American Indians: People Without a Future
By Ralph Nader
May 10, 1956
(Copyright 1956, Harvard Law School Record, Inc.)
“We are the people who are better known for what we were not than what we were, for what we are not than for what we are.”
–A Crow Indian, 1955
American historical and fictional writings have instilled in the American public a misinformed and highly inaccurate view of the American Indian. What our forefathers conquered, according to the writers, was an almost empty land whose tranquility was disturbed by a few scattered groupings of wild savages whose chief vocations were scalp-collecting, pottery-making and dancing. These primitives, so the myth goes, steadily receded before the onrush of “civilization,” and have now become the “Vanishing American” of novel and poem.
There developed a voluminous history of the American idea of the Indian as a savage, a concept indispensable to a righteous and ethnocentric people approaching a continent. Even today, on the screen and in cheap fiction, the “bloodthirsty Indian” has too often been used as an ugly background against which the virtues of our pioneers may be projected.
In more recent times a more refined concept of the “savage” Indian performs another function. It provides a readily available rationalization for those who covet Indian lands and resources. Bureaucrats promote programs to “liberate” the Indian under the mistaken notion that Indian culture and misery go together.
There is also a strain running through our literary heritage which has depicted the “noble” side of the aborigine. At times this noble savage theme has done the Indian more harm than good.
Countering the common belief, Jack Schaefer, author of “Shane”, wrote: “These natives, on the whole, were not as savage as the Europeans who called them savages. They had a distinct and in some respects highly developed civilization—In the findamentals of human decency, the simple amenities of daily life, in the relationships between man and man and between man and his God, they were easily as refined as the Europeans. But from the conquerors’ point of view they were guilty of two sins: They were different; they were in the way. So they were called savages.”
The Legacy of Indian Culture
Our historians have been almost exclusively concerned with the influences emanating from Europe. A comprehensive study of the impact of Indian culture on American society would reveal some important insights into the contributing cultural elements that make America what it is today. The material and institutional impact of Indian culture remains inadequately understood and largely underestimated. Space limitations necessarily require only a superficial statement of such contributions.
The changes that American Indians wrought in the life of our prisoners were far more impressive and less destructive than any changes “white” teachers have yet brought to Indian life. Early settlers recognized that Indian modes and methods were functionally adapted to their physical environment. Four-sevenths of our national farm produce consists of plants domesticated by Indian botanists of pre-Columbian times. Indian agricultural products also had a tremendous impact on the European economy. The story of the potato in Europe need not be retold. Methods of planting, irrigation, cultivation, storage and utilization were also acquired by settlers from the Indians.
In medicine, as in the production of food and textiles, the conventional picture of the Indian as an ignorant savage is far removed from the truth. Cocaine, quinine, cascara sagrada, ipecac, arnica and other drugs were developed and used by the Indian before Columbus landed. In the four hundred years that physicians and botanists have been examining and analyzing the flora of America, they have not yet discovered a medicinal herb unknown to the Indians. The social significance of such material contributions is impressive.
As is being illustrated in “underdeveloped” countries today, a change in the material living standard inevitably influences, destroys, and creates institutional patterns and modes of behavior. The impact of Indian material culture undoubtedly has had important repercussions on our society from our economy to the homestead system, and in land use, athletics, our boy scout movement and our national worship of sun, air, and water.
But the Indian gave more in the realm of the intangible. The distinctive political ideals of young America owed much to a rich Indian democratic tradition–a debt often recognized by statements of our leading colonists. The pattern of states within a state that we call federalism, the habit of treating chiefs as servants of the people instead of masters, the insistence that the community must respect the diversity of men and their dreams–all these things were part of the American way of life before 1492.
Freedom of Indian Society Praised
Franklin carried his admiration for the great Iroquois Confederacy to the Albany Congress, and Jefferson made numerous references to the freedom and democracy of Indian society which achieved the maximum degree of order with the minimum degree of coercion. The late Felix Cohen, noted legal scholar and Indian authority, remarked: “those accustomed to the histories of the conqueror will hardly be convinced, though example be piled on example, that American democracy, freedom and tolerance are more American than European, and have deep aboriginal roots in our land.”
