July/august 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 4
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?
“They have no right to tell me what to do. I’m not Indian!” Hutchinson told me a year and a half later. She and other white businesspeople had by then challenged the tribe’s right to tax them in both tribal court and federal district court and had lost. The marks of prolonged tension showed on her tanned, angular, wary face. “If this were Indian land, it would make sense. But we’re a non-Indian town. This is all homestead land, and the tribe was paid for it. I can’t vote in tribal elections or on anything else that happens on the reservation. What they’re talking about is taxation without representation.”
When I visited, everyone in Isabel still remembered the screech of the warning siren that someone had set off on the morning of March 27, 1991, when the tribal police reached the edge of town, as if their arrival were some kind of natural disaster, like a tornado or fire. The convoy of gold-painted prowl cars rolled in from the prairie and then, when they came abreast of the café, swung sideways across the road. Thirty-eight tribal policemen surrounded the yellow brick building. The tribe’s police chief, Marvin LeCompte, told Hutchinson that she was in contempt of tribal court. Officers ordered the morning breakfast crowd away from their fried eggs and coffee. Then they went back into the pine-paneled bar and confiscated Hutchinson’s stock of beer and liquor—”contraband,” as LeCompte described it—and drove off with it to the tribal government’s offices at Eagle Butte.
A few days before I met Hutchinson, I had interviewed Gregg J. Bourland, the youthful chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. Bourland is widely reckoned to be one of the most effective tribal chairmen in the region and, with a degree in business from the state college in Spearfish, also one of the best educated. “Let them talk about taxation without representation,” Bourland told me dismissively. “We’re not a state. We’re a separate nation, and the only way you can be represented in it is to be a member of the tribe. And they can’t do that. They’re not Indians. These folks are trespassers. They are within reservation boundaries, and they will follow reservation law. They’ve now had one hundred years with no tribal authority over them out here. Well, that’s over.”
More than Micki Hutchinson or than any of the other angry whites in their declining prairie hamlets, it was Bourland who understood that what was at stake was much more than small-town politics. The tax, the ostentatious convoy, and the lawsuit were part of a much larger political drama that was unfolding across the inland archipelago of reservations that make up modern Indian Country. They symbolized the reshaping of the American West, indeed of the United States itself. By the 1990s, almost unnoticed by the American public or media, a generation of legislation and court actions had profoundly remade Indian Country, canonizing ideas about tribal autonomy that would have shocked the lawmakers who a century before had seen the destruction of the reservations as the salvation of the American Indian. If Bourland was right, Micki Hutchinson and the white residents of Isabel were living in a sovereign tribal state. They were tolerated guests with an uncertain future.
Until the 1870s, reservations were established throughout the Dakota Territory and other parts of the West with the promise that they would be reserved in perpetuity for the Indians’ exclusive use. Those promises were broken almost everywhere when reservations were opened to homesteading at the end of the century, usually with only perfunctory consultation with the tribes or none at all. As I listened to Gregg Bourland, it was easy to sympathize with the tribe’s striving for some kind of control over forces that were felt to have invaded their land and undermined their culture. Bourland justified the tax as a means both to raise revenue for the tribe and to control alcohol consumption on a reservation where more than 60 percent of the adults were unemployed and 53 percent were active alcoholics.
But promises that had been made a century ago to the ancestors of settlers like Micki Hutchinson were now being broken too. From the 1880s until the 1930s, the cornerstone of federal Indian policy had been the popular program known as allotment, the systematic breaking up of most of the nation’s reservations into private holdings. In its day allotment seemed the perfect panacea to resolve at a single stroke the perennial problems of white settlers’ insatiable desire for new land and Indians’ growing dependency on the federal government. Sen. Henry L. Dawes, the idealistic architect of the Allotment Act of 1881, which set the pattern for a generation of similar legislation, ringingly proclaimed that as a result of allotment, the Indian “shall be one of us, contributing his share to all that goes to make up the strength and glory of citizenship in the United States.”
The means of the Indian’s salvation was to be the family farm, which most people of the time had been taught to regard as the ultimate repository of American individualism and the democratic spirit. Each Indian allottee would receive 160 acres of land and eventual United States citizenship, along with money for seed, tools, and livestock. The “excess,” or leftover, land would be offered for sale to white settlers, who would be free to form their own municipal governments. The promise of the allotment policy was twofold: that the nation would integrate Indians into white society and that non-Indian settlers would never be subject to tribal regimes.
At the time, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs dismissed notions of separate Indian nationality as mere sentimentality: “It is perfectly clear to my mind that the treaties never contemplated the un-American and absurd idea of a separate nationality in our midst, with power as they may choose to organize a government of their own.” To maintain such a view, the commissioner added, was to acknowledge a foreign sovereignty upon American soil, “a theory utterly repugnant to the spirit and genius of our laws, and wholly unwarranted by the Constitution of the United States.”
