The Projects on the Prairies

by John J. Miller on August 10, 2010

in Articles,Politics

  • Sumo

January 27, 2006



The fallout from the Jack Abramoff corruption scandal has all of Washington atwitter about congressional reform — everything from proposals to restrict travel perks and lunches with lobbyists to a potential shakeup in the Republican House leadership.

A subtheme of the controversy involves not a shakeup but a shakedown — of Indian tribes by Mr. Abramoff, who used casino cash to throw money around town as well as to line his own pockets richly. The common perception is that once again the white man has cheated the red man.

Perhaps a few expressions of sympathy are in order. Yet Indians would benefit much more from their own sweeping reforms. The Abramoff rip-off should be the least of their worries. The time has come to abolish reservations for the good of the people who live on them.

In the American imagination, grinding poverty is often a picture of urban slums full of broken families, abandoned apartments and back-alley drug deals. But an equally valid portrait might focus on the rural squalor of the rez. Of the 10 poorest counties in the U.S., seven of them are contained wholly or largely on reservations in Arizona, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Professional victimologists offer no shortage of explanations for this miserable state of affairs, but most of their analysis boils down to a core grievance: The federal government stole land from the Indians by conquest and treaty. Although Indians once were able to obtain title to specific parcels within reservations, this practice ended in 1934 — an act that essentially turned the reservations into not-so-little housing projects on the prairie.

The main problem with Indian reservations isn’t, as some argue, that they were established on worthless tracts of grassland. Consider the case of Buffalo County, S.D., which Census data reveal to be America’s poorest county. Some 2,000 people live there. More than 30% of the homes are headed by women without husbands. The median household income is less than $13,000. The unemployment rate is sky high.

Just to the east of Buffalo County lies Jerauld County, which is similar in size and population. Yet only 6% of its homes are headed by women without husbands, the median household income is more than $30,000, and the unemployment rate hovers around 3%. The fundamental difference between these two counties is that the Crow Creek Indian Reservation occupies much of Buffalo County. The place is a pocket of poverty in a land of plenty.

Maybe we should give land back to the rez-dwellers, so that they may own private property the way other Americans do. Currently, the inability to put up land as collateral for personal mortgages and loans is a major obstacle to economic development. This problem is complicated by the fact that not all reservations have adopted uniform commercial codes or created court systems that are independent branches of tribal government — the sorts of devices and institutions that give confidence to investors who might have the means to fund the small businesses that are the engines of rural economies.

Tribal ownership of the land is defended as the sine qua non of Indian sovereignty, which many activists regard as sacrosanct. It maintains the semifictional notion that the reservations are separate nations within the U.S. Although tribal members are American citizens, the reservations themselves are exempt from many federal and state laws. This is why so many Indian casinos have sprung up in areas that otherwise curb gambling.

Sovereignty also is understood as a form of cultural protectionism. Without it, goes the thinking, Indians eventually will follow the course of immigrant groups and assimilate into the great American melting pot. Intermarriage between Indians and non-Indians is pervasive, especially off the rez. More than half of all Indians already marry outside their race, according the Census. For racial purists who believe that the men and women of today’s tribes should be preserved like frozen displays in natural-history museums, this is a tragedy akin to ethnic cleansing (albeit one based on love rather than hate).

Yet the real tragedy is that reservations, as collectivist enclaves within a capitalist society, have beaten down their inhabitants with brute force rather than lifting them up with opportunity. As their economies have withered, other social pathologies have taken root: Indians are distressingly prone to crime, alcoholism and suicide. Families have suffered enormously. About 60% of Indian children are born out of wedlock. Although accurate statistics are hard to come by because so many arrangements are informal, Indian kids are perhaps five times as likely as white ones to live in some form of foster care. Their schools are depressingly bad.

Even if casino revenues were able to address these soul-crushing problems — a doubtful proposition — most reservations are too isolated geographically to profit from big-dollar gambling. Yet the rise of the casinos may help point the way forward: Their ability to flourish contradicts the tenured Marxists in ethnic-studies departments who claim that communitarian Indian cultures aren’t compatible with market capitalism. After all, it takes entrepreneurship to run some of the world’s biggest casinos.

What’s more, this modern-day entrepreneurship is part of a long tradition: Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis &Clark fame) described the Chinooks as “great hagglers in trade.” I once visited Poverty Point, a 3,000-year-old set of earthen mounds in Louisiana; the museum there displayed ancient artifacts found at the site, including copper from the Great Lakes and obsidian from the Rockies. These prehistoric Americans were budding globalizers, and there’s no reason why their descendants should remain walled off from the world economy.

When Indians enter our political conscience at all, it is usually in the most trivial of contexts: Should Florida State University call its sports teams the Seminoles? Does Leonard Peltier, a 1970s radical imprisoned for the murder of two FBI agents, deserve clemency? Isn’t it a shame how Jack Abramoff bilked naive tribal councils?

Yes, it is a shame. But it will be an even greater shame if reservations were to continue staggering along as they do now. The sleazy Abramoffs will always be with us. Must the failing reservations stick around as well?

Mr. Miller is the author, most recently, of “A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.”

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: