Native Americans And The Prison Industrial Complex

Not only is the cultural genocide against Native Americans still pervasive in our society, our long history of genocide against Native Americans is continued through police brutality. Native Americans make up only 0.8% of the population, but 1.9% of police shooting victims, making them the group most likely to be killed by police.

Mass incarceration has been used for hundreds of years to control and exploit Native Americans. The main functions of the prison industrial complex, in regards to Native Americans, is the function of exploitation of labor through convict leasing and in-prison labor, the criminalization of Native American culture, and reproductive control.

One of the largest issues driving the constant maintaining of racial caste systems is the need for free (or at least extremely cheap) labor. The abuse and incarceration of Native Americans were in part driven by that same need for settlers to have disposable and cheap labor. The criminalization and mass incarceration of Native Americans served many purposes in the formation of America. It created an exploitable workforce, it damaged the Native American family and way of life, and it furthered the cementation of white identity through the othering of Native Americans and affording whites even more privilege.

Mass incarceration and the formation of many of our laws were created mostly to specifically target Native Americans. Stephanie Lumsden argues that “criminality is a social marker of deviance that is contingent on a standard of culturally accepted behavior. Therefore, indigenous criminality can be understood as a refusal on the part of Native people to assimilate.” When you look at the types of laws that were passed as the prison system developed in America, it becomes obvious that these laws were passed specifically to target Native Americans to simultaneously crush their culture and exploit their labor. Lumsden attributes this to “The imagination of euro-American society, Indians were “wild fragments of nature” and their ways of living were criminal. hence, the only way to control Indian people was to create and enforce laws that reified their criminality” (p 20)  This attitude toward Native Americans has permeated our justice system even today, and was highly evident during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, during which peaceful protesters were hit with tear gas, concussion grenades, rubber bullets, and water cannons. Peaceful protesters, many of whom were Native Americans exercised their right to protests to protect their land and their way of life, which was an act labeled as criminal through trumped-up charges of trespassing, inciting riots, resisting arrest, and many other charges.  North Dakota officials were so desperate to criminalize and control the protesters, they paid police $10 million dollars to attempt to crush the protests.  Those who were arrested at these protests were strip searched and denied bail.  Over and over in our society, the desire for expanded industry and the prioritization of the capital gains of companies results in the brutalization of our Native population and the infringement of their rights. In this case, the North Dakota and those hired to break up the protests were directly violating article 32 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“Indigenous peoples have the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for the development or use of their lands or territories and other resources. 2. States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources. 3. States shall provide effective mechanisms for just and fair redress for any such activities, and appropriate measures shall be taken to mitigate adverse environmental, economic, social, cultural or spiritual impact.”

The use of federal instead of state courts have a massive impact on the amount of Native Americans who are sent to jail, and the length of time they spend there. Federal courts are far harsher than state governments. Reservations fall under the umbrella of the three kinds of federal land – military, public, and Indian. Because of this, all Native Americans who live on reservations are tried in federal court, which perpetuates the system of mass incarceration.

“Approximately 56.2 million acres are held in trust by the United States for various Indian tribes and individuals.  There are approximately 326 Indian land areas in the U.S. administered as federal Indian reservations (i.e., reservations, pueblos, rancherias, missions, villages, communities, etc.).” (U.S. Department of The Interior, Indian Affairs)” In South Dakota, although they make up only 8% of the population, they make up over 55% of defendants in federal courts. In Montana, they make up about 6% of the population and about 32% of the defendants, in North Dakota the ratio is 6% to 28%, and in Minnesota, it’s about 3% to 15%.Native women are incarcerated at six times the rate as white women,   This results in Native Americans being incarcerated at a rate 38% higher than the national average. Not only are they incarcerated at a higher rate, they also serve longer jail time than non-Native people.

“Incarceration…much like the early practice of genocide in California, it keeps the people from reproducing Indian identity, culture, land, and children.” (Lumsden,62) Incarceration deeply affects every aspect of Native American culture, and reproduction and family are some of those aspects. Reproductive control takes many more forms than just access to birth control for Native American women. Reproductive control is about the government taking away the ability for Native children to be raised in Native culture, by Native Americans. The response to reproductive control must be reproductive justice. Stephanie Lumsden defines reproductive justice as “sexual self-determination, parental rights, cultural integrity, and an intimate relationship with the land.” (P. 61) Every aspect of reproductive justice has been taken away by colonization, white supremacy, and patriarchy. Sexual self-determination is diminished by the epidemic of sexual violence against Native women; parental rights are diminished when Native American children are taken away by the state -either into adoption agencies or boarding schools. Cultural integrity and an intimate relationship with the land are taken away when the most sacred of Native land is destroyed and taken away. In every way, reproductive justice is diminished and destroyed by colonization.

Parental rights are a huge part of the struggle for reproductive justice. Until the ICWA was passed in 1978,  85%-90% of Native American children who were adopted were adopted by white families. Most Native American children who were removed from their homes were removed because of “neglect”, “social deprivation”, or unsupported allegations of “emotional damage”, and about 17% of school-aged Native American children lived in Bureau of Indian Affairs. Native American children make up 15% of the population, but over half of children in foster care. Native American “boarding schools” were another form of mass incarceration and reproductive control, effectively locking children away from their parents and their culture, preventing the reproduction of native culture. While these boarding schools may seem like a thing of the past, in Canada it took until the 1990s to close their last federally supported “boarding school”.

Not only is the cultural genocide against Native Americans still pervasive in our society, our long history of genocide against Native Americans is continued through police brutality. Native Americans make up only 0.8% of the population, but 1.9% of police shooting victims, making them the group most likely to be killed by police.

Mass incarceration does more than just imprison Native Americans. It strikes deeply at the root of their culture, taking away land and children to prevent the reproduction of Native American culture, and sending mothers and fathers to federal court where their charges will be punished to the fullest extent of the law where their labor will be exploited. Outside of jail, the police kill and terrorize our Indigenous population. The prison system was -and continues to be- one of the most effective forms of our long history of genocide against Native Americans in America and Canada.

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