Killing the White Man’s Indian represented a return to familiar country. As a youth in the 1950s and early 1960s, I often accompanied my mother, who was the executive director of the Association on American Indian Affairs, in her travels around reservations, part of her tireless effort to prod the federal government into improving tribal economies, education, health care, and law and order. Vivid experiences were plentiful: participating in a nightlong peyote rite in a tepee on the Montana prairie; a journey by pirogue deep into the Louisiana bayous to meet with a forgotten band of Houmas who wanted Washington to take notice of their existence; walking the Little Bighorn Battlefield with an aged Cheyenne who, as a small boy, had witnessed the annihilation of Custer’s command. Poverty shaded almost every experience. Staying with friends often meant wind fingering its way through gaps in the walls, a cheese and bologna sandwich for dinner, sleeping three or four in a bed with broken springs. It seemed there was always someone talking about an uncle who, drunk, had frozen to death on a lonely road or about a cousin already pregnant at sixteen. More generally those years left me with a sense of the tremendous diversity of the lives and communities that lay submerged within the catchall label of “Indians” and a recognition that Native Americans were not mere vestiges of a mythic past but modern men and women struggling to solve twentieth-century problems.
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.”
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.
“We just need this one little thing to get us started,” the band’s chairman, Ralph Goff, told me as we walked through the redshank and yucca and ocher sand where the first trenches had been cut for the new landfill. “With it we can create our own destiny.” Goff, a formidably built man with little formal education, grew up in the 1940s, when the only work available was as a cowhand or day laborer for whites. When there was no work, people went hungry. “You just had to wait until there was some more food.” In the 1960s most of the unskilled jobs disappeared, and nearly every Campo family went on welfare. “We needed it, but it really wrecked us as people. It created idleness. People didn’t have to do anything in order to get money.”
If the Campos have their way, by the end of the decade daily freight trains will be carrying loads of municipal waste to a three-hundred-acre site on a hilltop at the southern end of the reservation. For the privilege of leasing the band’s land, a waste-management firm will pay the Campos between two and five million dollars a year. Goff argued that the dump would put an end to the band’s dependence on federal largess. It would create jobs for every adult Campo who is willing to work, provide long-term investment capital for the band, supply money for full college scholarships for every school-age member of the band, and finance new homes for the families that now live in substandard housing. The dump would, in short, give the Campos financial independence for the first time in their modern history.
“How can you say that the economic development of two hundred people is more important than the health and welfare of all the people in the surrounding area?” an angry and frustrated rancher, whose land lay just off the reservation, asked me. “It’s hard making a living here. The fissures will carry that stuff right through here. We’ll have all that stuff in our water and blowing down on us off the hills. If our water is spoiled, then everything’s spoiled.”
There were predictable elements to her rage: the instinctive resistance of most Americans to any kind of waste dump anywhere near their homes and the distress of many white Americans when they realize the implications of tribal sovereignty for the first time and find themselves subject to the will of a government in which they have no say. But there was something more, a sort of moral perplexity at Indians’ having failed to behave according to expectation, an imputation that they were guilty of self-interest. Revealingly, I thought, on the wall of the rancher’s trailer there was a poster decorated with Indian motifs. Entitled “Chief Seattle Speaks,” it began, in words that are becoming as familiar to American schoolchildren as those of the Gettysburg Address once were: “How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land?” Here, in sight of the dump, the so-called testament of Chief Seattle was a reproach to the Campos, an argument rooted in what the rancher presumably believed to be Indians’ profoundest values. “Before all this I had this ideal about Indian people and all they’ve been through,” she told me. “I used to think they had this special feeling about the land.”
More than any other single document, Seattle’s twelve-hundred-word “testament” lends support to the increasingly common belief that to “real” Indians any disruption or commercialization of the earth’s natural order is a kind of sacrilege and that the most moral, the most truly “Indian” relationship with the land is a kind of poetic passivity. Having been translated into dozens of languages and widely reproduced in school texts, the “testament” has attained a prophetic stature among environmentalists: In 1993 Greenpeace used it as the introduction to a scarifying report on toxic dumping, calling it “the most beautiful and profound statement on the environment ever made.” Unfortunately, like much literature that purports to reveal the real nature of the Indians, the “testament” is basically a fiction. Seattle was indeed a historical figure, a slave-owning chief of the Duwamishes who sold land to the United States in the mid-1850s and welcomed the protection of the federal government against his local enemies. However, the “testament,” as it is known to most Americans, was created from notes allegedly made thirty years after the fact by a white doctor who claimed to have been present when Seattle spoke, and which then were extravagantly embroidered by a well-meaning Texas scriptwriter by the name of Ted Perry as narration for a 1972 film on the environment, produced by the Southern Baptist Radio and Television Commission. How is it, I wondered, that Americans have so readily embraced such a spurious text, not only as a sacred screed of the ecology movement but also as a central document of “traditional” Native American culture?
