Monday, March 20, 2023
March 20, 2023

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In Our View: If you love the United States, hold it to its word

The Columbian

Because the United States was founded on the premise that all humans are created equal, it is reasonable to expect this nation to live up to its word. But for centuries, America has broken promises made to Native Americans who inhabited these lands before European settlers arrived.

The Honoring Promises to Native Nations Act, introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, can help rectify these shortcomings. It should receive broad support in Congress and help the United States move closer to the ideals it professes to hold dear.

“For too long, the federal government has failed to live up to its treaty and trust responsibilities to Tribal nations,” Kilmer writes. “As a result, too many Native communities lack adequate housing, health facilities, schools, justice centers, roads, telecommunications, water, and other basic infrastructure required to deliver needed support services. Congress and the federal government have a moral and a legal obligation to fulfill the promises made to Indian Country.”

The legislation calls for full, inflation-adjusted funding for the Indian Health Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which provides money for Native American courts, police and some fisheries.

The impact of funding shortages was detailed in a 2018 report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights titled “Broken Promises.” The report notes that 375 treaties have been signed with tribes in exchange for their land, but the federal government has not provided “adequate assistance to support their interconnected infrastructure, self-governance, housing, education, health, and economic development needs.”

Partly because of this, Native Americans rank near the bottom of all American cohorts in terms of health, education and employment. Natives, for example, have 1.6 times the infant mortality rate of white Americans, and their life expectancy is 5.5 years less than the national average. Nationally, tribal members are 10 times more likely to live in a home with inadequate plumbing.

Whether improved funding from the federal government would solve problems of unequal outcomes is not the primary question. Instead, the issue is whether this nation has the moral fiber to fulfill promises made by previous generations.

In one of the most high-profile examples of a broken vow, the 1835 Treaty of New Echota promised the Cherokee Nation a nonvoting seat in Congress. The Cherokee still are waiting for that seat, although a historic congressional hearing last month began considering the issue.

Washington is home to 29 federally recognized tribes, each with its own tribal government. It also is home to tribes that have not been officially recognized, including the Chinook Indian Nation in Southwest Washington. A complete reckoning with this nation’s history of discrimination toward Native Americans should include passage of the Chinook Restoration Act, paving the way for the establishment of a reservation.

Pointing out centuries-spanning shortcomings by U.S. leaders in relation to Native Americans is not an issue of being anti-American or hating this country, as critics like to claim. Instead, love of country dictates that Americans point out our nation’s flaws and expect it to live up to its promises by treating all people in our country with dignity and by fostering trust among groups with differing backgrounds.

The point is not to say that the United States is bad, but that it can be better. Living up to its word is one step in that direction.