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Revolution In Indian Country
AFTER CENTURIES OF CONFLICT OVER THEIR RIGHTS AND POWERS, Indian tribes now increasingly make and enforce their own laws, often answerable to no one in the United States government. Is this the rebirth of their ancient independence or a new kind of legalized segregation?
July/august 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 4
The people of Timber Lake—the mechanics, the teachers, the co-op clerks, the men who work at the grain elevator, the retired farmers—are the human fruit of allotment, the fles-hand-blood culmination of the cultural blending that Senator Dawes envisioned. “Everyone here has relatives who are Indian,” said Steve Aberle, a local attorney whose Russian-German father married into the Ducheneaux, a prominent clan of Cheyenne River Sioux. Aberle, who is thirty-five, is one-eighth Sioux; he is a voting member of the tribe and served for two and a half years as chairman of the tribal police commission. Nevertheless he shares the uneasiness of non-Indians who feel themselves slipping toward a kind of second-class citizenship within the reservation’s boundaries. “It would be better to be in a situation where everybody works together and deals with people as people, but it’s hard to do that when people know they pay taxes but are excluded from benefits and services,” Aberle told me. “When my grandparents came from Russia, the United States government told them that they would be full citizens if they moved out here. Now I see people being told that they can’t even take part in a government that wants to regulate them. Something is inherently wrong when you can’t be a citizen where you live because of your race. It just doesn’t fit with the traditional notion of being a U.S. citizen. At some point there has to be a collision between the notion of tribal sovereignty and the notion of being United States citizens. Anytime you have a group not represented in the political process they will be discriminated against. There’s going to be more and more friction. It’s going to hurt these communities. People start looking for jobs elsewhere.”
With little debate outside the parochial circles of Indian affairs, a generation of policymaking has jettisoned the long-standing American ideal of racial unity as a positive good and replaced it with a doctrine that, seen from a more critical angle, seems disturbingly like an idealized form of segregation, a fact apparently invisible to a nation that has become accustomed to looking at Indians only through the twin lenses of romance and guilt and in an era that has made a secular religion of passionate ethnicity. Much of the thinking that underlies tribal sovereignty seems to presuppose that cultural purity can and ought to be preserved, as if Indian bloodlines, economies, and histories were not already inextricably enmeshed with those of white, Hispanic, and black Americans.
Such concerns will be further exacerbated in the years to come as Indian identity grows increasingly ambiguous. Virtually all Indians are moving alone a continuum of biological fusion with other American populations. “A point will be reached . . . when it will no longer make sense to define American Indians in generic terms [but] only as tribal members or as people of Indian ancestry or ethnicity,” writes Russell Thornton, a Cherokee anthropologist and demographer at the University of Southern California, in American Indian Holocaust and Survival , a study of fluctuations in native populations. Statistically, according to Thornton, Indians are marrying outside their ethnic group at a faster rate than any other Americans. More than 50 percent of Indians are already married to non-Indians, and Congress has estimated that by the year 2080 less than 8 percent of Native Americans will have one-half or more Indian blood.
How much ethnic blending can occur before Indians finally cease to be Indians? The question is sure to loom ever larger for coming generations, as the United States increasingly finds itself in “government-to-government” relationships with tribes that are becoming less “Indian” by the decade. Within two or three generations the nation will possess hundreds of “tribes” that may consist of the great-great-grandchildren of Indians but whose native heritage consists mainly of autonomous governments and special privileges that are denied to other Americans.