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.

Quote: American Indians are People

Nor is it just American pop culture that’s pervasive on reservations. For the most part, American Indians want to be a part of this country, and they see the markers of success in the same way that most other Americans do. They want their children to be well-educated and have the opportunity to choose the best life path for themselves — to make enough money and pursue fulfilling jobs while retaining strong family and community ties and holding close to the traditions of their ancestors.

The New Trail of Tears, by Naomi Schaefer Riley, p. 176

This Made Me Laugh

Babylon Bee: “Time-traveling Mayan priest horrified by American’s abortion numbers

I guess I have a dark sense of humor.

And an interest in the Mayans.

For one thing, I like the guy’s name: High Priest Ahua Ch’Aooah. You have to raise your eyebrows and increase your volume slightly on the Ch‘A-ooah part.

Secondly, I love it that he immediately understands the NARAL employees’ explanation that “baby killing helped them amass lots of gold and that fewer babies on the planet would help stop the weather from getting worse.” I guess the more that child-sacrificing pagan rites change, the more they stay the same.

I’m Painting a Fence

Like, painting a picture of a fence.

Get it?

Here’s the fence that was the inspiration for the painting. See how its flaws show up so picturesquely against the light-colored wheat field in the background? I thought I could do a painting of this fence and I could probably manage to sell it, since it’s the type of decorative farm-themed art that you see for sale in stores. My son, who has been selling his paintings of Galaxy Rabbit at town festivals, has inspired me to become more enterprising.

This is, by the way, actually a terrific photo showing how beautiful our farm country can be. You’ve got the irrigation wheel line in the wheat field behind the fence, the windbreak trees, the mountains in the distance, and look! There’s even a pickup on the road!

I started by covering a long, skinny canvas in yellow-green paint (which is the color the wheat field was when I first got the idea, although by the time I took the photo above, it had ripened some more).

Then I started doing the shapes of the boards. I ran out of brown-grey paint and had to mix another batch, which resulted in the boards on the right being a darker color, but that’s OK because the contrast with the dark boards and bright background was actually what I was going for. I added some smears of the darker color on the lighter boards to suggest shadows.

Next I mixed some dark grey and used a stiff, dry brush to simulate wood grain.

Finally, I added the crosspiece, put wood grain on it, and used light grey paint diluted with water to make the whole thing look a bit sun-bleached. The painting looks good in my dining room — especially with the model just a few feet away out the window — but I sure hope it sells!

Quote from Orson Scott Card

He could see where the other kids were looking, but he had no idea what they were thinking. He never knew what anybody was thinking. Sometimes not even himself, especially when he caught himself thinking some thought that retreated out of his head the moment he realized he was thinking it.

Duplex, by Orson Scott Card, p. 40

Relatable?

Character Art

Earlier this summer, I held a book signing event. I wanted to have something to offer attendees besides just my books and a smile, so I made some character art. It was not as popular as anticipated, but here it is for you to enjoy. You can buy hard copies of any of these sketches from me directly, or I will mail you one for free if you review one of my books on Goodreads or Amazon.

You can also see this art, along with some landscape art, on my recently added Art page.

Nimri, antihero of The Long Guest
This is Klee, the main character of my third book, The Great Snake
Klee’s father, Endu, who was mauled by a bear in The Strange Land
This is Klee’s brother, Ikash. The picture is called “Don’t Eat My Family.” This exact scene never occurs in the books, but this is his basic attitude throughout The Great Snake.
A younger Ikash and his mother, Sari, having a cup of herbal tea
Jabed, older brother to Ikash and Klee, with his wife Magya. I didn’t add their passel of kids, as that would have taken many more hours of sketching.

The Big Five Personality Traits … and My Characters

I’ve posted before about the “Big Five” personality traits. Though I like personality typologies such as the MBTI, almost all of them come from a pre-existing theory the researchers have and then seek to impose on the data. The Big Five are the closest thing we have to traits that emerged from almost pure data … that is, from casting a very wide net (in this case over adjectives used to describe people), and then seeing if those adjectives “clumped” around certain traits, and then eventually finding biochemical analogues to these traits in the brain. So says Jordan Peterson.

Since the Daily Wire made all of Jordan Peterson’s old materials available on their web site, I’ve been watching my way through a psychology class he taught about the Big Five. His lectures are always so rich and insightful, even if they do get a bit Jung-y, that they never fail to fire my imagination. And the traits never fail to remind us of people we know who are particularly low or high in each of them. Today, I thought it would be fun to name a character from my series who exemplifies each of these traits. All the technical information about these traits in the paragraphs below comes from my recent viewing of Peterson’s lectures.

