The year 1928 saw the release of the so-called Meriam Report, the first comprehensive overview of U.S. Indian policy since the 1850s. The 800 pages of findings were so grim that they spurred a burst of reform in the early 1930s.
More than 80 years later, have things gotten better? If one looks at the usual standards and measures of material well-being that are often used in the West, the answer is assuredly no.
Even among the major U.S. ethnic groups, who have traditionally lagged whites in all standards of living, Indians rank near or at the bottom. The dismal socioeconomic indicators are many—lack of education, poor college graduation rates, high poverty, too much unemployment, little wealth, poor health and short life spans.
The general lack of well-being on Indian reservations has been around as long as the reservations themselves. The poor living conditions have contributed to a great amount of stress in Indian country, as shown by high rates of suicide, domestic abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction and violent crime. No wonder Indian communities are widely dissatisfied with the federal government’s trust responsibility to look after tribal communities and tribal members.
An important part of the current policy involves self-determination. Tribal governments have been permitted many options, among them the ability to subcontract and manage reservation service delivery, as well as accessing a wide variety of aid programs and, in general, being less controlled by and dependent on the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The process began with the Great Society of the 1960s, put forth by the White House and supported by Congress. Some old-time tribal chairs recall that the 1970s under President Richard Nixon were the best times for building tribal government. In one form or another, these efforts have continued to the present day.
However, ever since the early 1980s, budget cuts and federal constraints have greatly inhibited the realization of acceptable well-being for most tribal communities and members. Such measures as the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975—which enable tribal governments and tribal organizations to assume management of some federal programs and services for delivery to tribal communities—have proved insufficient.
And the funds and rules and regulations created by Congress and bureaucratic agencies that were designed to lift poor people out of poverty and into self-sufficiency within mainstream America have often entailed a surrender of tribal identity. While Indian communities welcome government aid, many are not willing to surrender their identity in the process. Indeed, the Indian led movement of the 1960s to oppose termination was aimed at accepting full American citizenship and participation, but not at the price of tribal government and community heritage.
At best, the answer to the question of whether Indian policy has focused on improving the lives of its ostensible beneficiaries is a qualified yes. Ever since the original Trade and Intercourse Acts of 1790, much of this country’s Indian policy has been well intentioned. But those intentions have been primarily defined by and through the eyes of U.S. society.
And those intentions have been inherently assimilationist. In general, U.S. policymakers have thought Indians would do much better, and the nation would greatly benefit, if they emulated their fellow citizens and participated in U.S. market, political and cultural relations. Reservations were never designed to provide sustainable economies and opportunities to Indian nations.
Yet the biggest successes in Indian policy in recent decades—such as gaming, denial of and restoration from termination, cultural persistence, international recognition, and tribal political and legal consciousness—have arisen not from Washington, but from the hearts and actions of tribal people and nations. The strong emphasis on assimilation continues to box Indian people into institutions and activities they do not control and to which they have not granted cultural or political consent.
As long as this remains the preferred solution to the “indigenous problem” then tribal nations and central governments will continue to clash, and Indigenous Peoples will remain trapped in social and economic misery.