Native Americans Explain What It’s Really Like Living On A Reservation
American Indians, Native Americans, Indigenous Americans, Aboriginal Americans, or First Nations are some of the evolving terms used to describe the people who made their home in the United States for tens of thousands of years before contact with European explorers like the Vikings.
To say life changed after the second wave of contact in the late 15th century is an understatement. Resettlement and forced removal reshaped Native cultures. They were altered again by the federal Assimilation Acts of the 19th century, including the establishment of Native American reservations.
Not all Natives live on reservations and life on a reservation for a Native is very different than off. There are both advantages, like community and cultural knowledge, and disadvantages, like geographic isolation and lack of jobs, to reservation life.
A Reddit user asked: "Native Americans/Indigenous Peoples of Reddit, what's it like to grow up on a Reservation in the USA?"
Here is some insight into Native American reservation life.
I'm Navajo, and from the Navajo Nation. The people were wonderful, for the most part. Being part of two of the tightest clans on the rez was pretty awesome. A lot of Navajo culture is basically just about enjoying life, and helping others do the same. That being said, the best part about being off the rez is having all the clean water I can drink. Seriously. Sometimes I just stand at the sink and run the tap to marvel at the clean water coming out of it. In large parts of the Navajo Nation, you can't dig wells because of the uranium in the top layer of the water table. So some people just have to drive out really far to deliver or pickup water in big barrels from areas that aren't contaminated. It took 40+ years for the US government to do anything about it. And just recently, the EPA agreed to cover half the cost of cleaning 94 (about 20% of the total) abandoned uranium mines on the reservation. The water table is still f'd, but it's a start, if nothing else. And people wonder why we don't trust the government.
When I was a kid I often visited my grandparents on the res in Montana. I was too young at the time to realize the crushing poverty and hopelessness. My grandpa was one of those self-sufficient mountain men who didn't ever complain so I didn't "know" they were super poor. He taught me survival skills and outback engineering. We ate venison and rabbit all the time which was a treat to me but a staple to them. Poverty and alcoholism/drug abuse was rampant but I was sort of blind to that (Uncle Bert is sort of crazy I guess).
They eventually moved to a small town and ended up dying in poverty. My dad joined the Army and that was his ticket out of there and into the lower middle class.
I loved it. My family was all within a 15-29 minute drive. I could run around in the woods and never felt like I was in danger. I could ride on the roads with my bike and felt safe. If I went to the store I was sure to see someone I knew. I was able to go to courts with my mother and watch our little courts do their stuff. I was able to call into out radio station and request a song and sometimes hear my voice on the radio. I was able to volunteer as a DJ and call out bingo numbers in my native language. I was able to become fluent in my native language. And that's something I could never do anywhere else. Growing up if I had a car issue someone I knew would stop and help me out. My grandfather was able to make a living off of the land. In the end we couldnt eat the food because of pollution from the manufacturing plants up river.
My family is here and that is the reason I love my reservation.
Growing up, my grandmother and her side of the family all lived in Cherokee, NC. My dad ended up down there too after my parents divorced. As a kiddo, I thought it was amazing, but as I got older, I realized most of what I saw was a tourist trap to try to bring in desperately needed income. Once Harrah's went in and the residents got stipends, I think some things improved but others got worse. Sudden cash doesn't look good on most people, on or off the res.
The best part of every visit was going to see the dramatization about the trail of tears...I haven't been to Cherokee in years, so I hope it's still going!! My grandmother always spoke of it with such reverence, and how lucky they were to still remain in NC. The loss of culture is the worst part of all of our native tribes. The language and traditions are slipping away.
I'm Cree First Nations. I never lived in the rez because my mom wanted my sister and I to get an education and you can't really get that in our rez. Actually, most of my family doesn't live on the rez just because living conditions used to be really bad. Luckily I am so thankful we elected a new chief! He's building better schools, distributing scholarship and college funds to the youth... I met him and was able to talk to him and I'm glad he's committed to make our rez a better place!
Native American here from Wolf Point, Montana. The unemployment, drug use, and sexually transmitted diseases percentage are above 80 percent on the Fort Peck Reservation. Wolf Point itself has a very bad meth problem, and currently the school system is being sued for racism.
The town is rampant with racism but there's a few good eggs here and there.
