The American Indian story is heart-breaking, but one that neither you nor I can do much about. Yes, we all have our problems; we all struggle with one thing or another. Despite our individual problems, Americans are compassionate toward the less fortunate. It is something we have in common with our British cousins.
I do write about the American Indian —mostly from a historical perspective. It is an interesting story —for me, anyway. Writing about contemporary problems, however, is more difficult.
The story of the American Indian is only unique in terms of its “who” and “where.” The how and why is also part of the story, but one shared by indigenous people living around the world —in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and in South and Central America.
In the 1850s Indian tribal councils had but two points of view. Most tribal elders urged accommodation with the westward-moving foreigners, but there were more than a few who urged fighting the foreigner to the death.
Meanwhile, within the tribal council of the “great white fathers” in Washington, there were also two points of view: either eradicate the American Indian or move them to government-controlled reservations.
When the Indian realized that he must either die (i.e., be shot or starved to death) or move to a reservation, most opted for the latter. If there is a tragedy to the story of American Indians, it is that the story appears never-ending.
It is a tragedy of the commons.
In the United States, 310 Indian reservations house a large portion of the 574 federally recognized Indian tribes. Canada recognizes 610 separate tribes. In both countries, the poorest citizens are reservation Indians. It is a level of poverty that is nearly indescribable. Let’s look at these conditions in two of the wealthiest countries in the world.
Progressive politicians argue that the problem with Indians is their alcoholism, the level of corruption among tribal leaders, and an extraordinarily high percentage of school dropouts. These conditions do exist, but that isn’t the problem. The problem is the reservation system.
Federal Indian reservations are communal lands. Individual Indians are not permitted to own the land; they are only allowed to use it. If anyone ever wondered why there are so many mobile homes on Indian reservations, communal land is the answer.
Federal and tribal laws deny the Indian access to the economy in a most insidious way. Indians cannot improve property that they don’t own. They cannot build permanent homes —hence mobile homes. Since they don’t own the land, they cannot use it to establish credit or as collateral. Without the ability to establish credit, they cannot access the economic middle class —so not only are Indians the poorest people in our country, they’re destined to remain so.
Prosperity comes from property rights. Look at any federal reservation and you’ll find vast stretches of undeveloped land. Well, most of this land isn’t suitable for agriculture anyway, but when reservation Indians have no way of developing the land, it does them no good except to house their remains.
The situation is not only depressing (which explains alcoholism, hopelessness, little to no interest in learning), it is also disgusting. It is hard for me to imagine that we can’t do better than this, a situation that has existed now for the past 200 years.
When everyone owns the land, no one owns it. Who in their right mind will make any effort to develop or improve land that they don’t own? We can see the same conditions in America’s housing projects. Who will exercise due care of a property that will never belong to them?
As stated earlier, America doesn’t stand alone in this embarrassing situation. We find similar conditions in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, in South and Central America, and on the African continent.
Here’s the scary part: there are NO voices in the United States demanding an improvement to these deplorable conditions. All we hear from state and federal politicians is their constant yammering about alcoholism and cultural lethargy. Think about this. Can there ever be a more insulting, disrespectful argument than to criticize American Indians for conditions forced on them by federal and tribal governments?
Have you ever been to an Indian reservation? No? Here’s a word to describe it: bleak. Want a phrase? The land resembles a moonscape. On many US reservations, people are living in rat-infested homes without heat or reliable electricity. Beyond these abominable conditions, Indian homes are an unhealthy environment.
Does anyone care if people are living in uninsulated garden sheds, that hundreds suffer from respiratory disease, or that there is nothing the American Indian can do to improve their condition? Many of these Indians live 20 or more miles from the nearest stop n’ rob and have no reliable transportation.
Someone in Canada is trying to do better, though. I read recently that a Canadian Indian named Manny Jules has been vocal about these issues. Mr. Jules is a former Chief of the Kamloops tribe in British Columbia. He explains the situation in this way:
“Markets haven’t been allowed to operate in reserve lands. We’ve been legislated out of the economy. When you don’t have individual property rights, you can’t build, you can’t be bonded, you can’t pass on wealth. A lot of small businesses never get started because people can’t leverage property to raise funds.”
