Native Women Still See The Price Of Colonization In Our Paychecks

by Jacqueline Keeler
Elaine Thompson/AP/Shutterstock

In this op-ed, Diné/Ihanktonwan Dakota writer Jacqueline Keeler explains how the Native women’s equal pay day statistics reveal the injustice of the wage gap.

Often, when white Americans meet a Native American, the first thing they ask about is the "free money" they believe all Natives get. But free money for Indigenous people in the United States is a myth. Being a Native woman in particular comes with a price — one we can calculate.

Sept. 23 is Native Women's Equal Pay Day for 2019. On the 266th day of the year, Native women finally bring home the equivalent pay to what a white man in a comparable position would’ve made in 2018 alone. On average, American women earned 82 cents to every dollar her white, non-Hispanic men counterpart made last year, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families. But for Native American women, specifically, that amount was just 58 cents. For Black women, it was approximately 62 cents, and for our Latinx sisters, it was around 54 cents, meaning they must wait until Nov. 20 to make as much as a white man made last year.

The issue of equal pay impacts Native women and their families at any income level, on and off the reservation. According to data analyzed by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), pay equity is worse for Native women living in cities than those living in rural areas, and it’s also worse for Native women who have college degrees compared to those who are high school graduates. Native women in low-wage jobs make about 73 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men, the NWLC reports.

This major wage discrepancy results in the loss of thousands of dollars each year, money that could be going toward rent or child care. Native families often cannot meet those costs because of the lack of pay equity. One in four Native American and Alaska Natives live in poverty, the Pew Research Center reports, and approximately 65% of Native children under the age of 6 live in low-income families, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty.

For Native women in high-wage jobs, pay equity decreases rather than increases. Native women with advanced degrees who have careers in fields like law, engineering, and medicine are paid about 59 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men in the same occupations, according to the NWLC. The organization also found that annual salaries for Native women in these occupations are about $62,000, compared to the $105,000 paid to white men.

We have already paid the price of colonization.

As Native women get older and reach retirement age, they often must keep working in order to live securely and support the next generation of their family. In New Mexico, Native women must work until they are 96 to match white, non-Hispanic men's career earnings at age 60. New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, who is Laguna Pueblo, wrote an essay for CNBC on pay equity for Native women and urged the Senate to call a vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act, which she says would “would address loopholes in the law that allow employers to pay women less than men for the same job.” Noting that she raised her daughter as a single mother, sometimes relying on food stamps, and that Native communities face disproportionate rates of poverty and violence, she wrote that it baffles her that the Senate doesn’t want to bring the bill to a vote.

“This is about fairness,” she wrote. “This is about doing something to prevent violence against Native women.”

Haaland sees pay equity as a potential tool to fight the missing and murdered Indigenous women crisis that has been happening both here in the United States and Canada. Poverty can entrap Native women into abusive relationships and leave them vulnerable to violence. According to a 2016 National Institute of Justice-funded study, 84.3% of American Indian and Alaska Native women experience partner violence, sexual violence, and other similar abuse. If Native women have equal pay and are thus financially secure, they may be able to escape violence at home, Haaland pointed out.

Native Americans have suffered the consequences of the settlers’ expansion into our homelands. While colonization brought opportunity and liberty to millions from around the world, it did not bring those benefits to the citizens of the Indigenous nations that predated the United States and whose nations persist to this day. We have already paid the price of colonization. It shouldn't come out of our paychecks, too.