Extraversion

Extraversion, according to Peterson’s lectures, basically means the person has a very active incentive/reward system in the brain. The basic impulse of extraversion is “There’s a good thing … I’m going to go and get it.”

Nimri (later, Nirri), the main character in The Long Guest, is high in extraversion. Though paraplegic and living basically as a prisoner of people he can’t communicate with, he remains as active as he can, doing arm exercises, keeping a journal, and continually seeking to expand his sphere of activity and influence as much as possible.

Neuroticism

Neuroticism is the technical term for “high sensitivity to negative emotion.” In Peterson’s evolutionary terms, this is the brain system that keeps prey animals alert and hence alive. Statistically, women tend to be higher than men in neuroticism. There are obvious reasons for this: they need to be hair-trigger sensitive to the distress of their babies, and in fact, the world is a more dangerous place for a woman, especially if she is caring for an infant.

However, in my books, Exhibit A for neuroticism is a man. Enmer is 30 years old when an apocalypse hits his society. His father is killed, and Enmer becomes the new head of the family. He feels the burden of keeping them safe very keenly, and when subsequent disasters hit the family, Enmer enters a deep depression with which he will struggle for years.

Enmer is also high in conscientiousness, but we have another character to exemplify that for us.

Conscientiousness

Conscientiousness is made up of two sub-traits: industriousness and orderliness. Industrious people feel bad if they are not working on some task. The evolutionary (or design) usefulness of this trait to the community is obvious. Orderly people like things to be in neat, known categories. This plays on the fear system in the brain, where the unknown or chaotic constitutes a threat.

Though it might seem that being very conscientious would be a miserable experience, under normal circumstances conscientious people have lower levels of anxiety than less conscientious people. Peterson’s theory is that this is because conscientious people tend to order their environment well, which reduces levels of anxiety compared to people who live in a disordered environment (even if they think they like it). Conscientiousness is also a good predictor of overall life success.

Hur is a very conscientious character. He is small, fair-haired, and not very prepossessing, and he starts the series as a slave in Enmer’s household. But he has all kinds of skills, including being a good shot with a bow and knowing how to make bows and arrows. He takes advantage of the apocalypse to demand his freedom and soon becomes the tribe’s go-to guy for both hunting and security. Eventually, he becomes tribal cheif.

Agreeableness

Agreeable people like to please other people and keep relationships good. In any given situation, they will not necessarily ask themselves what they want (or even, in some cases, be aware of it), but will just do what other people want them to do. Statistically, women tend to be higher than men in agreeableness. Being very agreeable is a necessity when you are caring for an infant, as the infant’s needs must always take priority over your own. It does not, Peterson points out, prepare you well to function in an out-of-the-home work environment. You tend to get taken advantage of.

Sari, one of the main characters in The Strange Land, is an agreeable wife and mother. She spends years living with an abusive husband, trying to keep the household running and to mother her children as best she can. When a crisis hits, she does not know how to ask for help and does not want to inconvenience others.

Openness (to new experiences)

Open people are adaptable. If there is a major crisis, you want some people who are high in openness around, as they will handle it better than someone who is very high, for example, in orderliness. Openness plus fluid intelligence is a good predictor of a person’s creative output.

Zillah, who is a main character throughout my entire series, is high in openness. She is the one who encourages the family to take in the injured foreigner Nimri when they stumble upon him as they are fleeing the Tower of Babel apocalypse. She adjusts to the new reality and accepts it far more quickly than Enmer, who never really comes to terms with it.

Though Zillah is not a “creative” person in the sense of producing visual art and music, she shows a great deal of creativity in the way she cares for her extended family, responding to crises, delivering babies, and bearing the brunt of caring for Nimri, including learning to speak with him. She becomes the tribe’s medicine woman and builds up a store of medical knowledge, and she is always on the lookout for someone who needs help.

Quote: “But it hasn’t.”

If there is a cultural problem [on American Indian reservations], it’s the culture of dependency that the federal government and the tribal governments have created. Whether it’s money from Washington to pay for housing or food or fuel costs, or whether it’s annuities coming from gaming endeavors, it has caused more problems than it has solved. And these funds haven’t done much to alleviate the suffering of individual Indians. Except for the wealthiest of the casino owners, most Indians still live in poverty, with little access to good education, health care, or jobs.

The leaders of Indian nations often mean well. They believe that more revenue will fix their schools, their homes, and even their families. But it hasn’t.

The New Trail of Tears, by Naomi Schaefer Riley, p. 179