I was called an apple in high school (red on the outside, white on the inside) by all of the really cool guy gang members. Most of my graduating class still live in Wolf Point and are unemployed. Our high school had about 250 students total.
Currently typing this at my parents house on the Carson Colony in NV. It's pretty rough here. It used to be worse. Lots of drugs and lots of booze. There's lots of illiteracy and just poor quality of life.
We don't even have electricity. Running water or proper housing. We heat our homes with a wood stove.
Lots of youth from here don't graduate. Have kids at 14-18 years old.
It's a hard place to grow up. I left 3 years ago. Living in the city now going to college.
Life is better, don't really plan on going back. Only for special occasions or family gatherings.
I would spend entire summers at my paternal grandparents place (Navajo/Diné Reservation) during school break.
My grandparents place is very secluded and the nearest neighbor was 10 to 15 miles away. Nestled in a small valley of Juniper and Cedar trees; there was a simple creek about a quarter mile away. When I was younger they didn't have electricity hooked up (power lines); we used oil lamps for light. But they had a double wide trailer with lights, a TV, and faucets built in. To power lights and the TV (to watch movies on a VCR) we would run a gas powered generator (sometimes the electricity would cut out mid way through a movie when the generator ran out of gas).
Then my grandfather got a hold of two large tanks. One buried in the ground to hold and pump water into the house. Then the water heater would kick on to hold hot water for sink and showers. But showering was discouraged as it would mean more trips to get more water. The other tank was strapped to a truck to haul water from Peabody built water stations. As I got older other amenities were added; electricity, microwaves, satellite TV, etc (still had to haul water though). I would say the day to day life there was one of non-boredom. There was always something that needed to be done to ensure your survival for later. Usually my job was to herd the sheep, check on the cattle, chop woods, haul water to the crop lands, maintain and harvest the crops, and other farm stuff. If not that then it was cooking and cleaning at the house.
But as more amenities were added some jobs just became obsolete. For example, my family would take time to shear the sheep and process the wool; either to sell or use as thread in rug making. But as advancements in the rez happened the availability of wool thread became abundant. So the processing of wool was not needed.
So as more advancements made their way into our lives, complacency became a part of the routine. My days became take out the sheep from the corral, move them to a good location to graze. Watch some TV. Cook. Clean. Check on sheep. Move them back into the corral. Cook. Clean. Watch TV. Sleep. Repeat.
Progress is a Double Edged Sword
I have family that live on the Tulalip Indian Reservation, north of Seattle. Alcohol is a huge problem, as is drunk driving. They sell fireworks around the 4th, though they go off all the time and there is no noise ordinance. Marijuana is legal in Washington, but not on the rez because it's federal land.
They opened a casino resort and outlet mall several years ago. It brings in a lot of money. The casino is really nice, really fancy, though I don't gamble. Our family goes to seafood night at the buffet. It's like $25 a person and all you can eat crab/shrimp/mussels/salmon.
My Grandma lived by the beach. My cousins and I were always going down there when we were younger. She's in a nursing home now and they tore down her house and put up condos.
North of the Border
You asked about reservations in the US, but I'll answer anyway. I grew up in the suburbs of Toronto, but my parents had roots in the north and we visited my grandma in a small northern community often. It's true that colonialism has left a legacy of addictions, abuse and other serious issues, but there's lots of great stuff in our communities too. My fondest childhood memories are of grandma making bannock with bear fat and the blueberries we picked. Most Indigenous people in Canada do not live on reserves. Many of us have never lived on reserves. I have raised my kids in the city, but we spend as much time as possible hunting, fishing, playing lacrosse, and other traditional pastimes.
Fort Hall Rez, Idaho. Rez life. It's alright. I mean it's prolly really bad on some other reservations. I can't attest to that. I've only been to a few different ones. But I can say this is kinda like a "ghetto" if you live in a nearby nicer suburb. But that's cliched since there's always a nicer neighborhood, and there's always a worse "bad part of town" everywhere, right?
Yes, and there are bad things out here. But we've done really well I think. A humorous outlook on all the bullshit is just something you can see people have learned. It's odd to me that only just recently has "Gangsta" attitude begun to disappear here. And even then it was just a handful of kids doin dumb s*. But going to school off rez there was often a palpable stigma that you might not be able to get beyond with some people. You can still feel it when you walk into some rooms with older folks.