Mr. Jules and others appear successful in advancing property rights for Canadian Indians. His interest is in the plight of Canadian Indians, so I’m not sure how such a proposal would work for Indians living in the United States —but to these under-informed ears, Mr. Jules’ ideas seem sound. In Canada, someone is finally doing something about the deplorable conditions on Indian reservations. Why not here in the United States?
In the United States, Indian Reservations are managed directly by the federal government. That’s probably the first problem to address. Do we need a Bureau of Indian Affairs in the 21st Century? Indian reservations are semi-sovereign entities. State laws do not apply to Indian reservations —unless, or until tribal councils make reservation laws compatible to those of the state in which they are located.
Many federal agencies also have no jurisdiction on Indian reservations. So, if Indian reservations are mostly controlled by federally recognized tribal councils, why haven’t these governing Indians improved the lives of their people? Apparently, white politicians do not own a monopoly on corruption; this could help to explain both the deplorable conditions on Indian lands and a lack of interest in doing something about it. Consider also:
- Land privatization would be the un-doing of the Bureau of Indian Affairs
- Tribal councils aren’t enthusiastic about giving up their power of patronage. Currently, tribal leaders are given around $2.5 billion annually to spend —as they see fit. This is a powerful incentive do leave things the way they are.
- The word casino is just another way to spell corruption.
- There are as many opinions as there are tribal councils. I expect that tribal council meetings are as interesting as school board meetings, a guarantee that few people attend them. Fait accompli…
- Tribal legal structures do not favor entrepreneurial investment. If investors do not have the confidence that they’ll receive a fair hearing in any dispute, they won’t risk making investments.
- In 2020, there are few Indian traditions more revered and protected than dependency. Every member of a federally recognized tribe receives money from the U. S. government. According to one prominent Indian (a Crow), “We don’t understand business. After 10-15 generations of not being involved in business, we don’t care about it. Besides, capitalism threatens our identity, our traditions. Successful Indians have “sold out” to the white eyes; we shun such people. No, the thing for us to do is promote our culture of malaise … ‘the tribe will take care of us.’ We accept the myth of communalism. We don’t value education … it’s a white trick, so we resist it.”
If it were up to me, I’d privatize these communal lands. I would make it restrictive privatization, however. Something on the order of Home Owners Associations and Over-55 communities because I would want this land to remain in the hands of persons who are registered members of a federally recognized tribe.
I would issue a clear title to the land where reservation Indians currently live. I would give these people ten years of tax-free property; after that, they would be assessed a property tax to help pay for improvements to infrastructure, schools, hospitals/clinics, and police/rescue agencies.
This would encourage Indian-owned financial institutions, such as banks and credit unions, to service the economic needs of land-owning Indians. It would be a good thing for Indians to be able to borrow money for land improvements, such as building permanent homes, digging wells, agricultural pursuits.
I’ve learned that debt isn’t always a bad thing —particularly when it creates the impetus to leave the house each morning and work for a living … as opposed to staying home and remaining reliant on the government for your scrambled eggs and bottle of wine.
We taught the Indians how to become dependent and lazy. Now we must teach them a different lesson; hard work puts food on the table, it’s preferred to starvation, it bolsters our sense of accomplishment and self-esteem. Easy to say —I know. We also must make it easier for small businesses to operate on Indian lands so that they in turn can offer jobs to their own people.
Well, I’m done rambling. I admit that what I know about tribal law would fit inside a thimble, but what I do know is that whatever the Bureau of Indian Affairs has been doing for the past 150 years, whatever the tribal governments have been doing (beyond constructing casinos) —it isn’t working. In any case, a good look inside the US Indian Reservation system tells us all we need to know about socialism and communism, doesn’t it?
Isn’t it time to bring this sad American Indian story to a close?