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Poll: Native Americans See Far More Discrimination In Areas Where They Are A Majority

Native Americans reported discrimination far more often in employment and in interactions with law enforcement if they lived on tribal lands or areas where the population is mostly Native American.

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More than half of Native Americans living on tribal lands or other majority-Native areas say they have experienced racial or ethnic discrimination when interacting with police (55 percent) and applying for jobs (54 percent). That’s according to new poll results being released Tuesday by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.


Location appears to have a big influence on whether Native Americans experience discrimination because they are Native American. In the example above, discrimination in police encounters was reported three times more often by American Indians living in majority-Native communities than by those living in more mixed areas.

Even disregarding where people live, our poll found Native Americans reported significant discrimination in their everyday lives — jobs, health care, education and other areas.


“The poll is important because it allows Native Americans to speak to a broad range of Americans about the serious personal problems they face in dealing with employers, police and the courts,” says poll director Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard Chan School. “It shines a light on the very high level of slurs and personal insults this community faces in their day-to-day interactions with others.”

Indeed, the level of these negative interactions was significant in our poll. Nearly 4 in 10 experienced insensitive or offensive comments or negative assumptions because of their race or ethnicity. The number reporting being slurred was only slightly lower.


We’ll be exploring these and other areas in greater depth this week, as we continue our series “You, Me and Them: Experiencing Discrimination in America.” We’re looking at one group at a time to examine the particular experiences with discrimination each is experiencing.

“Native people are generally omitted from discussions of discrimination,” says Stephanie Fryberg, associate professor of psychology and American Indian studies at the University of Washington. “We have been rendered invisible in so many domains.”

Because of this invisibility in research and other avenues of life, she says, “the perception is that we’ve vanished or there is the negative stereotype that we are helpless, dependents or wards of the government. That is just not my experience.”

She points to evidence showing that more than 90 percent of Native tribes have their own judicial systems and child welfare systems, and that a significant number of communities are developing or have developed tribe-run schools and language revitalization programs.

The survey was conducted among a nationally representative telephone sample that included 342 Native American U.S. adults. The margin of error at the 95 percent confidence interval for the Native American sample is plus or minus 8.0 percentage points. People were asked which ethnicity and race or races they consider themselves to be. Full methodological information is in the full poll report.


In addition to asking people about their personal experiences, we also asked about their perception of discrimination within their local community. Nearly half of Native Americans in majority-Native areas believe that where they live, other Native Americans are “often” discriminated against because of their race or ethnicity. In nonmajority areas, that perception is much lower.

Some people have asked why we’re dividing our data between “majority” and “nonmajority” areas and not between “tribal” and “nontribal” lands. A main reason is that there are many areas that are not tribal lands but still have large populations of Native Americans. Asking about the local neighborhood’s composition tells us more about how people interact in their home environment and the prevalence — or lack of — discrimination.

To determine where people live, we asked two questions: “Do you live on tribal lands such as a reservation, pueblo or Alaska Native village?” and “People often describe some neighborhood areas as predominantly one group or another, such as a predominantly black or white neighborhood. Would you say that the area where you live is predominantly Native American, or not?”

When our team at Harvard crunched the data, they found that people’s self-described neighborhoods — whether they were majority-Native areas or not — gave more definitive results about how or whether people are experiencing discrimination than just classifying whether people lived on tribal lands or not.


We saw a big gap between people in majority and nonmajority areas for several additional factors, including perceptions of institutions like local police and government.

Though our poll didn’t make a direct link, that perception may be one reason more than a third (36 percent) of people who live in majority-Native American areas avoid calling the police or other authority figures, even when in need, or say they’ve thought about moving (33 percent) because they have experienced discrimination or unequal treatment where they live. For those in nonmajority areas, these numbers are almost three times lower — 14 and 11 percent, respectively.


Lack of opportunity may also be a reason people have thought about moving. And while our poll did not that ask that question directly, we did find a strong majority who agreed that there is significant discrimination when it comes to opportunity, based on being a Native American in a majority area.


Local environment also varies greatly based on whether Native Americans live on tribal lands or other majority areas and in mixed, nonmajority areas — particularly in the quality of public schools and air quality, and in health care.

Our ongoing series, “You, Me and Them: Experiencing Discrimination in America” is based in part on a poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. We have previously released results for African-Americans, Latinos and whites so far. In coming weeks we will release results for LGBTQ adults, Asian-Americans and women.

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