Anyway growing up here was...hard for me. I guess. See I had a good family. There were the crazy uncles doin' the fast living, and it's been hard to accept that yes. But my family is mostly Traditional in lifestyle. This word Traditional is what has troubled me for years. In my opinion much of the Traditional mindset is just too xenophobic. It's awful sometimes to hear some of these elders talk trash on "daibos" the white people just down the road. Because those aren't bad people, they're my friends even. I figured out the lashing out at white folk is just a reaction to decades of negative influence.
I am not traditional, so I often see myself as a "bad" Indian. It's an identification issue that authors like Sherman Alexie capture really well for me. That's been the hardest part for me. I'm actually a musician, but not a Native Musician. I'm a sax player. I like jazz, and I'm sorry, but I can only stand powow songs for so long. I know a handful of "Indian" words, no I don't live in a tipi, but yes, yes I do know how to put one up. It's a dichotomous life I live, or something.
I think the worst thing about growin' up rez and then trying to succeed anywhere is the first time a colleague sees me show up late, or sees me after a few beers. I just lost that person's respect. And I can only hope that it isn't attached to race. Like, come on. Why can't I just be a shitty person for being late, and also separately be a useless drunk alcoholic?? Why I gotta be a Drunk Injun that shows up on Injun Time?? It's like I'd almost prefer to show up late and drunk in regalia just so it's THE issue, or not an issue at all.
Just let me fail in my own way, you know?
I'm from Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico and the biggest problem we've had here is alcoholism although it's been receding with the new programs and health classes that have been getting funded.
Overall there is nothing extraordinary here. It would be equivalent to a rural community. There's no stores aside from the local gas station and we don't have any internet providers in the area. We have a lot of new building and homes but all of our roads are dirt. There's a lot of farm land and open area. We have a middle plaza that's reserved for traditional dances and gatherings that aren't open to the public. The closest town is called Bernalillo about 30-40 miles away and there's 2 other reservations along the way.
We have a population of about 3,500 and 80% of us are fluent in the language with about a 60% participation rate in dances and traditions. The culture is strong here and we have a small (rate of) waning of language in younger children due to the advances in technology.
There's a high employment rate here and the pueblo has a main export of traditional foods and pottery. There are a bunch of different types of art but pottery is the main one.
Overall, reservation life isn't terrible here, culture and tradition is strong as well as the alcoholism rate going down with the top notch healthcare and programs that we get here. We're really remote as far as location goes and we have a high employment rate. Been here my whole life and wouldn't change a thing.
Hopi tribe here. My rez is in the Southwest and the sand gets everywhere. Even though I've moved to a big city I visit family Every time there is a dance. There's still a huge presence of kachina's which I take a lot of pride in.
Children being forced to boarding schools and forced to practice Christianity is still within living memory with my great uncles having been shipped to big cities.
There is a lot of poverty. Many people burn coal for heat in the winter and have to travel to the springs for clean water. But my So'oh (grandmother) tells me things are a lot better now than when she was young.
Even with the drugs and poverty everyone can still laugh at anything. And you barely walk through the door before being told to "sit down and eat".
I am a Navajo who grew up on the Navajo nation my entire life. My mom is a kind hearted women who works at a school and my dad is a strong very upfront man. He spent 30 years working industrial construction being a ironworker, pipefitter, welder and he says he was a journeyman and a foreman on many of his jobs but now he works at the hospital in the town I grew up because he says the work he did in those years really took its toll on his body. I consider myself very fortunate that my parents don't drink. Growing up my father was very rough on me and my older brother. As a 6 year old we would learn to ride horses and the purpose was for work like rounding up cattle or heading sheep. We worked on the fence lines as children and we would haul wood and coal because we used a stove. My dad used to tell me men don't cry and that if I'm ever going to be somebody that I needed to learn everything he knows so I did not play much as a kid. I spent weekends helping him change fuel pumps or he would be working with the horses. We were always doing something productive and it was hard.