Ingenuity Still Vital
At this point the reader might well ask: “Of what relevance is this buried legacy to the present and future?” First, there is still much that the Indian can contribute to our cultural enrichment. Indian ingenuity in agriculture, government, medicine, sports, education and craftsmanship is not an end.
Let a few examples do for many. Not long ago, the rediscovery of an old Indian dish, toasted corn flakes, revolutionized the breakfast routine of American families. A classic study of Cheyenne law by the anthropologist E. Hoebel and Prof. Karl Llewellyn provided insights into our on jurisprudence. Indian methods of child training have caught the attention of psychiatrists and pediatricians, who are now comparing these methods with the rigid schedules and formulas that have molded our antiseptic babies of recent decades.
Second, recognition by legislators, administrators and the American public of the true nature of our Indian heritage has great importance in freeing the Indian from a contemptuous and grotesque stereotype. It also may diminish the persistent themes of pity, superiority and the white man’s burden, which have been twisted into a vicious weapon against Indian culture and landholdings. Respect for different cultures may bring about a reasoned and humane policy which will fulfill Indian desires to achieve a higher living standard and still maintain his ethnic integrity.
Legal Relations With Government
The history of federal Indian law has displayed an increasing recognition (due mainly to an exemplary record by the courts) of the principle that Indians are entitled to the same legal rights and responsibilities as non-Indians. The legal status of tribal Indians, although in some respects different from, is not inferior to that of their countrymen. By Act of Congress, June 2, 1924 (43 Stat. 253, 8 U.S.C. 601) all Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States were declared citizens.
Restrictions on Indians’ legal capacity to sue, make contracts, vote, hold public office, and purchase liquor have been swept away. In practice, however, full citizenship rights of Indians are subject to the abuse of discrimination and the limitations of prevailing economic and social conditions.
The unique aspect of the Indians’ legal status is their membership in special political bodies, tribes, which largely take the place that states and municipalities occupy for other American citizens. However, their dependence on and control by, the Federal Government is much greater than state political bodies due to the trusteeship relationship between the Government and the tribe.
Tribal and Federal Sovereignty
That an Indian tribe is a political body with powers of self-government was first enunciated by John Marshall in Worcester V. Georgia, 6 Pet. 515, 559.560 (1832). Since that time, Supreme Court has held that tribes have self-governing powers except as those powers have been modified or repealed by act of Congress or by treaty. Though legislative and executive orders have often been reluctant to accept this principle of tribal self government, the laws, customs and decisions of tribal governing authorities still have legal effect over large fields of civil and criminal law (major felonies excepted) and intra tribal affairs in general. However, Indian Bureau authority has often been used in an over-ruling capacity.
This historic exemption from the operations of state law derives from the fact that the Constitution vests in the national government, rather than in the states, the three powers upon which our law of Indian affairs is primarily based–the war-making power, the treaty-making power, and the power to regulate commerce with Indian tribes.
The practical effect of federal sovereignty over Indian affairs has been to protect the Indian from oppression and extermination by local interests. In United States v. Kagama, 118 U.S. 375. 384 (1886), Justice Miller wrote: “Because of all the local ill-feeling, the people of the states where they are found are often their deadliest enemies.” Echoing this warning repeatedly, the federal courts have intervened to restrain the increasingly subtle attempts of local interests and authorities to infringe upon Indian rights.
Land Purchased from Indians
American children are taught that we bought our land from France, England and Spain. But historical research reveals the falsity of this belief. Practically all the land in the United States was Purchased not from Napoleon, etc., but from the original Indian owners, albeit under considerable duress. All we bought from Napoleon was the power to govern and tax; but not the land, which was not his to sell. A conservative estimate would put the total price of Indian land sold to the United States at $800 million. This fact is of more than academic interest.
Part of the consideration for this Indian land was the promise of goods and services which today comprise a substantial part of Federal aid to tribes. Also stipulated in these land sales was exemption from certain property taxes on land held in trust by the Government. It was primarily to furnish these services that the Indian Bureau was established.
