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Native Americans and Housing

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Great Julien Brave NoiseCat article in High Country News about the problems Native Americans face with housing, whether they live in cities (as they often do yet they are ignored in our public and political discussions of urban issues and racial inequality in urban places) or on the reservations. The short of it is that Native Americans may leave the reservations to work in the city or their parents or grandparents did, but they are largely working-class people who can be driven to homelessness by rising rents in gentrifying neighborhoods. But there is no good options for them to return to the reservations either.

Waukazoo is even less visible than his fellow street folk because he is Native American — Lakota and Odawa. He is an urban Indian — a demographic that has no place in the public imagination. Native people are generally relegated to history books or remote reservations, not row houses and apartment complexes. They fight cowboys and pipelines, not landlords and rents. But according to the U.S. Census Bureau, seven out of 10 Native Americans — or 3.7 million people — reside in cities. More than 66,000 urban Indians live in the Bay Area alone.

I used to be one of them. As a traditional powwow dancer, I learned many of my original moves watching Waukazoo high-step through Thursday night drum and dance practice at Oakland’s Friendship House.

With nearly one in four Bay Area Indians living in poverty, Native people are the region’s most impoverished racial group, according to PolicyLink. As Silicon Valley transforms the Bay Area into a boundless Google campus, the urban Native population is shrinking, down by 19 percent from 2000 to 2010.

But Native Americans cannot escape the housing crisis by fleeing cities. On the reservations and in the border towns of Indian Country, the problem is equally acute. In the twilight of the Obama administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimated that these communities urgently needed 68,000 new units — 33,000 to eliminate overcrowding and 35,000 to replace deteriorated stock.

The Waukazoo family — Joe and Marlene, their eldest daughter Phyllis and eldest son Joseph Jr. — has been stretched to the breaking point by two housing crises. Joe and Phyllis live in rapidly gentrifying Oakland. Marlene Waukazoo, née Sandoval, divorced Joe two decades ago. She lives with Joseph Jr. and her extended family in Torreon, New Mexico, where quality shelter, electricity and running water are hard to come by.

The housing crisis is one of the most-discussed global political, economic and social problems of our time. Yet people like the Waukazoos rarely feature in any of its narratives. The politicians, pundits and professors focused on the urban housing crisis overlook or omit urban Indians. Meanwhile, housing problems on reservations are equally out of the frame. In an era of inequality, the Waukazoos — struggling for visibility, dignity and basic housing security — represent some of the most forgotten of our nation’s forgotten people.

Federally guaranteed housing should be a progressive policy goal right there with universal health care and federally guaranteed employment. That Native Americans suffer from extremely low employment with short life spans and high rates of homelessness is just one reason why all these programs should be part of a basic platform of human justice. The article is quite lengthy and the whole thing is well worth your time.

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