3 Insane Realities Of Life On A Modern Indian Reservation
Imagine if somebody broke into your house and killed all of your roommates, but graciously spared your life ... as long as you never left the bathtub. That's basically what happened with Native American reservations. Even today, these reservations are still rife with poverty, unemployment, and crime -- they're essentially little third-world islands scattered all across the U.S. and Canada. We spoke to Brienne, a member of the Onion Lake Cree Nation in Canada, and Brent, a Lakota-Sioux who grew up on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. This is what they told us ...
Reservations Were Never Meant To "Help" Surviving Native Americans
Sure, the white man owes Native America more than a few apologies. But to be fair, all that nasty genocide business happened a long time ago. You can't blame the state of modern reservations on white people, because we stopped actively trying to eradicate Indians all the way back in ... 1996? Wait, that doesn't sound right.
Don't let the grainy black and white fool you; this was still going on when internet porn and PlayStations were readily available.
"Maybe you've heard about Canada's residential schools," Brienne explains. "They were boarding schools on or near reservation land. They were run by nuns and priests of the Catholic Church, with the goal of 'beating the Indian out of the child' by erasing their language and culture. I've heard stories all my life about these places from my mom and teachers, most of whom were survivors of residential schools, the last of which closed down in 1996."
"Survivors" is really the right word here, seeing as anywhere between 4,000 and 6,000 Native American children died at residential schools from malnutrition, disease, and ... "science experiments"?
No, not due to poor lab safety conditions and out-of-control baking soda volcanoes. We're talking children being experimented on -- like a YA dystopian novel, but without all the playful fashion.
Experiments like "What happens when you don't feed children enough to survive?" (Findings: They obviously starve, you fucking monsters.)
"My dad and his family managed to avoid residential schools by hiding in the woods whenever officials came around," Brienne continues. "I'm not sure if he even has an official birth certificate because of that ... I've also met older teens who went to residential schools, and it blows my mind that people who grew up in the era of Pogs and Furbies had the dubious honor of experiencing state-instituted cultural genocide."
In an attempt to condone this behavior, the Supreme Court even decided that state regulations don't apply to Native land or its residents. Ironically, this dick move wound up accidentally inventing the Native gambling industry. It wasn't doing them a favor; it was a side effect of classifying them as less than people. If you thought the U.S. allowed casinos on reservations to throw Native Americans a bone, you were thinking of the wrong kind of "bone."
Reservations Aren't Really Part Of Their Country, And That Can Be Terrifying
Many reservations are rural ghettos, intentionally located as far away from the rest of the world as possible. Such isolation does allow for certain freedoms, but as we all learned with Independence Day: Resurgence, too much independence can be a bad thing.
"There wasn't any traffic between our two towns for a long time," Brienne explains, "because the North Saskatchewan River runs between us, and there wasn't a bridge there until a couple decades ago. So mutual communication between the races was ... minimal."
Funny how a swim through a frigid, secluded river can tend to drive a wedge between neighbors.
And the longer you're separated (or segregated, if you will) from a group of people, the more it becomes "us against them." Brienne clarifies that her elders "don't scream 'DEATH TO WHITEY' or anything like that. It's just a simmering tension. I don't condone any of it, but I do understand it, because these people have gone through some horrible and very recent shit."
As recent as, say, 10 years ago, when a Utah reservation nearly became a nuclear waste dump.
Here's a terrible example of that, in case you had some last lingering spark of joy that needs extinguishing. Last year, Julia Charging Whirl Wind -- who unquestionably had the best name in history -- was attacked and mauled to death by a pack of wild dogs on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. That's the very same place where Brent used to live. "I didn't know her personally, but I can attest to the dog problem on the reservation," Brent says. "My dad used to have a BB gun that he would sit on the porch with and shoot wild dogs that came in our yard."
Go ahead and reread that part about the fatal mauling before you shoot off to the comments to condemn a BB gun.
That's obviously a less-than-ideal way to address with the problem, but without the resources that any other American town would have, you do what you can with what you've got. One Canadian reservation is dealing with a similar problem, and the guy in charge of animal control also serves as water quality monitor, emergency planning coordinator, and first responder. Unless that guy is Jamie Madrox, he's drastically overworked.
