John Stossel stirred up controversy recently for his comments about the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Many American Indians are not happy with the performance of the BIA. It has a long history of mismanagement of American Indian Tribal and individual resources.
I am not defending the BIA; I am here to shed some light on why the BIA is here. Stossel was misleading his viewers into thinking the BIA was no longer useful because it is old. Mr. Stossel, if someone stole your home and land 200 years ago their family would be living there and you and your family wouldn’t. End of story.
But if you take control of someone’s land through an agreement, then it doesn’t matter if it has been 200 years, if the terms are still in effect and both parties have agreed to them. Let’s look at some of these agreements between the United States and American Indians in general.
Not all had to do with land. Some agreements had to do with mutual understandings and respect for one another’s territory. Many older agreements favored Indian tribes. In the ebb and flow of power the United States was not always the stronger of the two parties.
For instance, Mr. Stossel, if it had not been for the Oneida Indians and their helping George Washington at Valley Forge you would most likely be a Canadian today. Without the Oneidas most experts agree General Washington would have surely lost at Valley Forge and the United States as you know it would never have existed. You can read the Continental Congress’s letter of appreciation to the Oneida Nation and see for yourself. America was a fledgling nation who owed the Oneida their gratitude, friendship and protection forever.
What makes American Indians different from Puerto Ricans, blacks or Germans you ask? It’s not just the fact that American Indians were the original inhabitants of America. It is also the fact that the United States began making deals with them as nations. Those deals are called treaties. In international law, treaties can exist only between sovereigns, meaning when the United States made a treaty with an American Indian tribe they were recognizing those peoples as sovereigns. Contrary to your misguided opinion, these treaties aren’t unique to America—Babylon was making them with Egypt thousands of years ago.
What weight do treaties carry in international law? They are the law of the land, the track record and credibility of a nation. When the Soviet Union first sat at the table with America to control nuclear weapons for the SALT I Treaty, the USSR placed more than 300 treaties America had made with American Indians on the table as a symbolic gesture. Their chief negotiator told the American delegation, led by Henry Kissinger, in effect, In all of these treaties America has broken all of them to some degree or another. Now why should the Soviet Union think you will honor the treaty you are proposing to make with us now?
America made agreements with American Indians that America would have a responsibility to American Indians for vast amounts of lands and resources in trade. American Indians trusted the written word of America. From the American Indian point of view, that is what the trust responsibility means and when it was formed.
The primary role of the Bureau of Indian Affairs has been to be an advocate for the performance and regulation of those agreements and countless laws passed by Congress for the protection, administration and facilitation of those agreements. This oversight applies not to just the tribes but also to the accountability of the United States through Congress itself. The BIA has also been a voice to remind the United States through Congress of the trust responsibility that America has to American Indians. It should also be reminding people like you, Mr. Stossel, whose ignorance can only damage America’s credibility and international standing. Any corruption and mismanagement is not the fault of American Indians. Frankly, bad bureaucracy has hurt us greatly (as in the recent Cobell fiasco).
More and more tribes are becoming self-governing when money previously mismanaged by the BIA is handled by tribes themselves. Agreements such as PL 93-638, the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, are not reached just because America feels like helping out “lo—the poor Indian.” These responsibilities carry legal and fiduciary costs that the BIA has the authority and responsibility to administer.
Mr. Stossel you need to feel more comfortable with this relationship because it is not going away anytime soon. American Indians still control about 20 percent of all American resources that have not been developed. We also fight for America, at a much higher rate than all other Americans! So we are America’s partner, and the BIA is America’s Watch Dog—whether you and I like it or not.
Dan C. Jones is the vice chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Affairs Commission and a former chairman of the Ponca Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma. He is also a traditional straight dancer, an author and a member of the Producers Guild of America as a filmmaker with numerous credits.