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Across a range of measures, Minnesota’s American Indians fare worse than other groups. So why isn’t it talked about more?

The homeless encampment along Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis has brought new attention to a long-standing and widespread problem.

Hiawatha Avenue homeless encampment
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
The Hiawatha encampment is home to hundreds of people, most of them American Indians.

The season is changing and freezing temperatures are coming, but there’s still a tent city off of Hiawatha Avenue in South Minneapolis.

The encampment is now home to hundreds, most of them American Indians, many who have decided that being homeless together is safer than being homeless apart. The colorful tents pitched next to a major commuter thoroughfare have made the problem of American Indian homelessness difficult for the broader community to ignore.

That’s new, but homelessness in Minnesota’s American Indian community is definitely not.

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In 2015, Minnesota’s American Indian residents were homeless at 17 times the rate white Minnesotans were — a rate that actually represented an improvement over a much greater gap during the Great Recession, according to the Minnesota Homeless Study, conducted by Wilder Research.

Minnesota homelessness rates by race and ethnicity, 2015
Note: Hispanic people may be counted as both part of that ethnicity group and as a member of a race.
Source: Minnesota Homeless Study, Wilder Research

It’s not just homelessness;  from housing to income and education to criminal justice, outcomes for Native Americans are at least as bad, if not worse than the disparities between Minnesota’s black and white residents, a problem more often talked about.

“I think it’s an unfortunate and tragic event that has organically developed, but some of the silver linings within this challenge is the visibility of this issue,” said Joe Hobot, the president and CEO of the American Indian OIC, a Minneapolis education and job training organization, and a descendant of the Hunk Papa Band of Lakota. “It’s not new, it’s just visible. It’s calling attention to the shortfalls of the system.”

Income and poverty

Minnesota’s median household income is $68,000, the 12th highest of any U.S. state. That’s driven largely by the state’s white residents, who make up 80 percent of the population and enjoy a median household income of $72,000.

Incomes are not relatively high here for everyone, though. For Black families, the figure is $38,000 per year. For American Indian families, it’s $37,000.

In 2015, Census data suggested median household incomes for black Minnesotans had seen a year-over-year drop. That decline — and the fact that black families’ median incomes were less than half that of whites’ in Minnesota — got a lot of press.

“Leaders rose up in arms — as they should — and demanded immediate redress,” Hobot said. They sought help from elected officials and there was talk of a special session to provide legislative remedies.

What didn’t make the same kind of headlines was that American Indians’ incomes were at least as low, lower still if you exclude from the sample wealthier members of a few bands in Minnesota, Hobot said.

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Median household income by racial and ethnic group of householder in Minnesota, 2017
Note: High margins of error for smaller groups, including black and American Indian Minnesotans, mean the estimates may not be as far apart as they appear.
Source: U.S. Census, compiled by Minnesota Compass

Estimated poverty rates among American Indian Minnesotans are among the highest of any racial or ethnic group, too, at an estimated 28.6 percent, compared to 28.2 percent for black Minnesotans, 19 percent for Hispanic Minnesotans, 11.9 percent for Asian Minnesotans and 6.9 percent for white Minnesotans.


Those economic disparities are no surprise when you look at gaps in educational achievement.

Graduation rates for American Indian students are 51 percent, compared to 88 percent for white, non-Hispanic students. American Indian students’ high school graduation rates have long been the lowest of any racial or ethnic group in the state. Minnesota ranks 44th among U.S. states for American Indian graduation rates, while it ranks 35th overall, according to Minnesota Compass, a division of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation.

Minnesota four-year graduation rates by race and ethnicity, 2017
Source: Minnesota Department of Education

Likewise, reading and math scores for American Indian students in Minnesota are among the lowest of any racial or ethnic group in the state.

These disparities are longstanding and don’t come out of nowhere.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, generations of Minnesota’s American Indian children were taken from their families and put into 16 boarding schools across the state, designed to assimilate them into society. The schools were modeled after Pennsylvania’s Carlisle School, whose founder was known to say “kill the Indian, save the man,” by removing the influence of families and making kids strangers to their own culture.

For members of Minnesota’s tribes, the memory is not so distant, said Jane Harstad, the director of the Office of Indian Education at the Minnesota Department of Education and a member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Her mother and grandmother both attended boarding schools.

