Hell has officially frozen over when I rise to defend the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The occasion is a question raised by the right libertarian fringe in the person of John Stossel. “Why,” Stossel asked, “is there a Bureau of Indian Affairs? There is no Bureau of Puerto Rican Affairs or Black Affairs or Irish Affairs. And no group in America has been more helped by the government than the American Indians, because we have the treaties, we stole their land. But 200 years later, no group does worse.”
He got that last thing right, but let’s think about the “help” we have gotten.
There was exile of all Indians to the west side of the Mississippi for our own protection, wild people sent off to live in a wild land, never mind that many of the tribes force marched to Indian Territory had more education and better incomes than the colonists who took over their property.
There were also reservations, where we could live on government rations and under armed guard, except for the children, who were taken away for their own good and taught the science of racial inferiority.
Those who resisted being helped? They wanted us dead. Then those terrible pictures of the massacre at Wounded Knee ended that policy.
If containment and killing were off the table, the next possibility was forced assimilation. Tribal recognition would be “terminated” and the residents of reservations would be “relocated.” To say that termination and relocation worked out well for Indians would be like saying Stossel’s employer, Fox News, is fair and balanced.
In 1928, the Merriam Report documented the dire condition of Indian America. A government report twenty years later sent me to the dictionary to understand the word “inanition” as a cause of death.
What do these disasters for Indians have in common? Except for physical extermination, they were all undertaken for high-minded motives, to help the poor savages.
If there were no Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Department of the Interior, Indians would indeed be in the eyes of the US government just another special pleading ethnic group, a collection of individuals with individual rights.
As Vine Deloria, Jr. wrote back in 1969, while the black civil rights movement swirled around us, blacks have a legitimate demand for integration but Indians have a legitimate demand for separation. We are tribal peoples. If we wish to become individuals rather than part of our people, we always have the choice of severing tribal relations and taking ourselves out of the category the Constitution called “Indians not taxed.”
Most of us are now taxed, in some cases double taxed. Leaving the reservation no longer requires the permission of the Indian agent. The success of the civil rights laws that blacks fought for, and died for, to protect us is appreciated and honored, but their success does not protect us from the John Stossels of the world.
Can Indians be capitalists? Sure. There are many wealthy individual Indians. Can Indians be socialist capitalists? Sure. Look at the Mississippi Choctaws; the Ho-Chunks; the same Oneida Nation that publishes this magazine.
Can Indians screw up? Big time. Look at casino wealth. In some nations, every child is born with guaranteed access to as much education as she can absorb and every tribal citizen who wants a job may have one. In others, the seed corn goes to per capita payments, the kids get a new truck at age eighteen, and relatives are disenrolled to make bigger payments for a few greedheads.
You know what, Stossel? We’re entitled to make our own errors. We’ve suffered enough from yours.
If there were no BIA, there would be no way for our governments to deal with the US government, unless Congress would like to take on the work. Our nations span this continent with different languages, different cultures, different degrees of economic development, and—most importantly—different aspirations.
The prosperity of this country is built on lands dispossessed from Indians at a time when land directly represented life-supporting resources. The treaties we keep waving in your face were the legal fig leaves covering those dispossessions. With some exceptions, we are not demanding the land back, but just to be left alone on what land we have left.
Does the government owe Indians a living forever? No, not as individuals. Like the descendents of slaves, there comes a time when we have to compete with you as individuals. Our tribal nations are a different matter entirely. Agreements between Nations demand to be honored in order for there to exist honor, and they must be renewed—polished if you will.
What is fair, Mr. Stossel, to a people forced to live upon lands inadequate to support them? At the time of these transactions, the whole idea was to force dependence on the Native governments, but now you complain that we are dependent.
You express the opinion that we should be allowed to mortgage reservation land to develop it. If we can’t pay, what then? Before you run your mouth about pledging our land for cash, see if you can make a computer give you a graphic of Indian land within the US over time. Watch the incredible shrinking land base.
The question is not why the Bureau of Indian Affairs but why not a Bureau of Crackpot White People Trying to Help Indians Affairs? We would be better off? If we would be, then hell would truly have frozen over.
Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He is a columnist for Indian Country Today. He lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at email@example.com.