No one expects these services to continue in perpetuity, but the promises did imply the achievement of a certain standard of living. Indians believe that the sudden termination of these services, as proposed, would be a serious breech of trust. Opponents of federal services to Indians should note that the per capita sum of these services is substantially less than Federal and state services provided their “white” neighbors.
Original Indian Title
Federal Indian property law strongly tends to recognize that the Indians’ right to their land is not a right derived from our government, but a right which they held prior and maintained subsequent to the discovery of this continent.
Federal relations with Indians were regularly handled as a part of our international relations. Our concept of Indian title derives only in part from common law concepts. As in other phases of law which turn on international relations, common law concepts have become heavily overlaid with principles of continental jurisprudence.
Though recognized as far back as a Congressional ordinance in 1787, Supreme Court decisions held that Indians could own land without having received a grant from a European king or the United States Government and that Indians were the true owners, both from the public and the private viewpoint. Johnson v. M’Intosh, 8 Wheat. 543 (1823); Worcester v. Georgia, 6 Pet. 515, 544 (1832); Cramer v. United States, 261 U.S. 219 (1923); Buttz v. Northern Pac. R.R., 119 U.S. 55 (1886); United States v. Shoshone Tribe, 304 U.S. 113 (1938).
Indian land rights were often honored in the breach by both settlers and administrative agencies. Federal court decisions frequently compensated Indians for violations of property rights. However, the real opportunity for Indians to recover for intrusions on their lands was not provided until the creation of the Indian Claims Commission in 1946 enabling the tribes to present claim against the United States without obtaining prior Congressional approval. Since that time, several tribes have collected millions of dollars.
Indian Title and Federal Power
The relation of Indian land title vis-à-vis the Federal Government presents a difficult problem of interpretation of whether and when Indian rights can prevail over the sovereign.
Supreme Court holdings range from the statement that Indian title is “as sacred as the fee simple of the whites” and any Federal purchase should be based on Indian consent Mitchel v. United States, 9 Pet. 711, 745, 746 (1835) to the view that the exclusive power to extinguish original Indian title by purchase resided in the federal Government. Holden v. Joy, 84 U.S. (17 Wall.) 211, 244 (1872). The latter view is more in consonance with the realities of Federal power over Indian land. What is undeniably clear is that Indians can neither alienate individual nor tribal lands without prior Federal approval–the Federal Government being the trustee of Indian lands.
The subject of original Indian title came up again in the recent case of Tee-Hit-Ton Indians v. United States, 348 U.S. 272 (1955). The court (with Chief Justice Warren and Justices Douglas and Frankfurter dissenting) held that only when Indian title has been recognized by treaty or act of Congress is a taking of land or natural resources by the Federal Government constitutionally compensable. Although Tee-Hit-Ton title was not recognized, this decision does not affect the majority of Indian tribes who have treaty recognition of original title.
The Tee-Hit-Ton holding, however, reveals two significant factors. Although the general recognition of original Indian title remains unimpaired for most tribes, the rights derivative from this basic right are still in a highly unsettled state and are likely to be subject to indeterminable distinctions and interpretations in the future. Even a reasonably clear court attitude cannot be culled from the history of Indian cases regarding the finer meanings of original title.
Second, as the Court noted, the question of Indian title “extinguishment” is to be decided not by the courts, but by Congress. U.S. v. Sante Fe Pac. R.R., 314 U.S. 339, 347 (1941). Furthermore, Congress, by terminating, as it already has in some tribes the Government’s trustee relationship to Indian land, can, as we shall see, set in motion forces rendering the discussion of original Indian title academic as far as the retention of the tribal land is concerned.
Indian Survival Based on Land
Acknowledgement of the right of Indian tribes to reserve portions of their original domain for themselves was the one thing that made it possible for many Indian tribes to regroup their members and survive as an ethnic group. To most Indians, the reservation is all that stands between him and the spiritual and physical destruction that most non-reservation tribes have undergone. The fact that original Indian title, which played so great a role in the past in preserving Indian land, is again thrown into confusion demonstrates the uncertainty of this legal safeguard. At this point we must review the history of Indian Affairs.