Today I am 22 and live alone in Phoenix, Arizona. I am a full time student at the local community college and I am looking for a full time job now. I just got here last night and I am scared but I am ready. It wasn't until I was around 19 that I started to appreciate the way I grew up but I constantly think about the lack of friends I have and the lack of memories of being with the ones I had and it's always difficult because there are just not many of them. The Navajo nation is simple in that you either grow up like how I did or you grew up wishing you grew up like how I did because mom and dad were constantly drunk and leaving on the weekends to go spend the weekends at a casino.
There is really no middle ground, with a understanding soft spoken father and mother who understand that children need to be children and aggression is not the way to teach, but it's there and it's rare, I envy these parents.
I grew up on a reservation in Minnesota. I left when I became an adult.
Basically has the same stuff as rural towns. No good paying work, lots of drug abuse, except the benefit of a Super Fund site next to the town (that's a huge chemical leak that no one can afford to clean up). It leads to a lot of cancers. My father died of a cancer associated with it.
The good is there's a strong sense of family in the community. My fiance grew up there as well, but has a much bigger family. They are all there for each other and it's amazing what people can do in groups like that.
The "Rez culture" is something I didn't even realize existed until I left. I said slang words no one understood and had an accent. Both me and my fiance have lost those accents (Don't tell her, but she gets it back if she is mad.)
I'm from one in South Dakota. It's a sad place. I'll always love it because it's where I'm from, but it's hard to go back. The meth addiction there is terrible. That and the assumptions I deal with living in the city nowadays is annoying. They assume because I'm from the rez that I get everything free in life. Not the case.
Off Rez is Hard Too
I'm Cree First Nations and my parents moved from the rez before I was born because of how bad our education was and the living conditions (at the time, it's getting better now). I moved a lot, but when I was in high school I moved to a 90% white town and it was surreal how my sister and I were treated. We were both the "Native Girls" and were the only ones in our school and we received the dumbest stereotypes and worst questions. I had a 18 year old ask me if I could speak to animals and he was completely serious. Another guy asked my sister what it was like to grow up in a teepee. Our principal tried to exploit me and do a "traditional American Indian ceremony" and make me dance in front of the school because I'm a jingle dress dancer. He even hosted a "Indian drum lesson" and brought in a group of white ladies to teach the school how to drum. My sister and I refused to touch anything we were so mortified. I tried my best to educate people but it got so tiring hearing the same questions over and over again.
Alaska native Inupiaq here. Born and lived 8 years in Barrow, then 20 years in Fairbanks. Now living in Anchorage. We don't have reservations but we do have villages that are mainly Native.
The biggest difference is economic. We didn't have much money, weren't raised with money and as a result have poor spending habits coupled with half-assed schooling by newbie bush teachers. Financial stability is something that we struggle with no matter if your Inuit or Athabaskan or Yupik. This of course can lead to everything else mentioned in this thread, alcoholism, drugs, suicide, etc. you get the picture.
It's getting better though, with each generation we're learning more.
Just Normal Folks
I was born and grew up on the Bad River Reservation on Lake Superior in northern Wisconsin. I lived in a house my mom's grandpa built in the 40s for the first couple years of my life, then my grandpa and family friends built a new house in the 80s, so that is my childhood home. My grandpa and uncle lived down the road in my childhood and they would harvest wild rice, and trap muskrat and beavers. The boat launch was under a mile from my house, and even closer to my grandpas land so I would go out with them a lot. He would sell the quilts, and wild rice at his smoke shop he had on the highway. We had a casino built on the Rez when I was about 10, and that was a big deal. There was a trailer park in the Rez and that is where most of my friends lived, but it was on the other side of the river and you'd have to either drive or get wet to get there. I worked at my grandpas smoke shop until it closed in 1996. We participate in pow wow weekends, selling quilts and wild rice. Pow wows are a good time, family comes who don't live on the Rez, mainly scattered around Wisconsin/ Minnesota. I lived in Milwaukee for a couple years as I attended community college and lived with a friend from the Rez. We brought some friends we met in the city up north and they said it was not how they imagined it. It's pretty normal, we're just all really poor, haha. Bad River Reservation, just outside of Ashland, Wisconsin, come check out the casino, I'll be at the bar.
I grew up on the Navajo Nation; the largest reserve in the U.S. All my family still reside in the area, but I got to leave for college. For the most part, you are isolated from everything civilized. We did not have running water or electricity until I was about 10. My father and uncles had jobs 10 hours away and would make frequent weekend trips home, and the nearest town is probably a good hour drive. I did not realize how difficult our lives were until I moved away for college.
