Hunger and poverty on the reservation

A water protector camp at Cannonball, N.D. Marco Grimaldo/Bread for the World.

By Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy

Last week, my colleague Marco Grimaldo and I, visited the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota to learn more about Native Americans’ efforts to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Tribe members are worried that the pipeline will negatively impact water quality on its reservation and imperil nearby cultural heritage sites, reports The Dallas Morning News. Proponents of the project say it will boost the economy, creating thousands of construction jobs.

We visited the reservation to understand more deeply the root causes surrounding the protests against the pipeline’s construction. But more importantly, we wanted to understand the hunger and poverty intersections.

At Bread, we want to end hunger and poverty by 2030. However, that will only happen when we engage and listen to those most affected by hunger and poverty, such as Native Americans.

Like many indigenous communities around the globe, the people of Standing Rock experience alarming rates of hunger and poverty. Native Americans are made further vulnerable by environmental changes that disproportionately affect their people who lack a seat at the table for critical decisions that directly affect them and their livelihood.

As of 2014, the poverty rate at Standing Rock Reservation, which is home to the Lakota and Dakota people, was over 43 percent. There are 8,957 people on the reservation. New studies from Feeding America found that 60 percent of counties with a native majority face dangerously high food insecurity rates. And 23 percent of the small U.S. Indigenous population has terrible access to “adequate food” — almost twice the national average.”

When we asked a Lakota elder, a former superintendent of schools on the reservation, if the 79 percent unemployment rate on the reservation we read about seemed accurate, he responded without hesitation, “definitely.” 

Our visit at the reservation comes at a precarious time in the U.S. and around the world as it relates to issues of clean water, protecting the planet, and prosperity for all people.

A little over a year ago, authorities in Flint, Mich., finally acknowledged that the impoverished city’s water system was contaminated.

Around the same time the Vatican released the latest social encyclical Laudato Si, “On Care for our Common Home,” where Pope Francis called the church and the world to acknowledge the urgency of our environmental challenges and to embark on a new path. 

And last year global leaders signed the Sustainable Development Goals pledging within 15 years to “leave no one behind.”  

As an organization grounded in Christian faith, Bread thought it important to join with other national religious bodies – many of whom have begun to weigh in on the pipeline issue – as well as local congregations and social movements on the frontlines of hunger and poverty.

The national religious bodies involved include the Episcopal Church; the Mennonite Central Committee (Central States); the United Church of Christ; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; the Presbyterian Church USA; and Catholic organizations such as the Franciscan Action Network and the Sisters of Mercy

Bread saw the need to listen and stand with those, both Native Americans and non-Native Americans, who were mounting an intervention to stop hunger and poverty from deepening in their communities.

In the end, this is what Bread does best – stand with those suffering from hunger and poverty – and work with Congress to put an end to hunger.

Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy is senior associate for national Catholic engagement at Bread for the World.

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