Any man who thinks he can be happy and prosperous by letting the government take care of him, better take a close look at the American Indian. – Henry Ford
Using their portable forge, members of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery fabricated various iron implements and traded them to the Mandan and Hidatsa Indian tribes in what is now North Dakota, in exchange for corn, beans, squash and tobacco to sustain them during the winter of 1804-5. Several months and a thousand miles later the Corps was surprised to see that one of their implements, an axe, had preceded them.
So well-developed was the tribal economy that, every fall, a wide diversity of tribes, including Crees, Cheyennes, Assiniboines, Crows and Sioux, descended on the Mandan villages to trade meat products, horses and even musical instruments for Mandan corn. The entrepreneurial spirit that resulted in the development of trade routes extending thousands of miles surprised even Lewis and Clark.
The ideology of Progressivism, even before it adopted that name, however, has successfully turned that entrepreneurial spirit into one of dependency and despondency, from which tribes all across the nation, with precious few exceptions, still suffer today.
The genesis of that ideology sprang, surprisingly, from the newly-minted Constitution which, in Article I, Section 2, Clause, states: “Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states … excluding Indians…” and in Article I, Section 8: Congress shall have the power to regulate commerce … with the Indian tribes…”. This meant that Indian tribes were separate from the national government, the states and foreign nations. As Joseph Storey, an early and influential justice of the Supreme Court, wrote in his Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States:
There were Indians, also, in several, and probably in most, of the states at that period, who were not treated as citizens, and yet, who did not form a part of independent communities or tribes, exercising general sovereignty and powers of government within the boundaries of the states.
President George Washington formulated a policy designed to encourage the “civilizing” of those Indians which included the “promotion of experiments to civilize or improve Native American society.” Thus began the development of the “assimilation” thesis that was expanded by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall, in 1831 when he declared that the Indian tribes were “domestic dependent nations” whose “relation to the United States resembles that of a ward to his guardian.” This formed the foundation for policies between the national government and the tribes that initially attempted to assimilate them into white society and then later rejected that approach in favor of tribal sovereignty. As Andrew Boxer, writing in History Today, explained:
A guardian prepares his ward for adult independence, and so Marshall’s judgment implied that US policy should aim to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream US culture.
But a guardian also protects and nurtures a ward until adulthood is achieved, and therefore Marshall also suggests that the federal government has a special obligation to care for its Native American population. As a result, federal policy towards Native Americans has lurched back and forth…
Supreme Court cases over time have resulted in the development of three principles in regards to the American Indian:
– Tribal authority on Indian land is organic and is not granted by the states in which Indian lands are located;
– Congress has the ultimate authority in dealing with the Indian tribes; and
– The federal government has a “duty to protect” those tribes, which by implication gives it all the necessary authority to perform that duty.
With Washington’s invitation to “experiment” with ways to assimilate Indians into American society and Marshall’s tacit approval, the temptation to intervene and interfere with Indian tribes’ customs and cultures proved overwhelming. It also gave statists, later to be called Progressives, the opportunity to expand government beyond its constitutional bounds of protecting the lives and property of its citizens. As R. J. Pestritto, Shipley Professor of the American Constitution at Hillsdale College explained:
Progressives wanted a thorough transformation in America’s principles of government, from a government permanently dedicated to security individual liberty, to one whose ends and scope would change to take on any and all social and economic ills.
As the Indian Wars entered their final stages, Indians were being forced onto reservations, a policy which President Ulysses S. Grant applauded. In his State of the Union Speech in 1871 Grant announced his “peace policy” in which he exuded both praise for the policy along with a chilling warning:
The policy pursued toward the Indians has resulted favorably …
Many tribes of Indians have been induced to settle upon reservations, to cultivate the soil, to perform productive labor of various kinds, and to partially accept civilization.
They are being cared for in such a way, it is hoped, as to induce those still pursuing their old habits of life to embrace the only opportunity which is left to them to avoid extermination. (emphasis added)
In short, Grant’s “peace policy” was: assimilate or die.
