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The Navajo Nation spans 27,000 square miles across parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. Its capital, Window Rock, is named for its iconic landscape arch. Photo by Chelsea Hofmann / Cronkite News

Oliver Whaley: Slavery still exists in some parts of America

For Native Americans, Slavery Still Exists

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”. Today, I take Mr. King’s great wisdom to heart and I will not be silent.

As we celebrate Juneteenth this month, which is celebrated as the end to slavery. I want to shout out, for everyone to hear, that slavery has not ended in the United States. While Native Americans have seemingly become a “forgotten people”. Let us not forget, or in most cases, let us become aware, that for Native Americans living on their tribal nations today, legalized government servitude is alive and well. Here, in the 21st century, Native Americans are still deemed “wards” to their “guardians”. The federal government issues every tribal member a prison number, called a “census number”, to prove it. What does this mean?

Well, imagine a world where the federal government was responsible for looking after your best interests. What if all of your assets were managed by bureaucrats on your behalf. A special bureau is even set up to oversee your affairs. Every important decision you make requires approval and every approval comes with a plethora of regulations. How would you feel about this? How well do you think it would work? What issues would it create both socially and economically?

Oliver Whaley. Photo courtesy Navajo Nation Office of President and Vice President

For those answers, just ask America’s 21st century slaves; Native Americans.

Across Indian Country, tribal lands are owned and managed by the federal government. Individual Native Americans cannot buy land, own a home, or build equity that could later be used as collateral for a business start-up. As such, and without property rights, capitalism doesn’t exist in Indian Country as it does throughout the rest of the United States.

And this goes without even mentioning the complex legal framework that hinders economic growth on tribal nations. Cumbersome and often irrelevant energy regulations make it difficult for tribes to develop their resources.

The fact is that our self-proclaimed “guardian” has repeatedly mismanaged Native American assets. While I can affirmatively state that Native Americans today would unanimously tell you that they would like the freedom to shape their own destinies as a part of, and within, their own tribal nations. Native Americans today, who wish to remain in their homelands, are left with no choice, and in a large sense forced, to continue to accept government commodities while being asked “why can’t you just pull yourself up by your bootstraps?”

So, as we discuss systematic racism and much needed reform, let us also discuss a systemic overhaul of Native American law, and truly give Native Americans back their freedom and independence by giving tribal nations complete sovereignty, parallel to that of States. And let them shape their own destiny. It is then, and only then, that will see unemployment, crime, domestic violence and abuse, and suicide rates fall on tribal lands and tribal nations again become self-reliant, which is all we really want.

#freeour21stcenturyslaves #self-relianceistruetribalsovereignty #changeindianlaw #defundtheBIA


Oliver Whaley is Diné and is a member of the Navajo Nation. He has a Master’s Degree in Public Administration and is a licensed lawyer. He currently serves as the Executive Director of the Navajo Nation’s Environmental Protection Agency. This opinion is his own.

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