In case you missed it in the papers, the federal deficit has recently risen by another $455 million dollars. A federal judge has determined that a class of Native Americans who has sued the government for funds due them should receive this amount. I’m certain this will not be the final figure. There is certain to be an appeal. Incidentally, this figure is a fraction of the $6 billion dollar settlement that had been proposed. To pay off the more conservative amount, Americans will still have to commit resources for years to come – or perhaps forgo a Tomahawk jet or two.
The government has only itself to blame here. U.S. law treats Native Americans as wards of the State. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, through its agents, bore the task of overseeing the Indians and exercising legal power over them. First the Indians were “resettled” – that is, their land was taken from them and they were forced to move to foreign locations, which often unraveled the whole fabric of their lives. If you are a nomadic people, how do you become farmers overnight? If your social practices are structured around migrations, how do you reorganize when suddenly tied to one place? Likewise, if yours is a fishing culture, how do you cook without seafood? Native American nations reeled at readjusting after their forced relocations. Some Indians were strong-armed onto reservations, which were frequently located in scrubby, desertic, or unfertile places where they had no hope of raising food to feed themselves and where there was no industry to provide employment. There, and on their own tribal lands, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) dictated much of their lives. Efforts to “Americanize” the Indians led to mandatory education at boarding schools that taught Native Americans to follow white cultural habits. Those who remained at home were taught in schools by missionaries or white agents who forbade them from speaking their native languages or studying traditional curricula. Schools were “English-only” and they taught what the government approved in order to “civilize” Native American children.
Also, the government foisted its own laws onto the tribal societies. When colonists first came to this country, they made treaties with the Indians as if they were foreign powers like the French or Germans. U.S. courts in the 19th century, however, determined that these were “domestic nations,” covered by the umbrella of federalism. By the end of the 19th century, the courts had expanded the federal government’s power over the Indian nations such that their own law became essentially meaningless. Forced assimilation went on unabated. Ironically, Native Americans weren’t even granted citizenship until well after these programs decimated their societies. Until 1924, they were unrecognized aliens in their own land, and even after they gained citizenship then, they remained unconnected to American society at large. In 1887, the Dawes Severalty Act had split their communal societies into individual landownerships. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 repealed Dawes many years later, but opponents of returning self-government to the Indians undermined that law. During the 1950’s (the heyday of religious boosterism that gave us anti-communism, prayer in school, and added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance), Congressional legislation undermined Indian sovereignty. After World War II, Native Americans, like black civil rights activists, began demanding autonomy and an end to their second-class status. They occupied Alcatraz, Wounded Knee, and the BIA building in Washington, D.C. In response to the “Red Power” movement, Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination Act in 1975, which returned some control over education and social programs to the Indian nations.
Poverty, unfortunately, still plagues Native American societies though. The majority of the poorest counties in the country are home to Indian communities. Unemployment among Native Americans is well above the national average, and many of these areas still lack indoor plumbing and utility services. Congress’ solution to this plague was to pass a law in 1988 allowing the tribes to operate casinos and organize gambling activities. The helping hand out of poverty is attached to the arm of a slot machine.
The Indian nations would not be dependent upon the moral degeneration of American citizens, however, if the BIA and the government had done right by these “wards” and not deprived them of monies owed. When oil and other resources were discovered on Indian properties, the BIA was responsible for managing the royalties due the landowners (Indians). The justification for this trusteeship was a pejorative assumption that Native Americans were not knowledgeable enough in financial matters and needed someone to manage their funds for them. What ultimately happened, however, was that BIA agents and the government robbed the Indians blind. They did not receive their full royalties, and now a group of them has come to claim their accounts. It’s their money. It always was. The government and agents helped themselves to it, and now the I.O.U. is due. I expect this is only the first such class action. There are more injured parties out there. I wonder what kind of superpower we will be if there’s a run on the bank. When you pay your taxes next, bear this in mind: you are making restitution for years and years of mismanagement and theft. God bless America.