Government Rule’s Discouraging Past
After the Civil War an explicit federal policdy of Indian assmilation was begun. This was supposedly a far-sighted protective policy to make the Indian over in the white man’s image so as to render him more capable of protecting himself.
As outside pressure on Indian lands increased, the inclination of Indians to withdraw became apparent. White farmers and cattlemen supported assimilation, seeing in it a chance to acquire more of the rapidly diminishing reservation. “Melting pot” evangelists were irritated at the continuance of a geographically isolated ethnic group.
It was believed that the tribal ownership of land and the maintenance of tribal sovereignty constituted the chief bulwarks to Indian assimilation. The legislative panacea designed to assimilate the Indian was the General Allotment Act of 1887. This Act authorized the division of tribal land holdings into individual parcels which were to be held in trust by the Government for 25 years, andthen patented in fee simple and made alienable. Thus a reservation suitable for agriculture or grazing would be divided into 160 acres per family. The remaining land was to be sold to white settlers with proceeds deposited in the U.S, Treasury to the credit of the tribe.
The Allotment Act found the Indians in 1887 owning 138,000,000 acres. By 1933, 91,000,000 acres of this land, generally the moist productive passed from Indian to white ownership. The Indian Bureau rushed beyond the law and forced the acceptance of fee patents upon Indians. This drew the land onto the local tax rolls and forced the poverty-ridden Indian to sell.
Also, the Indian land that remained on allotted reservations was dotted with white holdings controlling strategic water rights or means of access to other lands. Purchase of a key tract forced more Indians to sell. It was not until 1934 that Congress finally forbade the further allotment of lands.
The period from 1887 to 1929 was characterized by other measures imposing assimilation without any understanding of the cross-cultural problems involved in such a transition. Whether it be attributed to corruption, evil design, or lack of knowledge, this policy was the harshest culture bullying in American history.
Government rations were often withheld to starve Indians who would not forswear their religion and tribal customs and loyalties. Tribal leaders who would not serve as puppets of the Indian Bureau or the Army were stripped of all authority.
The onslaught against Indian religion took the form of a criminal code forbidding religious practice. John Collier, Commissioner of Indian Affairs from 1933 to 1945, wrote of this era: “—it may be that the world has never witnessed a religious persecution so implacable and so variously implemented.”
To break the relationship of the generations, many Indian children were placed in boarding schools where the use of native languages and everything reminiscent of Indian life was excluded. The children were compelled to join Christian churches. The education they received had little relevance for the life they would lead on their reservations.
These assimilatory measures disrupted the internal order of the tribes. Very often, only superficial aspects of white culture were accepted by the Indians and there developed dysfunctional patterns created by Indians in an attempt to comply with white demands and still avoid assimilation.
Legislative Reform Brings Improvement
The impending destruction of tribal cultures was finally halted by the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (IRA). This legislation was in response to a demand for a new Indian policy which arose in the late Twenties.
The philosophy of the IRA was predicated on the belief that Indian culture should be regenerated to promote Indian well-being. Fundamental to this program were the preservation of the land base, organization of tribal self-government, the elimination of remaining legal restrictions and the recognition that people once freed must be freed for something.
In this spirit, Indians were given the right to establish corporations. Two thirds of the tribes took advantage of this opportunity. Tribal societies were empowered and adied in undertaking political, administrative and economic self-government. Land allotments were stopped and purchase of more land was provided for by a special credit fund.
A system of agricultural and industrial credit was established under which the repayment record of the tribes was excellent. Useful education for children and adults was accompanied by a program promoting self-help in developing the tribal economy. Research, considered essential to the program, was employed as a basic tool of action.
As a result of this program, an atmosphere of hope and optimism spread over the Indian reservations. For the first time in 80 years Indian holdings increased–from 48 to 52 million acres. Indian real income doubled. The death rate was cut in half. Cultural and religious liberty was restored.