Those concerned over the welfare of the Indians on their reservations began, in the early 1870’s, to call themselves the “Friends of the Indians.” They included Herbert Welsh who later counted among his friends and associates Progressives Teddy Roosevelt, future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis and Frederick Law Olmsted, the co-founder of the liberal magazine The Nation (which proclaims itself as “the flagship of the left”). Another “friend of the Indians” was Charles Painter, a Congregational minister and an abolitionist who favored ending the reservations and turning Indians into American citizens.
In addition, Richard Henry Pratt, an outspoken opponent to the reservation system and believer in assimilation, was a leader in the “Friends of the Indian” movement. Pratt took Washington’s advice and experimented in educating Native Americans, teaching them to reject their tribal culture and beliefs and adapt to “white society.” In the mid-1870’s he introduced classes in English, Christianity, art, guard duty and craftsmanship to several dozen Indians who had been captured at the end of the Red River War.
In 1879 he founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where Indian children were forcibly removed from their reservations and indoctrinated in classes designed to, as Pratt put it, “kill the Indian to save the man.” His school’s brutality, characterized by kidnappings and beatings of students caught speaking in their native language, eventually led to his forced retirement in 1904.
During its heyday, however, the “friends” impacted society mightily, basing its plans and policies on the assumed perfectibility of man if only his environment were changed. In 1882 the “friends” formed the Indian Rights Association (IRA) whose objective was to “bring about the complete civilization of the Indians and their admission to citizenship.” In addition to the efforts by Pratt to indoctrinate Indian children, the IRA opened an office in Washington, D.C. to lobby for progressive legislation.
Their crowning achievement, known variously as the Dawes Act of 1887 or the General Allotment Act, had several primary goals, including:
- Breaking up the tribes as social units
- Encouraging individual initiatives
- Encouraging those individuals to become farmers
- Dividing reservation land into separate small parcels
- Giving those parcels to individual Indians once they were deemed “competent”
- Selling any remaining reservation land to outsiders.
In her book The Dispossession of the American Indian, 1887-1934, author Janet McDonnell noted that such division went strongly against the Indian’s understanding of the land, that to them the land and earth were to be valued and cared for as they represented all the things that produced and sustained life: “it embodied their existence, identity and created an environment of belonging.” To keep from being “exterminated” however, the Indians succumbed to the Progressives’ pressure to see land as merely something to be owned, bought and developed, according to their worldview. If they were to be inducted into “civilized” society they would be forced to put aside their “uncivilized” beliefs and behaviors and become like the white man.
Specifically the Dawes Act parceled out reservation land by giving the head of a family 160 acres, a single individual 80 acres, and those under age 18 40 acres. In addition, the land wasn’t given in “fee simple” but was to be held in trust for 25 years at the end of which term the Indians were deemed “competent” to manage the land for themselves, provided he “has adopted the habits of civilized life,” according to the statute.
When Henry M. Teller, one of Colorado first two senators after statehood was granted in 1876 (and for whom Teller County is named), heard about the Dawes plan, he saw immediately the negative impact it would have on the Indians and the opportunity it would give to those outside the reservation:
[The Dawes plan would] despoil the Indians of their lands and make them vagabonds on the face of the earth…
The real aim [of the Dawes plan of “allotment”] was to get at the Indian lands and open them up to settlement [by outsiders].
The provisions for the apparent benefit of the Indians are but the pretext to get at his lands and occupy them…
If this were done in the name of Greed, it would be bad enough; but to do it in the name of Humanity … is infinitely worse.
As allotment proceeded, the impact as predicted by Taylor far exceeded his worst expectations. Because the plots were so small, even those that were productive weren’t large enough to sustain its owners. Because the owners didn’t really own the land nor could they sell it or trade it, much was left fallow. In addition much of reservation lands were arid and incapable, even in the hands of skilled farmers, of producing anything of value.
