Village Earth

Response to: “Why Are Indian Reservations So Poor? A Look At The Bottom 1%”


Below is my response to an article in today’s online edition of Forbes magazine titled “Why Are Indian Reservations So Poor? A Look At The Bottom 1%.” by John Koppisch. Click here for the original article. — Writing as a European settler who works alongside Native Americans on land tenure issues, I find Mr. Koppisch’s article raises awareness of some of the current challenges in the way of Native Americans from benefiting from their resources, but feel it is an overly simplistic, ahistorical analysis of poverty on reservations today. In fact, it is based on the same ethnocentric premise that was behind the creation of the Dawes Act in the first place. Namely, that all people are individual selfish utility-maximizes and the biggest thing in the way to “progress” for Native Americans is their collective utilization of natural resources. Thus, the problem, from Mr. Koppisch’s perspective, is that there hasn’t been ENOUGH privatization. To fully tease apart your argument you have to examine two central questions. 1. Is your basic premise correct, are Native American’s selfish-utility maximizes and do they share the same notion of “progress” as European settlers? And 2. Considering that western notions of progress were forced upon them through the Reservation system and policies such as the The General Allotment Act (Dawes Act) – was/is the poverty we see today really because there hasn’t been enough privatization. I challenge this notion and argue there might other, more obvious factors? For some perspective into the first question, we can look at how Native Americans were organized prior to being forced onto ever smaller pieces of land by an invading army of settlers. Were Native American’s victims of their own communal use of natural resources, a self-created tragedy of the commons? While we can always find instances of resource destruction and conflict in the Archaeological record, but the fact remains, Native American’s thrived on this continent for thousands of years prior to the arrival of European settlers. And believe it not, this happened without privatization, individual allotments, and a centralized state to create laws and enforce contracts. Now, it would be equally false to assume that Native American’s, by definition, are communal and anti-capitalist, that’s just not true, in fact, the Lakota and other tribes were renowned for their role in the fur trade, controlling and manipulating markets around the globe. And in fact, there were internal struggles among Native American leaders over what direction to take. Lakota Chief Red Cloud believed that there was no stopping the influx of settlers and so tried to convince his people to assimilate. Crazy Horse, on the other hand, sought to protect the traditional way of life that extended beyond the boundaries of the Reservations. The point here is that the history of Native American’s extends thousands of years prior to the creation of Reservations. Pretty much none of that history included privatization. Rather, they were forced onto Reservations by an invading colonial army and were forced to participate in a western system of land tenure and agricultural production. But, history doesn’t end there. It’s not as if they were forced onto reservations, and then became equal participants in American society. After the period of European settlement in North America between 1492-1887, Native Americans were left with reservations consisting of only 150 million acres. Recognized through treaties as sovereign nations, these lands were largely unpartitioned and communally managed, a practice considered by the U.S. Government to be a non-productive and irrational use of resources. The Government’s solution was the General Allotment Act (GAA) of 1887, also known as the Dawes Severalty Act. The act partitioned reservation lands into 160 acre parcels for each head of family, 80 acre parcels to orphans, and 40 acres parcels to each child. After all the allotments were issued, the remaining reservation lands in the West was transferred to the Government who then made it available to white settlers free of charge as part of the Homestead Act. This amounted to a loss of over 60,000,000 acres, nearly 2/3rds of all Indian lands. Beyond the significant loss of lands, the GAA also created several challenges for the use and inheritance of the remaining lands that would have profound implications for future generations of Native Americans.

