Revolution In Indian Country


For instance, in contradiction of the notion that Indians were innocent of even the most elementary business sense, it was clear during negotiations over the Black Hills in the 187Os that Sioux leaders had a perfectly good grasp of finance and that indeed they were determined to drive the best bargain they could. “The Black Hills are the house of Gold for our Indians,” Chief Little Bear said at the time. “If a man owns anything, of course he wants to make something out of it to get rich on.” Another chief, Spotted Tail, added: “I want to live on the interest of my money. The amount must be so large as to support us.” Similarly, in contrast with the popular belief that the United States government was committed to a policy of exterminating the Indian (no such policy ever existed, in fact), Senator Dawes publicly described the history of Indians in the United States as one “of spoliation, of wars, and of humiliation,” and he firmly stated that the Indian should be treated “as an individual, and not as an insoluble substance that the civilization of this country has been unable, hitherto, to digest.”

Indeed, the impulse behind the allotment of tribal lands and the national commitment to Indians was dramatically (and, with the benefit of hindsight, poignantly) acted out in a rite of citizenship that after 1887 was staged at Timber Lake, in the heart of the Cheyenne River Sioux country, and at many other places in the freshly allotted lands of other tribes. In the presence of representatives of the federal government, new allottees stood resplendent in the feathers and buckskins of a bygone age. One by one, each man stepped out of a tepee and shot an arrow to symbolize the life he was leaving behind. He then put his hands on a plow and accepted a purse that indicated that he was to save what he earned. Finally, holding the American flag. the Indian repeated these words: “Forasmuch as the President has said that I am worthy to be a citizen of the United States, I now promise this flag that I will give my hands, my head, and my heart to the doing of all that will make me a true American citizen.” It was the culminating, transformative moment of which Senator Dawes had dreamed.

OUR PEOPLE LIVE IN A limbo culture that is not quite Indian and not quite white either. . . . a house without a foundation.”

It is true enough, however, that, as so often in Indian history, reality failed to live up to good intentions. Unscrupulous speculators soon infested the allotted reservations, offering worthless securities and credit in return for land. Within a few years it was found that of those who had received patents to their land at Cheyenne River, 95 percent had sold or mortgaged their properties. When the Allotment Act was passed in 1881, there were 155 million acres of Indian land in the United States. By the time allotment was finally brought to a halt in 1934, Indian Country had shrunk by nearly 70 percent to 48 million acres, and two-thirds of Indians either were completely landless or did not have enough land left to make a living from it. In the mid-1990s Indian Country as a whole is still a daunting and impoverished landscape whose inhabitants are twice as likely as other Americans to be murdered or commit suicide, three times as likely to die in an automobile accident, and five times as likely to die from cirrhosis of the liver. On some reservations unemployment surpasses 80 percent, and 50 percent of young Indians drop out of high school, despite progressively increased access to education.

IS THE TRIBAL-SOVEREIGNTY MOVE- ment a panacea for otherwise intractable social problems? In the cultural sphere, at least, its importance cannot be underestimated. “Our people live in a limbo culture that is not quite Indian and not quite white either,” said Dennis Hastings, surrounded by books, gazing out toward the Iowa plains through the window of the sky blue trailer where he lives in a cow pasture. Hastings, a burly former Marine and the tribal historian of the Omaha Nation, which is in northeastern Nebraska, has almost single-handedly led an effort to recover tribal history as a foundation for community renewal that is probably unmatched by any other small tribe in the United States. “It’s like living in a house without a foundation. You can’t go back to the old buffalo days, stop speaking English and just use our own language, and ignore whites and everything in white culture. If we did that, we’d become stuck in history, become dinosaurs.”