By 1900 reservation lands dwindled from 150 million acres to 78 million, and by 1934 were further reduced to about 50 million. One unforeseen consequence of the actions by the Progressive do-gooders was “fractionalization”: as the original owners of the parcels handed out under the Dawes Act died, their interests were passed on to their heirs. In 1922 the General Accounting Office (GAO) conducted an audit to see what impact such “fractionalization” was having. On the 12 reservations surveyed, the GAO discovered there were over a million owners of Indian reservation land which, if it were divided up among those owners, would give each owner less than one square foot of ground. For all intents and purposes, those parcels were worthless.
As the rolling disaster precipitated by the Dawes Act became more and more apparent, Congress passed the Burke Act in 1906 which, to the delight of the Progressives, gave nearly unlimited power to the executive branch – specifically the Secretary of the Interior – and in direct contravention of the restrictions noted in the Constitution, to speed up the allotment process so that Indians could take “fee simple” possession of their property immediately, provided they were “competent and capable of managing his or her affairs.” The ultimate liquidation of those parcels was virtually assured as they were not viable, but were also subject to taxation. As unpaid taxes piled up, much of the land was sold for back taxes, as anticipated (according to author Paul Robertson) by the Interior Department at the time.
Progressives became increasingly aware of the disaster and decided to change their intervention in the lives and culture of the unhappy Indians still remaining on what was left of the reservations. Accordingly a left-wing think tank, the Institute for Government Research (later known as the Brookings Institute), with monies provided by the Rockefeller Foundation, issued its 847-page Meriam Report, named for the director of the research team, Lewis Meriam.
Meriam had all the proper credentials: degrees from Harvard University, George Washington University and Brookings, and years of government service working on the Indian “problem.” In general the report found that the Dawes and Burke Acts had failed miserably in their intended purpose (assimilating the American Indian into American culture) while providing the opportunity for graft and corruption in the agencies assigned to enforcing them.
The report stated that “the health of the Indians compared with that of the general population is bad” and “the income of the typical Indian family is low and the earned income extremely low.” The schools provided poor diets, were overcrowded and did not provide adequate medical services. Said the report: “The survey staff finds itself obligated to say frankly and unequivocally that the provisions for the care of the Indian children in boarding schools are grossly inadequate.”
Working behind the scenes and closely with Meriam was another Progressive, one John Collier. Collier saw the Dawes Act for what it was: an unmitigated failure for the American Indian and for the Progressive ideology, and decided that a change in policy was called for: the institution of the policy of “tribal sovereignty.” The first thing that was needed was more legislation and in 1934 Collier got his wish: passage under the Roosevelt administration of the Indian Reorganization Act, with himself in charge as Commissioner of Indian Affairs (now called the Bureau of Indian Affairs). Known colloquially as the “Indian New Deal” the act allowed Collier to busy himself with all manner of welfare state projects, funded with taxpayer monies, employing Indian workers in various make-work schemes. The allocation scheme under the Dawes Act was slowed but not eliminated, and some small part of reservation lands that had been sold to outsiders was returned to some tribes.
Following the end of the Second World War, Congress began to address the continuing decimation of the Indian population and issued House Concurrent Resolution 108 in 1953 which stated:
Whereas it is the policy of Congress, as rapidly as possible, to make the Indians within the territorial limits of the United States subject to the same laws and entitled to the same privileges and responsibilities as are applicable to other citizens of the United States, to end their status as wards of the United States, and to grant them all of the rights a prerogatives pertaining to American citizenship.
This resolution terminated the relationships the government had established with most of the tribes, leaving them to fend for themselves without the government assistance to which they had grown accustomed. One of those most drastically and negatively affected was the Menominee Tribe in Wisconsin. The Menominee people had no tribal hospitals or clinics. The tribal hospital at Keshena was closed when it failed to meet state standards, and the county lacked funds to restore it. The tribe had three times the infant mortality rate as the rest of the state and 90 percent of Menominee children needed dental care but couldn’t get it.
