeline project will line the pockets of big energy companies and, most likely, an untold number of politicians. Proponents of DAPL find it expedient to allow potentially dangerous oil transmission to put crops and water at risk in areas where containment of First Nations tribes has already left no margin for error.

What are the Economic Conditions on Native American Reservations?

reservation residents voice concerns over living conditions

Most of the available jobs on a reservation are available only through tribal government or the U.S. Government hiring. And neither of these two entities have the funding to create a large number of jobs. This leaves many American Indians living on reservations with no choice but to resort to traveling beyond the reservation for steady work. Accordingly, the reservation economy suffers.

Few resources are created on the reservation itself, and much of the work that the American Indian people perform benefits someone outside the reservation. This means that much of the resources used on the reservation have to be sourced from outside its boundaries. This is not cheap, by any means, and it drives up the price of necessary goods, such as clothing, food, electronic and many other items necessary for daily living.

Living Conditions

reservation children have very few job prospects to look forward to

When the adults and teenagers go off the reservation to work, the grandparents are left to take care of the smaller children. They are responsible for most of the child-rearing on the tribal lands, as the older children and parents often have to travel great distances to and from work and school every day.

Most families live together in overcrowded houses, pooling their resources and working as a unit to share responsibilities, income and their meager possessions. Many times, the grandparents will live in their children’s homes with their grandchildren and other family members who are too poor to afford their own housing.

When one family struggles to pay for their own housing, they may leave their own home and move into the same house as other family members. The tight-knit family communities mean that no household is likely to deny the request of another household to come live with them, even if there are not enough resources to go around.

Almost half of the Indian population lives in substandard housing – home that are in serious need of repairs, and made from shoddy materials. These often fall well short of the standard of housing regulations outside the reservation. But with few resources at hand and most income going toward daily needs, there is nothing left over to put toward improving the housing. Most home improvements are made by the family members themselves.

In many Indian households, the utilities that most American families have taken for granted are simply unaffordable. Resources are prioritized toward food and transportation, with little left over to cover electricity, running water and indoor heating and cooling.

Health and Lifestyle

indian health services are resource constrained

The life expectancy for the average Native American has certainly improved over the last few decades. However, it still lags behind that of the average American. While Indian Health Services provide affordable health care to many of the people living on reservations, this organization is underfunded, and is unable to meet the demands of the populace. Outside of hospitals, there are almost no doctor’s offices and pharmacies on most reservations.

Many native people have tried to adapt to a more American way of life, simply because they feel they have little choice due to the lack of resources on their own lands. This has led to the spread of tuberculosis, diabetes and cancer in massive numbers. They are suffering from all the diseases that plague their neighbors, but with few of the same resources to manage those health problems, their situation is much worse.

These problems are only exacerbated by the rampant poverty within American Indian reservations. There has been shown to be a direct link between heart disease and poverty, and that disease is the now the leading cause of death in Native American communities.

Hope for the Future

Amazingly, these awful conditions are miles ahead of what they once were. The five-year gap in average lifespans between Native Americans and non-native Americans is one that is much smaller than it has been in decades past.

As mentioned above, life expectancy has definitely improved among native peoples. However, there is still much work to be done. The living conditions in many of these communities are incredibly harsh and not sustainable over the long run.

Efforts from a variety of tribal, U.S. Government and charity organizations has brought improvements, but these have been slow to take effect, and many thousands of people are still suffering on reservations due to lack of proper healthcare and basic daily requirements.

The needs of the Native Americans are great, and only by making their voice heard and continuing to fight for what they need will they be able to survive. The work that has been done to improve life on the modern reservations cannot stop now. It must continue with sustained fervor if life on the reservations is ever going to be comparable to life beyond them. Many Native Americans remain hopeful that, in their lifetime, they will see significant improvements, but for many others, the damage has already been done, and they are suffering from a life of just scraping by. But their remaining hope is that their children and grandchildren will have a better world to live in.