Academic journal article Social Justice

Crime and Justice in American Indian Communities

Academic journal article Social Justice

Crime and Justice in American Indian Communities

Article excerpt

IN THE LATE 15TH AND 16TH CENTURIES, WESTERN IMPERIALISTS CAME INTO CONTACT with indigenous cultures in South and North America whose labors could be exploited and whose natural resources were coveted as prolific sources of economic value (Snipp, 1986a; Szymanski, 1983). Invading colonists related to the indigenous populations of these continents--and to other indigenous populations throughout the world--in terms of their economic worth and potential for exploitation. These groups were subjected to cultural genocide to facilitate and sustain Western capitalist expansion. As in Africa, Australia, and throughout Asia, the indigenous peoples of South and North America were robbed of their land bases; their traditional cultures were devastated, and, in some cases, destroyed.

Historically and today, tribal occupation of colonized lands in the U.S. has been viewed as an obstacle to profitable capitalist appropriation. The remedy has been the systematic removal of American Indian people through forced assimilation, involuntary relocation, the destruction of traditional tribal cultures, and extermination. However, the dominant culture has denied and concealed the genocidal actions committed against American Indians in the name of Western cultural progress. Instead, systematic violence and the theft of tribal lands have been refrained in terms of a storied mission of bringing civilization to the "new world" (Pfohl, 1994).

Western constructions of American Indians as racially and culturally inferior facilitated the colonization of Indian peoples and lands. Among the most devastating actions and policies toward tribal groups are the loss of traditional cultures, spiritualities, languages, and lands, the destruction of traditional tribal social and political sovereignty, and physical deprivation. These combine with economic deprivation, the dependence of American Indian Nations upon the federal government, and the persistence of cultural genocide.

This article examines the ways in which the historical domination and oppression of American Indians by Western nations created and continue to perpetuate crime and injustice in American Indian communities. American Indian communities today struggle to cope with devastating social ills that were practically nonexistent in traditional tribal communities before the European invasion. These include startling rates of alcoholism, family violence, incest, sexual assault, and homicide that are similar to and sometimes exceed the rates in white society. It is argued that the domination and oppression of American Indian Nations brought about economic deprivation, loss of tribal sovereignty, increased dependency, internalized oppression, unresolved historical grief, and the normalization of violence, all of which contribute to crime in Indian communities today.

Criminology and American Indians

The correlation of race and crime is common in criminology today. Criminologists often assert that American Indians and other racial minorities are overrepresented in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Indeed, most of the literature on American Indian criminality quantitatively assesses the degree to which Indians are involved in criminal or delinquent activity. Official statistics such as the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) are used to determine Indian arrest and incarceration rates. However, such statistics can be deceptive. For example, UCR data do not estimate either offenses committed on reservations or criminal and delinquency arrests and subsequent processing by federal agents.

In discussing the problems associated with using official statistics as measures of criminal behavior, Bortner (1988) sets forth three interpretations of official measures. (1) They are an accurate calculation of the amount of illegal behavior taking place. (2) They reflect the discriminatory labeling of particular groups and individuals as criminal. …

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