However, the interpretations of many of these policies by later legislative order ad by administrators down to the legislative level often resulted in serious discrepencies between the stated goals of policies and the actual consequences–a situation often leading to Indian disillusionment with Government programs.
The IRA was a daring excursion into the field of federal treatment of ethnic minorities. At once it violated the hallowed “melting pot” concept. It enunciated a belief that an Indian could own a car, volunteer for the army, pay his taxes and still continue being an Indian. Patriotism, ethnic preservation and participation in the American social and economic milieu all in one package!
The theory of the IRA has not been universally accepted by any means and, as we shall see, it is undergoing a complete reversal at the present time. Critics of the IRA have inveighed against its undue extension of Indian isolation and non-assimilation which they consider harmful to the goal of Indian adjustment.
But it was not the theory of the IRA which caused the partial failure of the program; rather it was the inability fully to implement all the program. In any field of human relations, one-sided emphases result in failure to promote the whole. For example, to promote an educational program without solving the unemployment problem produces serious frustrations and defeats over-all objectives.
Then too, policies were never carried out with sufficient personnel, funds and the quality of informaion necessary to cope with the prevailing social situation. The salient feature of Indian administrative and legislative action has been the failure to take into account the implications of nice sounding policies. Objectives cannot be achieved by decree, whether it be the assimilation or the preservation of autonomous Indian tribes.
When pargts of a way of life are destroyed or undermined, something must take their place to prevent moral and social dissolution. Since its establishment, the Indian Bureau has failed to follow through beyond appealing but potentially deadly policies.
Dillon Myer Takes Over
With the appointment of Dillon Myer as Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1950 the hopeful atmosphere began to change rapidly. “The erosion of Indian rights” was the phrase which Mr. Cohen applied to the Myer regime (1950-1953) in an article, 62 Yale L.J. 348.
During this period, interference with Indian voting rights, tribal elections and the right of certain tribes to select their own legal counsel increased. This latter infringement prompted the American bar Association to appoint a commission which rebuked the Indian Bureau for over-reaching its authority. Personal customs and religions were again interfered with. Telling Indians when to go to bed and when to get up is not just a whimsical bit of paternalism, but has deep roots in a long tradition of Indian Bureau policy.
Consultation with Indian tribes regarding policies or legislation affecting their welfare virtually ceased. Restrictions on the use of property were imposed. Arbitrary standards of Indian qualification for civil service employment were established. Experts in Indian Affairs were not consulted. A shroud of secrecy hung over the Bureau. Commissioner Myer withdrew from public scrutiny facts upon which public appraisal of his administration must largely rest.
Before discussing the present Federal Indian policy which has caused so many to label these days as the “mounting crisis in Indian affairs”, it is appropriate to glance at the contemporary situation of the Indian.
Present Status of the Indian
The American Indian is at the bottom of the nation’s income ladder. Compared with other minorities in the same locality, he fares badly. Data on Indian Income is incomplete. However, figures from the Navajo tribe (pop. 75,000) show that out of 14,950 families only 450 earn more than $1500 a year. The median family income from agriculture is $730 and among those earning their livelihoods from other sources including wages, the median is $855.
This abysmally low income is bolstered somewhat by “indirect income” from the tax-free status of property held in trust and free medical and educational services. Other tribes such as the Klamath (Oregon) and the Menominee (Wisconsin) have higher income levels. There are, however, smaller bands of Indians with even lower family income than the Navajo.
Indian consumption habits have a detrimental effect on the proper use of income. Partially influenced by traditional customs and partially affected by the “emulation effect” characteristic of underdeveloped areas, Indians often spend their money on “white” symbols of prosperity.
The land area of the Indians from which they derive their livelihood constitutes 56 million acres unequally distributed among the tribes and situated for the most part in unfavorable climactic belts. As many as 100,000 Indians are landless and for may others the land base is insufficient. Accurate generalizations about tribal lands are difficult since there are great differences as to the quantity and quality of land from one reservation to another.
For example, the Klamath Indians of Oregon possess some of the finest timber lands in the country, while the Papago reservation consists of some three million acres of Sonoran desert where 270 acres are needed to feed one cow. Most reservations are between these two extremes, but the tragic situation is that grazing lands and minerals are not being utilized by Indians due to lack of capital and technical knowledge.
