Native And Other Americans

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A certain deftness is necessary when writing about Indians (or Native Americans), to avoid the booby traps of overgeneralization, sentimentality, indignation, or defensiveness. Let me begin then with a straightforward recital of some facts laid out in a recent news story: “Backlash Growing as Indians Make a Stand for Sovereignty.” The tribal government of Montana’s Crow Indians tried to tap into some of the profits of the tourist trade that every year fills their reservation—the site of Custer’s last stand—by levying a 4 percent tax on the businesses that serve the visitors, including those owned by non-Indians, who have no vote in the matter. It’s vital to the Crow people to have an independent source of income and it’s also, one might think, a matter of belated justice to the dispossessed. But the white owner of the Custer Battlefield Trading Company doesn’t see it that way: “I didn’t persecute anybody. We didn’t do anything to them, and we don’t owe them anything.”

The clash is one battle in a wider war, sparked by more aggressive Indian assertions of sovereignty over lands protected by treaties with the United States, which take priority over state laws under the Constitution.

In Wisconsin and Minnesota, federal courts have awarded Indians extensive hunting and fishing rights untouchable by the states; in California, San Manuel and other Indians are resisting a governor’s attempt to bring their profitable casinos under rules that apply to non-Indian gambling enterprises, and in other states as well the sheltering of Indian enterprises has provoked a backlash.

The issue isn’t simple. It pits property rights and States’ Rights against historic promises to the Indians, and it echoes larger social debates over such matters as multiculturalism and free enterprise.

Do Indians on reservations still need separate governments of their own? Do they possess a set of specially valuable cultures to be cherished and preserved, or should they melt into the broader American mold?

Such questions have been explored in this magazine’s pages, in “Revolution in Indian Country,” July/August 1996. What intrigues me about them is how they frame themselves neatly within the context of the conservative and high-rolling 1990s. Haven’t we been hearing spirited attacks for years now on allegedly excessive federal power, confiscatory taxes, special privileges for minorities, the disuniting of America by ethnic particularism, and the unfair regulatory tilting of the economic playing field? Whatever Congress does about Indians anytime soon will say as much about contemporary social thought as it does about Indian life. That’s been the case in the past too. The very existence of the current tribal governments is owed to legislation enacted sixty-four years ago, when the country was in a very different frame of mind, and that law, the Wheeler-Howard Act of 1934, was itself a dramatic reversal of a forty-seven-year-old statute, the Dawes Severally Act of 1887. Wheeler-Howard aimed to preserve tribal life and the reservations. The Dawes Act was devised, with the best of intentions, to destroy them.

By 1881 almost all the Indian peoples within the United States had been compelled to sign treaties that confined them to reservations and made them dependents of the federal government. That year Helen Hunt Jackson, a New England-born literary woman of fifty, wrote A Century of Dishonor . The book detailed the many violated promises that had accompanied the process and the corrupt practices by which white settlers, with government connivance, were continuing to encroach on the remaining lands and rights of the impoverished and vanishing tribes. “I think I feel as you must have felt in the old abolition days,” Jackson wrote to a friend; and like the abolitionists, she was as much outraged by the immorality of her fellow whites as she was sympathetic to their “victims,” of whom she knew little directly.

Jackson intensified a ferment brewing among “friends” of the Indians, particularly evangelical reformers who hoped to help by weaning them from their “savage” customs and turning them into God-fearing family farmers. The Dawes Act was the practical implementation of this policy. Intended as a “mighty pulverizing engine” to break up the “tribal mass,” it gave each member of a tribe an individual allotment of reservation land, with the unallotted surplus to be managed in trust by the federal government. It was expected that in time both tribes and reservations would disappear. Meanwhile, government and philanthropy working together would disacculturate the Indians by sending their children to boarding schools to learn the ways or civilization.

The act passed thanks to a confluence of the reformers’ urgings with lower motives. Speculators were eager to lay hands on reservation lands and swarmed in to bamboozle many of the unsophisticated Indians out of their allotments and to lobby for chunks of the unallotted portions. Indian landholdings fell from about 138 million acres in 1887 to 48 million in 1934, while Indian unemployment, poverty, and disease rose. The point I stress here, however, is that the break-up-the-reservations drive radiated the spirit of the 189Os. It was an age that launched “Americanization” programs to bring the “new” immigrants into line in the public schools, that celebrated the farm family on its homestead as the backbone of the nation (when in fact the nation was rapidly urbanizing), and that imbibed a social Darwinism holding that all must yield to the inevitable march of progress.