By Kanlaya Chularattakorn
As an ethnic minority person, I have always wanted to learn how the other ethnic groups live their lives in other countries.
In the past ten years, I have been meeting and working with different ethnic groups in Asia. What I experienced and learned from them was that most of the ethnic minorities in Asia have had problems getting their existence recognized by their governments. In Thailand for instance, even though there are more than thirty ethnic minority groups living in the country, only 10 groups have been recognized as the “Hill Tribes” in the country.
During Oct 4- Nov 10, 2013, I was fortunate to take part in an exchange program organized by the University of Montana to learn about economic empowerment. With this trip I have had the chance to learn about how the ethnic minorities, especially the Native Americans, live their lives here in the U.S. especially in the state of Montana.
I have learned that Montana is the home to more than ten different Native American groups with about 60,000+ people, and these people are living in the seven reservations. It means they have their own autonomous area where they can elect their own tribal councils (government) and manage their own natural resources within their territories.
Many reservations have signed treaties with the government of the United States and are guaranteed an exclusive tribal homeland including their hunting, fishing, and gathering rights throughout their native territory, meaning they can hunt and fish or gather food both on and off their reservation. There is a challenge because today many people are living in these areas making if impossible at all for the Native American to do hunting and fishing as before. Also, the amount of available food, fish for example, is reduced because of the polluted environment.
Another interesting area for me is that on each reservation, in addition to having both public and private elementary and secondary schools, there are also tribal community colleges located there. These tribal colleges allow tribal members living in the reservation to secure quality training or complete two-year degree programs without leaving their home area Many Indian people have done well in the education system and have become employed as principals and teachers on their reservation. Some reservations employ Indian doctors, nurses, lawyers, engineers, social workers, and other highly skilled professionals.
According to my meeting with some Native Americans, economically, the Indian tribes have made remarkable improvement in the financial conditions of each reservation. This is because major employers on all reservations are the local tribe, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and local school districts. Although these provide employment for a great number of Indian people, the unemployment rate is still high, at 50-80 percent.
In order not to depend too much on the Federal government funds and also to deal with the unemployment rate, most of the reservations have sought economic development through industry, and several reservations now operate industrial plants. Some Native tribes have used natural resources like water, timber, coal, oil and land to stimulate the economy of their reservations. Many Native tribes are also beginning to access gaming and are opening casinos for economic development.
I learned that the biggest challenges for the Native American, because of the unemployment, are the high amount of drug and alcoholic use of the tribes. Domestic violence against women is also another challenging problem for the tribes here.
Though there are many challenges faced by the Native American here in Montana, I still believe that they are privileged and in a better place and position than those of us back in Asia. This is because their rights and existence are recognized by the U.S. government and also non-Native Americans. Many universities in the U.S. have also seen the importance of having a Native American Studies Center, and some universities, for instance the University of Montana, have set up a Native American Studies Center to study about Native American as well as to educate the public about Native American. And because of all these initiatives, I believed that the stories of the Native American will continue to be told and heard by others for centuries, even though the Native American can never have what they used to have before. I hope that all the Native American will be proud of being a Native American (to me, you are all privileged) in the United States, because if you compare us with the indigenous peoples back in Asia, you have come very far. We have a lot to learn from you, the Native people of America!
Note (for those who do not know):
The Native American is also called American Indian in the United States.