  • It broke apart communally managed lands into individually owned parcels, destroying the ability of many communities to be self sufficient on already limited and marginal lands.
  • It disrupted traditional residency patterns, forcing people to live on allotments sometimes far from their relatives, eroding traditional kinship practices across many reservations.
  • It destroyed communal control of lands, making it easier for private and government interests to gain access to the vast coal, oil, natural gas, agricultural, and grazing resources on Native American Reservations. This was done primarily through forced leases. Leased which, to this day, the government has failed to fully pay. in fact, according to Judge Robertson of the District Court of Columbia, Native American’s were shorted roughly 47 billion dollars in income collected by the government over the last 120 years.
  • The GAA never established an adequate system for how lands would be transfered from generation to generation. Since the practice of creating a Last Will and Testament before death was not common and in some cases was outright offensive to the traditional inheritance practices of some Native American cultures, these lands passed from one generation to the next without clear divisions of who owned what. Today, lands have become so fractionated that it is common to have several hundred or even thousands of landowners on one piece land. This has created a severe obstacle today for individuals and families wanting to utilize their lands as they need to get permission from the other land owners on decisions related to the land. With limited resources to deal with this situation, the only option for most families is to lease their undivided fractionated lands out – often times to non-natives.
  • Forced Fee Patenting, introduced with the 1906 Burke Act, amended the GAA to give the secretary of the interior the power to issue Indian Allottees determined to be “competent,” fee patents making their lands subject to taxation and sale. In other words, the government privatized indigenous lands. It as widely understood by government officials that lands, privatized under the Burke Act, would soon be liquidated. In 1922 the Government superintendent of the Pine Ride Reservation noted: “Careful observation of the results on the Pine Ridge reservation show that less than five percent of the Indians who receive patents retain their lands.” According to the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, between 1997 and 1934, nearly 27,000,000 acres of land was lost as a result of privatization.
  • Indian Allottees determined to be “incompetent, ” under the Burke Act, were not allowed to live on or utilize their allotment, instead it was leased out by the Federal Government to oil, timber, mineral, and grazing interests. In many cases, Allottees did not even receive the income from the leases. This practice was so widespread that a 1915 Department of the Interior, Annual Report of the Pine Ridge Agency, nearly 56% of its residents were deemed “incompetent.” The longterm affect of this practice was how it physically and psychologically alienated Indian Allottees from their lands. For example many families today own land but have never lived on it, used it, or oftentimes, even know where it is located.
  • The various economic, social, and cultural disruptions created by the these acts over the last century is an underlying cause of poverty on many Native American Reservations today, negatively impacting housing construction, economic development, residency patterns, family and community cohesion, ecological health, cultural self-determination, and political sovereignty.
  • The unequal land-use patterns seen on reservations today is a direct outcome of discriminatory lending practices, land fractionation and specifically, Federal policies over the last century that have excluded native land owners from the ability to utilize their lands while at the same time opening it up to non-native farmers and ranchers. Discriminatory lending practices, as argued in court cases such as the pending Keepseagle vs. Vilsack, claim that Native Americans have been denied roughly 3 billion in credit.

With the above facts in mind, is it really accurate to say that the poverty on Native American reservations is a result of “not enough privatization” or should we also consider the 120+ years of discrimination and abuse by the United States Government? My point here is not to argue against reforming the land tenure system on reservations. Rather, I believe tribes should have total control over their resources as guaranteed to them by their respective Treaties but also in a contested nature, that goes beyond the legal context of the 1800s but one rooted in UN Declaration of the rights of Indigenous People and their aboriginal claim. But beyond that, they should receive equal protection under the law which means investigating claims to lands illegally seized and unpaid lease contracts by the U.S. Government. But also, reparations for the damages caused by the violence and sexual abuse rampant in boarding schools. I find it ironic how academics and journalists try to come up with new theories to explain poverty on reservations but fail to take into account the obvious. The government owes Native Americans at least 45 Billion dollars yet, in the settlement offered by the Obama administration, they are being compensated for less that .06% of that. And this hardly makes the news! Who else could be treated like this? How is this not a factor? How is the history of broken treaties and land theft not a factor? Until we as a American settlers take off our blinders and recognize how some people in this country have been and continue to this day to be denied their rights, we will never move beyond the racist legacy of this country.

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