The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is pleased to join the nation in observing National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month in November 2002. The Commission has marked this observation since 1976, when presidential and congressional resolutions proclaimed a day, week, or month during which the nation would celebrate the culture, contributions, and heritage of American Indians and Alaska Natives.
American Indians and Alaska Natives represent 1.5 percent of the nation's population, or 4.1 million people. However, compared with the rest of the country, the situation of these Americans is disturbing. According to the 2000 Census, the poverty rate among American Indians and Alaska Natives is 25.9 percent, equal to the rates for African Americans and Hispanics, and higher than the rates of non-Hispanic whites and Asian Pacific Americans. More than 700,000 live below the poverty level. The proportion of Native Americans who lack health insurance coverage is 26.8 percent, significantly more than the proportions of African Americans, Asian Pacific Islanders, and non-Hispanic whites who lack coverage. The number of Native American-owned businesses totaled 197,300 in 1997, representing 0.9 percent of the nation's 20.8 million non-farm businesses, and only 6.5 percent of its 3 million minority-owned firms.
The Commission has long been concerned with the status of and opportunities available to Native Americans. In 2000, it published Native Americans in South Dakota: An Erosion of Confidence in the Justice System. The following year, it issued a statement denouncing the use of offensive sports mascots. This year, the Commission released Racism's Frontier: The Untold Story of Discrimination and Division in Alaska, which documented allegations of unequal protection by law enforcement, lack of employment opportunities, and disparities in educational achievement experienced by Native Americans.
The federal government, through designated agencies, has a special responsibility for protecting the rights of Native Americans. More than 550 federally recognized tribes exist in the United States, including 223 village groups in Alaska. Protests by Native Americans and litigation against the policies of government agencies demonstrate a need for stronger federal responsibility and accountability to these Americans. "The government has not been the true guardian of equal opportunity for its Native American citizens," said Commission Chairperson Mary Frances Berry. "For too long, the rights of American Indians and Alaska Native Americans have been neglected by our society. The Commission is dedicated to not only observing this special month, but to focusing continued attention on the protection of their civil rights."