Revolution In Indian Country


IN THE COURSE OF FOUR YEARS’ research on my book, I visited reservations from upstate New York to southern California and from Mississippi to Washington State, meeting with tribal leaders, ranchers, farmers, educators, and hundreds of ordinary men and women, both Indian and white. In Michigan I sailed Lake Superior with waterborne Chippewa police, searching for poachers on tribal fisheries in the lake. In Oregon I hiked the Cascades with professional foresters from the Warm Springs Tribe, which with its several hydroelectric dams and thriving timber industry is one of Indian Country’s great success stories. I sweated with a group of recovering Navajo alcoholics in a traditional sweat lodge in the New Mexico desert. I also spent many a night in dust-blown reservation towns where, as an old South Dakota song puts it, “There’s nothing much to do except walk up and down.” In a few places, as a result of childhood connections, I was welcomed as a friend. More frequently I met with suspicion rooted in the widespread belief that curiosity like mine was just a form of exploitation and that whites are incapable of writing about Indians with objectivity and honesty.

My original intention had been to use the lives of several men and women whom I had known in the 1950s as a microcosm and through them to chart the changes that had been wrought in Indian Country during the intervening years. But I soon realized that such a focus would be far too narrow, for it had become clear to me that a virtual revolution was under way that was challenging the worn-out theology of Indians as losers and victims and was transforming tribes into powers to be reckoned with for years to come. It encompassed virtually every aspect of Indian life, from the revival of moribund tribal cultures and traditional religions to the development of aggressive tribal governments determined to remake the relationship between tribes and the United States. The ferment was not unalloyed, however. Alongside inspired idealism, I also found ethnic chauvinism, a crippling instinct to mistake isolation for independence, and a habit of interpreting present-day reality through the warping lens of the past.

In the 1970s, in a reversal of longstanding policies based on the conviction that Indians must be either persuaded or compelled to integrate themselves into mainstream America, the United States enshrined the concept of tribal sovereignty at the center of its policy toward the nation’s more than three hundred tribes. In the watershed words of Richard Nixon, federal policy would henceforth be guided “by Indian acts and Indian decisions” and would be designed to “assure the Indian that he can assume control of his own life without being separated from the tribal group.”

In 1975 the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act amplified this principle, calling for a “transition from Federal domination of programs for and services to Indians to effective and meaningful participation by the Indian people.” This has been reflected in a national commitment to the strengthening of tribal governments and to more comprehensive tribal authority over reservation lands. More ambiguously, it has also led to the increasing development of a new sphere of political power that rivals, or at least claims to rival, that of the states and the national government and for which there is no foundation in the Constitution. In the mid-1990s I found tribal officials invoking “sovereign right” in debates over everything from highway maintenance and fishing quotas to law and order, toxic-waste disposal, and the transfer of federal services to tribal administrations, not to mention the rapid proliferation of tribally run gambling operations. Reflecting the sentiments of many tribal leaders, Tim Giago, the publisher of Indian Country Today , the most widely read Indian newspaper in the United States, likened state legislation that affects Indians to “letting France make laws that also become law in Italy.”

TRIBES WERE INVOKING a principle of sovereignty unknown to the average American in order to set up casino operations.

To people like Micki Hutchinson, it often seemed that Indians were playing an entirely new game, and that no one but the Indians understood the rules. In Connecticut, and elsewhere, tribes were exploiting a principle of sovereignty unknown to the average American in order to build casinos that sucked colossal sums of money from neighboring regions. New Mexicans found that they were equally helpless in the face of the Mescalero Apaches’ determination to establish a nuclear-waste facility on their reservation outside Alamogordo. In Wisconsin and in Washington State, recurrent violence had accompanied the judicially mandated enlargement of Indian fishing rights in accordance with nineteenth-century treaties. In Nevada farmers found themselves on the brink of failure as the Paiutes of Pyramid Lake gained political leverage over the watershed of the Truckee River.

In some states Indian demands for the return of sacred lands posed significant threats to local economies, including, most prominently, the Black Hills region of South Dakota. Nor was science exempt. Tribal claims on ancestral bones and artifacts were depleting many of the most valuable anthropological collections in the country.