“It was in the relatively near history that this occurred, so there is that distrust of systems, of taking children and trying to turn them into something else,” she said.

Oftentimes, Hobot said, dropping out of school is a conscious effort on a student’s part to save his or her spirit. Schools can be hostile environments for American Indian students, who are disproportionately suspended and disciplined.

Schools need to better understand the needs of American Indian students in order to make things better, Hobot said.

“When you look at the majority of disparities that are impacting our communities, from access to health care, disease disparities, education, economic — all of them can be walked back within the individual’s life to this critical departure, and it’s usually when they leave school,” he said.

In recent years, Minnesota has increased funding to schools that serve American Indian students. A new provision in the federal Every Children Succeeds Act requires tribes and schools that serve majority-American Indian populations to work more closely together.

“It’s getting better, it’s just going to take some time,” Harstad said.


American Indians are also more likely to be in poor health, and have less access to health care than other Minnesotans.

It starts at birth: American Indian children babies are three times more likely to die as infants as white babies in Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

Life expectancies for American Indians are also the lowest of any racial or ethnic group in Minnesota, at 70 years, according to research by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Notably, life expectancies are worse for American Indians in Minnesota than they are for American Indians in the U.S. as a whole, which is not the case for most other racial and ethnic groups.

Life expectancy at birth by race/ethnicity, Minnesota and U.S.
People in most racial and ethnic groups are better off in Minnesota than they are in the U.S. as a whole when it comes to life expectancy. But Minnesotans who are American Indian or Asian are worse off in Minnesota.
Source: Kaiser Family Foundation

In 2016, American Indian Minnesotans died of drug overdoses at more than five times the rate of white Minnesotans and nearly 3 times the rate of black Minnesotans, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. Cirrhosis, a liver disease often caused by excessive drinking, killed American Indians at a rate five times greater than white people in 2016.

American Indians also have some of the highest rates of adult obesity (37 percent) and diabetes diagnoses (18 percent) of any racial or ethnic group in the state.

Making matters worse with those health outcomes, American Indians are uninsured at one of the highest rates of any racial or ethnic group in the state: In 2016, 18 percent of American Indian adults under age 65 were uninsured — five times the rate white Minnesotans were.

Criminal justice

Beyond matters of life and death, race matters when it comes to the trajectory of people’s lives in Minnesota.

American Indians are far more likely than white Minnesotans to be stopped by police, arrested, and end up in prison.

The Minneapolis Police Department, which releases daily police stop and use of force information by race, stops American Indians disproportionately: American Indians make about up 1.2 percent of the city’s population, but accounted for 3 percent of traffic stops and 6 percent of people involved in use of force incidents this year.

Adult population in Minnesota prisons, July 2018
Note: Hispanic people are counted as both part of that ethnicity group and as a member of a race.
Source: Minnesota Department of Corrections

When it comes to the state’s prison population, American Indians are even more overrepresented: compared to 1 percent of the state’s population, they make up 10 percent of the prison population.

‘Not statistically significant’

All these disparities — and the many more too numerous to list — are interconnected, but time and again, data show American Indians in Minnesota are more likely to be poorer, less educated, less healthy and be incarcerated than white Minnesotans and Minnesotans overall.

“Whatever is good in this state, we’re at the bottom of the list, and whatever is bad in this state, we’re at the top of the list,” Hobot said.

Back near Hiawatha Avenue, Minneapolis is planning to move the homeless encampment into a navigation center, which, in theory, will help stabilize residents quickly.

Hobot hopes there’s silver lining in the line of tents along Hiawatha Avenue in raising lasting awareness of the issue of some of these disparities.

“One of the first challenges we are confronted with is oftentimes we aren’t even included in these research efforts,” Hobot said. “When we confront folks that are conducting these enterprises, we usually are hit with the same refrain: that owing to the size of our population we aren’t quote, unquote, statistically significant.”

That’s critical, Hobot said, because the gaps are huge and there’s a lot of work to do. While Minnesota is, by many measures, one of the best places to live in the U.S. as a white person, it is, by the same measures, one of the worst places to live as an American Indian person.

“While all of these communities are contending with a variety of forms of disparities and historical traumas, hands down the Twin Cities and Minnesota are the worst. They are the most egregious gaps in terms of workforce development, educational achievement, safety, police relations — it’s just a joke how far off the mark we are compared to other areas we’d suspect might be worse,” Hobot said.