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What Ails Indian Country

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What Ails Indian Country

Naomi Schaefer Riley chronicles a dysfunctional system and lays out a reform agenda. August 5, 2016
The Social Order
Politics and law

The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians, by Naomi Schaefer Riley (Encounter, 197 pp., $23.99)

Observing the plight of American Indians on his trip to the United States in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that Americans’ conduct “toward the natives . . . breathes the purest love of forms and legality.” Apparently, not much has changed. In The New Trail of Tears: How Washington is Destroying American Indians, Naomi Schaefer Riley argues that Indians, the poorest racial group in the United States today, struggle under a morass of federal laws and policies conceived in the nineteenth century.

Most of Riley’s book focuses on Indians living on reservations, the poorest of the poor. They exist in what seems like a time warp to the era before welfare reform, when adults received cash benefits with nothing expected in return. Alcoholism, teen pregnancy, and child endangerment are rampant in an environment resembling the developing world more than the United States. And even as conditions in some Third World countries have begun to improve, American Indians, living in places like the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, still lack indoor plumbing.

Indians live under a separate system of entitlements than other Americans. These benefits cover everything from welfare to water, doled out by bureaucrats at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington. At Pine Ridge, a reservation of 2.8 million acres, unemployment reaches about 80 percent. Those who do find work on reservations are employed almost exclusively in BIA-funded government jobs; part of their work is applying for more government grants. Washington politicians who represent Indian constituencies have an interest in keeping the money flowing.

On the reservations, Riley describes a centrally controlled, quasi-Soviet economy without private land ownership, capital, or incentive for labor. At Pine Ridge, she discovers that the motel has no coffee; the local coffee shop went out of business when it was unable to obtain BIA permission to advertise its existence with a road sign.  The nearest cup is a 40-mile drive away. A byzantine system of land ownership involving trusts rather than standard property rights strangles economic growth. The trusts make it nearly impossible to develop, sell, or mortgage property, to start businesses, or to pass on wealth.

Things aren’t much better north of the border. In Canada, the government has a “fiduciary responsibility” to what it calls “First Nations.” But the government is reluctant to allow the building of mines or other enterprises on reservation land because if people get hurt, they can sue. 

On U.S. reservations, some tribes exploit their sovereign-nation status with “loophole” businesses, such as tax-free gasoline or gambling casinos. Since 2002, the Seneca Nation of upstate New York has reaped $1 billion in casino profits, which it distributes in modest annuities to adult members. Yet the windfall has had decidedly mixed results and created or exacerbated problems, including gambling addictions and substance abuse. Young people often quickly blow through the lump sums they receive after turning 21. Financial education efforts haven’t proved successful.

Riley argues that loophole businesses are not a long-term economic solution to the tribes’ problems. Indians deserve genuine economic freedom, not just another source of checks. Reservation land is often rich in natural resources that go untapped because of onerous federal regulations. Tribes also don’t lack for human capital, though it, too, goes undeveloped, because schooling remains abysmal.

At the heart of the trouble are limitless welfarism and the bloated Washington agency—the BIA—with a vested interest in keeping it going. Riley proposes an ambitious agenda including education and land reform and beefed-up law enforcement. She also calls for greater transparency at the BIA. Shining a light under that bureaucratic hood will require real political will, but could yield surprising results. Shifting the entitlement model in Indian country away from chronic dependency would likely lead to other policy reforms that could help foster full Indian participation in the economy, improved education and access to capital, and  a host of rights—and obligations.

Riley’s eye-opening book should launch a national dialogue on the federal government’s dysfunctional relationship with Indian country. It’s a conversation whose time has come.

Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

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