Book Review: The New Trail of Tears by Naomi Schaefer Riley

Life is very bad on our American Indian reservations.

People on the reservations experience rates of corruption, unemployment, depression, drug addiction, sexual assault and child abuse that are as high or higher than any other place in the nation.

But why?

Those with overly simplistic views of American Indians tend to oversimplify in one of two ways: your average American Indian is seen either as Wise Noble Victim, or Worthless Lazy Drunk. My instincts have always put me in the Wise Noble Victim camp, but I recognize that neither of these oversimplifications explains conditions on the rez. American Indians are people, which means they are sinful but not worthless. As Schaefer Riley puts it, “Indians, just like all people, respond to the economic incentives and political conditions around them” (page 178).

I have occasionally spoken with people who seem to resent all that American Indians receive from the government. Tribal governments are “sovereign.” Tribes have the right to operate casinos on their land (in most states no one else can), and in many cases, tribal governments or even individuals receive direct payments of federal dollars. None of this is false, but what has been the effect of it? It has not led to a cushy life for tribe members; quite the opposite.

The Incentives

Here’s my quick summary of the “economic incentives and political conditions” created by the way the federal government has handled the tribes:

  • Law enforcement on the rez is a nightmare. Since Indians are not considered as being under the jurisdiction of the state in which they live, if there is a serious crime, it is considered a federal crime, and you could have three or four agencies involved. “He became especially concerned ‘with the lack of coordination between the tribal police and the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the FBI and the Justice Department.'” (page 164) Often, other law enforcement agencies defer to the tribal police, who often, because of nepotism, don’t prosecute. This creates a lawless situation on the rez, with high crime. It gives victims the impression that nothing will be done.
  • It is difficult for Indians to own land; or, if they happen to own some, to develop or sell it. Most land is not individually owned, but belongs to the tribe. A combination of tribal politics, environmental concerns, and federal red tape tends to block any attempts at development. This means that it is very hard to create or find jobs on the reservation … except jobs in tribal government.
  • While casinos provide some jobs, the linking of the casinos with tribal membership has introduced all kinds of corruption. Some tribal governments run their casinos essentially as cartels. The effect is that tribal membership is “commodified.” A common political move against a rival would be to get them declared no longer a member of the tribe.
  • Schools on the rez tend to be as bad as the worst inner-city schools. Schaefer Riley profiles a few schools that have bucked this trend, at least for a few years. One is a Catholic school. There are also Teach for American volunteers who are very motivated to give Indian kids a better education. But these people are usually met with mistrust and actively undermined or driven out because they are outsiders and because of the bad experiences that the older generation had with residential schools trying to forcibly assimilate them.
  • While it is important for Indian kids to learn about their traditional language and culture, “this is not a good first step.” Schaefer Riley points out that those tribes that have done the most to preserve their language and culture are those that have done the best economically. When no longer just struggling to survive, they use the money and the energy they now have to create museums and cultural centers.

In short, massive amounts of government money and regulations have had the same effects on the Indian reservations that they always have elsewhere. The red tape is at least tripled compared to the red tape faced by other Americans, which pretty much brings any kind of enterprise to a grinding halt. The infusion of government money through the tribal government incentivizes corruption. The lack of private property and actual employment makes people depressed. The white guilt (and the red tape) have made a lost cause of law enforcement.

Possible Solutions

Schaefer Riley ends with a call for American Indians to be treated like all other American citizens. She points out that American Indians have had very high rates of serving in the military.

Indeed, despite centuries of broken promises from the federal government, despite the bitterness that often pervades Indian communities, and despite years of being told by their own leaders and by Washington’s that they must remain a people apart, American Indians largely see themselves as Americans.

pp. 175 – 176

There has to be a way to ensure that Indian crime victims have the same rights under law as other crime victims … that Indians can own land and start businesses as individuals, not just as members of the tribe … that Indian families have access to a choice of schools that will prepare their kids to succeed. It has been suggested that the larger reservations be made into their own states. Then the people who live there would be considered full citizens who happen to reside in that state. This might not be feasible politically (although I think it would be really cool), but there are a few bands in Canada who are trying to get their tribal lands incorporated as cities. This would allow them to do development that they can’t do now, and the tribal leaders would be like city governments. Failing all this, a good step would be to drastically reform (or, ideally, eliminate) the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is known for being the one of the most corrupt and inefficient government agencies in a field where the competition is stiff.

I sincerely hope that Schaefer Riley’s book catalyzes a move in this direction. It should, of course, be read by anyone with the slightest interest in American Indians’ living conditions in these modern times. But it should also be read by anyone who is concerned about the effect of government micromanaging of citizens’ lives.

A Cautionary Tale

I see at least three ways in which the federal government’s treatment of Indians serves as a sample of what it would like to do with all citizens:

  • It’s coming from good – or at least utopian – intentions. In the case of the Indians, many people feel that the government owes them lots and lots of money and special rights because of the ways that same government mistreated them in the past. (Turns out, the money and “rights” are a new kind of mistreatment.) There is also an assumption that less development is better, because we don’t want to impact the environment at all. In the same way, there is a strong movement to put all citizens in the same position: “You will own nothing, and you will be happy.” Putting the most charitable interpretation on it, the idealists believe that this would bring about a utopia in which everyone has a high (but more importantly, “equal”) standard of living … there is no family loyalty or private property to cause conflicts … and everyone’s lifestyle is perfectly “green.”
  • It features forced assimilation. Schaefer Riley points out that Indians are in fact assimilating culturally to the United States, but forced assimilation is a very different story. A few generations ago, Indian children were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to boarding schools where they were not allowed to speak their own language. This idea that, if the parents don’t share the government’s value system, the government has a right to separate children from their parents and re-educate them, has not died away. The idealists have not yet gained enough power to practice forced assimilation on all American children, but they are trying.
  • It is collectivist. The degree to which Indians have been denied private property and individual initiative is the exact degree to which they have been brought to poverty and despair. In their case, this has been brought about partly from a sort of Rousseauian “noble-savage” myth about the way the Indians lived before Columbus (spoiler: they weren’t collectivists then either). In the case of other Americans, there has been an attempt to demonize private property, small business, and intact families as the problem with humanity. In fact, these things are key to human flourishing. Sin certainly shows up in them, but that is because it is present in human nature and shows up in whatever humans do.

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