In the United States, Native Americans have legal control over the lands that have been designated as reservations, but they face other entrenched socioeconomic problems.
A lack of education is one reason why poverty among indigenous people in the world's richer countries is still very much in evidence, says Lee, who managed to escape this vicious circle through sheer determination and the support of her family.
Growing up on a reservation in the U.S. southwest, she went to Arizona State University where she graduated in communications and microbiology. After earning her master's degree in public health from the University of Nevada, she is now working there towards a Ph.D. in public health.
Lee serves as a North American Focal Point for the United Nations Indigenous Youth Caucus, and was at the United Nations late last month to participate in the 10-day meeting of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
Excerpts from the interview follow.
Q: How would you describe your path toward becoming a well-educated Native American?
A: Where I grew up, education is not really important. A lot of my friends became pregnant during high school. But I was fortunate because my father was a real exception in our community. He is a lawyer and to him education is very important. He was one reason why I was able to go to college.
The other reason was basketball. In high school, I played basketball and got a scholarship so I could finance my study.
But even today it is sometimes really hard in school. Sometimes I still struggle with things I struggled with in the undergrad. The academic environment is completely different than everything I had before I left the reservation to go to university. This is not because of the work. It is more in terms of the belonging and the different perception of the world.
Q: What do you think are the main reasons why Native Americans often do not go to high school?
A: First of all there is the material issue. When I came to university, I realised the lack of educational resources. High schools in the reservation are very far behind. We did not even have computers at school.
But this is not the only problem. As I told you before, in my reservation people do not give weight to education.
One reason for this is that there were no role models. That means you do not really see people who are educated. To give you an example, all the doctors and teachers were white. So I never could imagine becoming a doctor or teacher. This is the reason why I developed an online mentoring programme that is called United Natives. Therewith I want to help Native American undergrad students in every capacity.
We do also motivational speaking to younger Natives at junior high and talk to the kids about self-respect, culture and education.
Q: As a member of United Nations Indigenous Youth Caucus, you attended the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). What did you expect from it and did it live up to your expectations?
A: When I first attended the UNPFII last year, I had no clue about the process so I expected it to perform at a quicker rate. However, I currently realised it is a slow and bureaucratic process and it serves as a platform to discuss issues with no guarantee that your issues will be addressed or even supported.
I think raising awareness is needed, which the UNPFII can do. But at a community and national level it is up to us to make change happen that can be more efficient and effective versus us discussing issues. Both in combination in terms of raising awareness and implementing and applying programmes is definitely needed.
Q: Do you think there should be more support from the national and the international community, particularly the U.S. government and the United Nations?
A: I think the U.S. government should just honour all the treaties they have made. Because all of these treaties address what issues in the communities are.
The U.S. government has broken every treaty that has been made between tribal governments. It is not the fact that the U.S. government should do more, it is the fact that they should honour what was agreed upon.
The U.N. overlooks indigenous people in developed countries. They should pay more attention on this. Even in the United States of America, the living conditions for Natives are often extremely bad. Just to give you two examples. The Sioux-Tribe has one of the highest poverty rates in the world. And the Tohono O'odham-Tribe has the highest rate of diabetes in the world.
These are definitely issues the U.N. should address and not overlook.