Activists Ada Deer and James White worked to reestablish federal funding which resulted in the Menominee Restoration Act which President Nixon signed into law in 1973. The Menominees now have their own constitution along with the restoration of federal funding for necessary services.
Following that, Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 which did nothing but cement into place continued federal funding to the tribes but through block grants to tribal governments instead of handouts by various federal agencies: a distinction without a difference.
Today American Indians remain the poorest of the poor. The rate of homes without electricity on reservations is ten times the national average. One fifth of reservation households lack running water, compared to just one percent of households nationwide. One half of Navajo and Hopi Reservation residents lack indoor plumbing. One out of five lack basic kitchen facilities such as running water, a range or a refrigerator. More than half of reservation households have no telephone service and fewer than 10 percent have internet access. Cell phones are essentially useless without cell towers on most reservations. Of all ethnic groups American Indians have the highest rate of suicide, the highest rate of teenage pregnancy and the lowest life expectancy.
The worst of the worst is the Pine Ridge Reservation in Allen, South Dakota, not far from where Lewis and Clark first discovered the independence and thriving entrepreneurial spirit of the American Indians before the Progressives got involved. Income on Pine Ridge is the lowest in the nation, at $1,539 per person per year. 80% of the residents are unemployed. Half of them live below the poverty level. Infant mortality there is 5 times the national average. The death rate due to diabetes is 3 times higher than the national average. Life expectancy as of 2007 was 48 for males and 52 for females.
This is the progress under Progressivism.
And yet, a few tribes flourish even under such oppressive circumstances. Consider the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) in northwest Montana who have been allowed to oversee forests rich in pine, larch and Douglas fir. They manage forests alongside the National Forest Service (NFS) and, according to an encouraging study done by Alison Berry of the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), they outperform the NFS in nearly every statistical category because “they have a vested interest in the continuing vitality of their natural resources”, said Berry. She quotes tribal forest manager Jim Durglo:
Our forest [notice, please, the ownership and pride underlying the use of that word “our”] is a vital part of everyday tribal life. Timber production, non-timber forest products and grazing provide jobs and income for tribal members and enhance the economic life of surrounding communities.
As for the NFS, consider what Jim Peterson, editor of Evergreen Magazine said: “The tribes do a lot of things I wish we were doing on our federal forest lands if we weren’t all knotted up in litigation.”
Only one timber sale by the CSKT has been questioned since 1976, so careful have they been with the stewardship of their forest. On the other hand the NFS has faced numerous lawsuits over its management of the forests.
Or consider the Lumbee Indians of North Carolina who operate under the Lumbee Act of 1956 which tribal members agreed to only under the following conditions:
Nothing in this act shall make such Indians eligible for any services performed by the United States for Indians because of their status as Indians.
The Lumbee have never been a sovereign nation or ever had a treaty with the federal government. They live as any other U.S. citizens. And they are thriving. As John Stossel noted recently:
Lumbees own their homes and succeed in business. They include real estate developer Jim Thomas who used to own the Sacramento Kings, and Jack Lowery, who helped start the Cracker Barrel Restaurants.
The Lumbees started the first Indian-owned bank which now has 12 branches.
If tribes can somehow extract themselves from the clutches of federal government handouts, their chances for reversing their descent into poverty will likely improve greatly. In the Cato Institute’s massive report, “Indian Lands, Indian Subsidies, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” researcher Chris Edwards contends that
rather than subsidizing and regulating life on reservations, federal and tribal policymakers should focus on building a legal and economic environment to allow individual Indians to prosper.
Congress and the tribes should focus on expanding individual property rights, making rule-of-law reforms, and removing barriers to investment and entrepreneurship.
There has been progress in many Indian communities in recent decades, and with further reforms Indians could finally realize their full potential…
This is the only way the legacy of Progressivism can be reversed. To borrow the slogan from the John Birch Society, Indians will succeed only with “less government, more individual responsibility, and, with God’s help, [they will then be able to achieve for themselves] a better world.”