Increasingly it became clear to me that to be able to describe the realities of modern Indian life and politics, I would have to strip away the myths that whites have spun around Native Americans ever since Columbus arbitrarily divided the peoples he encountered into noble Arawaks and savage Caribs, conflating European fantasies with presumed native reality and initiating a tradition that would eventually include Montesquieu, Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau, as well as a vivid popular literature stretching from The Last of the Mohicans to Dances With Wolves . Untamable savage, child of nature, steward of the earth, the white man’s ultimate victim: each age has imagined its own mythic version of what the historian Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr., termed the “white man’s Indian.”
Typically the Denver Post could declare, not long ago, in an editorial attacking the University of Arizona for a plan to build an observatory atop an allegedly sacred mountain: “At stake is the very survival of American Indian cultures. If these sacred places are destroyed, then the rituals unique to those places no longer will be performed and many tribes simply may cease to exist as distinct peoples.” Such logic implies both that only Native Americans who profess to live like pre-Columbians are true Indians and that Indians are essentially hopeless and helpless and on the brink of extinction. Apparently it never occurred to the paper’s editorialist that the religion of the great majority of Indians is not in fact some mystical form of traditionalism but a thriving Christianity.
On the whole the complex and intricate relationship between whites and Indians has been presented as one of irreconcilable conflict between conqueror and victim, corruption and innocence, Euro-American “materialism” and native “spirituality.” The real story, of course, is an often contradictory one, disfigured by periods of harsh discrimination and occasional acts of genocide but also marked by considerable Indian pragmatism and adaptability as well as by the persistent, if sometimes shortsighted, idealism of whites determined to protect Indians from annihilation and find some place for them in mainstream America.
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.
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.
Teasing small grants and the help of volunteer scholars from institutions around the country, Hastings has initiated an oral-history project to collect memories of fading tribal traditions. “We go into each family, get an anthropologist to record everything right from how you wake up in the morning,” he said. Hundreds of historic photographs of early reservation life have been collected and deposited with the State Historical Society, in Lincoln. A friendly scholar from the University of Indiana recovered a trove of forgotten Omaha songs recorded in the 1920s on wax cylinders. Another at the University of New Mexico undertook a collective genealogy that would trace the lineage of more than five thousand Omahas back to the eighteenth century. Hastings explained, “Until now everything was oral. Some people knew the names of their ancestors, and some knew nothing at all. There was a loss of connection with the past. Now people can come back and find out who their ancestors were.” In sharp contrast with the combative chauvinism of some tribes, the Omahas invited scientists from the University of Nebraska and the Smithsonian Institution to examine repatriated skeletons to see what they could discover about the lives of their ancestors. In 1989, astonishing perhaps even themselves, tribal leaders brought home Waxthe’xe, the True Omaha, the sacred cottonwood pole that is the living embodiment of the Omaha people, which had lain for a hundred years in Harvard’s Peabody Museum; at the July powwow that year, weeping hundreds bent to touch it as if it were the true cross or the ark of the covenant.
“We want the benefits of modern society,” Hastings told me in his nasal Midwestern drawl. “But America is still dangerous for us. The question is then, How do we take the science that America used against us and make it work for us? The answer is, we try to build on the past. It’s like a puzzle. First you see where the culture broke and fragmented. Then you try to build on it where people have been practicing it all along. Then people start to think in a healthy way about what they were in the past. If you can get each person to be proud of himself, little by little, you can get the whole tribe to become proud. We’re going to dream big and be consistent with that dream.”
In its broadest sense the tribal sovereignty movement is demonstrating that the more than three hundred Indian tribes in the lower forty-eight states (more than five hundred if you count Alaskan native groups) are distinct communities, each with its unique history, traditions, and political environment, for whom a single one-size-fits-all federal policy will no longer suffice. Greater autonomy will surely enable well-governed and economically self-sufficient tribes—mostly those located near big cities and those with valuable natural resources—to manage their own development in imaginative ways. For many others, however, far from airports and interstate highways, populated by ill-trained workers and governed, in some cases, by politicians who do not abide by the most basic democratic rules, the future is much less assured.
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.
Insofar as there is a political solution to the Indian future, I have come to believe that it lies in the rejection of policies that lead to segregation and in acknowledgment of the fact that the racially and ethnically variegated peoples whom we call “Indian” share not only common blood but also a common history and a common future with other Americans. The past generation has seen the development of a national consensus on a number of aspects of the nation’s history that were long obscured by racism or shame; there is, for instance, little dispute today among Americans of any ethnic background over the meaning of slavery or of the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. There is as yet no such consensus, however, with respect to the shared history of Indians and whites, who both still tend to see the past as a collision of irreconcilable opposites and competing martyrdoms.