As children, we had the vast open landscape as our playground. We hiked, camped, played tag, all without boundaries or worries that strangers were lurking. It was a close knit community, and families were clustered across the reservation. For example, if you were to visit a family friend, then you could pretty much walk on over to visit their grandparents, siblings, etc.
I would make frequent trips home during college, and suddenly there is a disconnect between you and your home. You leave home again impressed with this overwhelming grief. Not only is alcohol rampant on the reservation, but the quality of life is just unbelievable (compared to the rest of the USA).
I've lived on Standing Rock in North and South Dakota for almost my entire life (and I'm sure some of you are aware of it now because of our anti-pipeline movement). These are just my experiences:
I lived with my grandmother (who I called iná, mom) and several cousins as a young child, and our house had no running water, electricity, or anything else like that. We had to drive sometimes up to 3 hours away to fill up water tanks, but we usually just used water from the river to wash/bathe/eat/drink/etc. We had a woodstove for cooking, and we used candles, gas lamps, and flashlights at night. When I became school-aged I would try to finish all of my homework at a community center before it got dark. There were hardly any stores and my grandmother was a residential school survivor and was always very reluctant and fearful of leaving the reservation, so we mainly supplied our own food by hunting/gathering/gardening. I definitely have a lot of wild childhood stories, but I wouldn't trade any of those experiences for the world.
After my grandmother passed, I moved in with my aunt. We had about a dozen people living in one of those crappy firetrap HUD trailers so it was constantly chaos. It was pretty much the norm though, and most of the kids only came home to sleep. We got commods (gov't food) but it was never enough so I ended up getting sent to live with a hunka (non-blood/ceremonial) relative after a few years. The schooling was pretty average, but I was considered "advanced" so I took several online courses in addition to my normal classes, and I attended a lot of summer programs too. Those summers were the first time I realized that some people looked down on how we lived, and how different it was for some of them. It was a little hard to accept and a lot of things that other kids said bothered me, but I guess I just got used to ignoring it. I was aware of a lot of the problems in my community, like alcoholism and drug abuse, but I was also aware of how complex those issues are when you throw in a lot of the generational trauma people are dealing with. I saw it in my own family, with how traumatized my older relatives were by their residential school experiences, and how it trickled down and really affected younger people even though it wasn't actually their trauma. It can be really difficult to deal with, and I feel like a lot of people just brush it off or deny that it's an issue altogether.
I went away for university and then I came back and got another degree at our tribal college. I've pretty much dedicated myself to working in the revitalization of our language, and right now I work in a full immersion program for younger children. I also tutor at a few local schools, and work several after-school programs when I can, but my main focus is definitely the language. The main problem is that our biggest resource is managed by Europeans who won't fully commit to community involvement and also aren't too keen on passing the reins onto actual Lakota/Dakota people who are already involved.
Overall, I definitely don't blame people (especially kids) for wanting to leave, and I actually try to encourage young people to leave and have some life experiences away from here. It's so easy to get stuck in this vacuum and fall into some of the vicious cycles that exist around here.
But honestly, I could never see myself permanently leaving. When I'm off-rez, I feel like I sometimes become "The Native Girl" to everyone. In college I felt like I became the spokesperson for every Native person ever to some people, and it was really hard to express myself as an individual around them. And I often felt very uncomfortable hearing some of the things my peers had been taught about us. One guy told me that his dad warned him to never stop on a reservation, and if anyone approached him to just run them over. I had a classmate who wanted to pick my brain all the time because she spent a week on a reservation for a service project once and it was just exhausting. There were a lot of misconceptions (I don't get free anything unless we count a few Pell Grants and a scholarship that covered two semesters of my second degree) and flat out lies they expected me to be an expert spokesperson on.
At home on the rez, I feel like I'm seen as more of a complete person, with interests separate from my Lakota identity. We definitely have a lot of problems and a long way to go in some aspects, but I love being able to visit with elders and hear their stories, and being able to understand them when they speak our language. I love playing handgames with my friends, I love dancing during wacipi season, I love digging prairie turnips with my little cousins, I really just love my community as a whole.