The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is pleased to join the nation in observing National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month, November 2003. "Since 1976, when presidential and congressional resolutions proclaimed a day, week, or month during which the United States would celebrate the cultures, contributions, and heritage of American Indians and Alaska Natives, the Commission has shown its deep respect and appreciation for American Indians and Alaska Natives by marking this observation," said Mary Frances Berry, Commission Chairperson.

According to the 2000 census, almost 2.5 million people in the United States identify as American Indian or Alaska Native, and 1.6 million identify as part American Indian or Alaska Native. Between the 1990 and 2000 censuses, the U.S. population of American Indians and Alaska Natives increased 26 percent, 110 percent among those who are part Native American or Alaska Native. During that period, the U.S. population as a whole increased 13 percent.

Many Native Americans are members of the 562 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and despite their history of achievement, typically face crushing poverty, discrimination, and associated problems. The national poverty rate for American Indians and Alaska Natives was 24.5 percent between 1999 and 2001, according to the latest national information available, compared with 11.6 percent for the entire U.S. population. For individuals living on reservations, 31.2 percent lived in poverty. Over this same period, 72.9 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives had health insurance coverage. By contrast, 80.8 percent of African Americans, 81.5 percent of Asian American and Pacific Islanders, and 90.2 percent of non-Hispanic whites had health insurance coverage. The number of uninsured American Indians and Alaska Natives is especially alarming since the population is 650 percent more likely to die from tuberculosis and 318 percent more likely to die from diabetes compared with other groups.

This year, the Commission released A Quiet Crisis: Federal Funding and Unmet Needs in Indian Country, a report that the National Congress of American Indians called "the most comprehensive look at the state of Indian Country funding and need on a broad scale . . . in the last decade." In October, the Commission traveled to New Mexico to examine the disparate health status and outcomes for Native Americans. They met with frontline medical staff who provide health care to reservation residents and also held a forum with local tribal leaders and health advocates discussing concerns, including infrastructure development.

Since the early 1980s, per capita spending on general population federal programs has been far above that for Native American programs. According to Chairperson Berry, "federal programs fail to provide the services and funding equal to that which other groups receive, denying equal opportunity to Native Americans." Furthermore, inadequate funding is "historic. It's a matter of the fabric of American history, where there's a reluctance to deal with Indian issues. The government must act immediately to reverse this shameful and unjust treatment."