See, in an effort to let these tribes be 'independent,' we've wound up depriving them of the support other cities get from the federal government. There aren't many job opportunities on the reservations, because businesses are reluctant to operate on land where U.S. laws don't apply. Residents can't start their own, either, because tribal land is collectively owned, so nothing can be put up as collateral on a small business loan. Some turn to drugs. Others turn to suicide.
Let's go ahead and give you a cuteness break after that, because somehow it still manages to get worse.
The reservations do have a police force to help combat these scourges, but surprisingly, the near total lack of oversight has some downsides. "The police can't do much about it because they're corrupt," Brent says. "My mom was fired from the police department for reporting too many officers for obvious corruption. She was in a multiyear lawsuit battle until the police department hired her back at a $5 raise so she wouldn't continue to pursue it." She took the offer because she needed the money, and possibly to get her gun back so she could fend off the wild fucking dog attacks -- which, we stress again, is an actual problem in an actual modern American community.
Not helping matters is that a lot of the crime on reservations isn't perpetrated by residents. When a non-native strolls onto the reservation and goes Grand Theft Auto on the place, all tribal police can do is hand the case over to the feds, who often don't pursue it because of the amount of red tape involved. A large portion of the 33 percent of Native American women who have been victims of rape were attacked by non-Natives. On a reservation, rapists know their chances of being charged are slim to none. You know, like everywhere else, but somehow worse.
The System Is Strangely Rigged To Encourage Incest
And now for the oldest dismissal this side of "I'm married to the sea." If things are so awful there, why don't they move? Whenever a tornado hits a trailer park, an economic recession hits a city, or somebody mentions living in Florida, an armchair philanthropist will pop into the conversation and ask why people don't simply up and relocate.
Brienne explains the perks of living on a reservation: "We don't pay the same taxes (we do still pay to some degree), and we get housing assistance, which means when our houses start to break down, someone's guaranteed to come fix it free of charge. If we lose a house completely to a fire or something, then the will cover a lot of the costs to either repair the old house or buy/build a new one."
Don't get too excited about that. The government isn't exactly jumping at the chance to ensure great living conditions.
So if you're poor or unemployed on a reservation, you're probably staying put. Sure, it sucks trying to balance on the poverty line, but at least on the reservation, there's a net. Leaving also decreases your chances of finding a suitable Native spouse (a fun little consequence of that whole "genocide" thing). Why do you want a Native spouse? It's not racism; diluting the bloodline could seriously affect your children.
"We have treaty rights," Brienne explains, "which was an agreement between my ancestors and the Canadian Government that the government would guarantee education, and medicine, and our treaty rights would be passed down to our descendants. But if we breed outside our race, the half-blood isn't considered full-treaty, so they don't get full coverage. Until recently, we couldn't even breed outside our own tribes; if we did, then that child would still be considered half-blood, even though both their parents were aboriginal."
Because the people who thought up these treaties are full-blooded assholes.
But here comes that G-word again: Since Native numbers have dwindled quite a bit for some reason, checking the family tree is a crucial step in the courtship process.
"If we intend to date someone from the same reservation, it's recommended that we go to some older relative and check our bloodlines for overlapping relatives," Brienne says. "The limit is usually three or so generations. If there's too much shared blood relatives within those years, then dating can't be continued. If we don't check, there's a huge chance of, well ..."
That's why "We're only related by marriage" could technically be used as a pick-up line on the reservation. See, it's not like Native Americans are hanging banners for the great annual Incest Fest. They think it's as gross as anybody, but the system encourages inbreeding. Brienne is one of the very few surviving pure-blooded Cree, most of whom are now related to each other in some way. She's now left with a perverse Sophie's Choice situation: "marry another Native to ensure that my child can get their braces and university textbooks for free, or marry outside the reserve to make sure that my child has the least chance of having a debilitating genetic disease? To be honest, I still don't have a definite answer for that."
Look, nobody wants to bone a cousin. But have you seen the price of textbooks lately?
Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a Cracked columnist, interviewer, and editor. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter.
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