With the transfer of the Indian Bureau’s Branch of Health to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1955, a full-scale and adequately financed program for the prevention and cure of disease among Indians has been proposed.
A somewhat conservative description of Indian health is the following summary from the 1954 report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs: “Death and disease among the Indians continue to decline. Yet the health of the Indian people, although improved, remained at a level below that of the general population. Proportionately, the Indian population during 1953 had twenty times as many deaths from measles as did the non-Indian population, nine times as many deaths from tuberculosis, four times as many deaths from pneumonia and influenza and three times as many infant deaths.”
Education: A Start
There has been a general improvement in the amount and quality of education received by Indian children. Each year, a higher percentage of Indian children are in school and a higher percentage enter upper levels of education. Total school enrollment of Indian children, ages six to eighteen was estimated in 1954 as 104,000. This can be compared with the 60,000 children enrolled in 1947.
The great present weakness in the educational attainment of Indians is the low percentage of high school graduates and, consequently, the small number that can get additional training. Notwithstanding the improvements in Indian education, the schoolday is often extraordinarily short, the quality of teaching is inferior and there are still many children not enrolled.
Indian’s Dilemma: Between Two Worlds
Social workers, missionaries, administrators and law enforcement officers have failed to appreciate and understand the problems of cultural maladjustment affecting the Indian and resulting in deficient social control and disorderly behavior on and off the reservations. People working with the Indian pay much attention to this disorderly behavior. They assume that the value orientations and motivations, rewards and punishments composing the “working structure” of social control in our society also applies to Indians. Thus Indian violators of accepted modes of behavior and law are thought to be the product of individual deviation rather than the product of social and cultural deviations. It is this inability to understand the cultural and psychological background of Indian truancy which accounts for the greatest failures of Indian administrators and private groups working for his well-being.
The difficult adjustments demanded by the acculturation process involve an uncomfortable conflict of value systems. The dissolution of traditional systems of social control without the acquisition of the equivalent structures of “white” society has produced a condition of social organization demanding the utmost in guidance, knowledge and patience for its treatment.
In his study of the Navajo, Professor Clyde Cluckhohn of Harvard has described the cultural position of many Navajos as “between two worlds. Most of the Navajos living on the reservation live in a world which is neither “white” nor Navajo in the traditional sense, a world where values are shifting and where rules of conduct are in a state of chaos.
Professor Kluckhohn writes: “Most of the heavy stresses and pressures for readjustment to white ways have come to the bilingual generation of Navajos, particularly the school children; yet even those who speak English cannot escape all the frustration and conflict introduced by the impact with white society.”
It is the English-speaking generation which must make painful choices. They are separated by a deep cultural gap from the older generation, having been educated at a boarding school or having served in the army. When they settle off the reservation they are cut off from their kindred and traditional customs. They are torn between the psychic satisfaction of the old culture and the material comforts of modern life. This no man’s land of cultural maladjustment is an extremely difficult one in which to live.
Educated Navajos attempting to assimilate find themselves in a difficult position. Rewarded as children in school for learning “white ways,” as adults they are shunned for acquiring skills which make them competitors of their white neighbors. They are seldom received on terms of social equality and learn to expect employment inequality. Those same groups of whites who had goaded them to give up “ignorant Indian ways” now say: “You can never trust these school boys. Give me a long hair any time.” “Educated Indians are neither fish nor fowl. They give me the creeps.”
Rejected by the white world they have made so many emotional sacrifices to enter, some attempt a bitter retreat to the Navajo reservation. Others, in sour disillusionment, abandon all moral codes. Still others achieve a flat and empty adjustment.
Leading Navajos surrounded by powerful pressures to change know that indifference and withdrawal can no longer serve as effective responses. They are conscious of the need to initiate change, but as the way is not yet clear, anxiety and suspicion permeate Indian-white relations. Finally, the fact that Navajos are surrounded by several sub-cultures (Mexican, Negro and White) which are changing at a rapid rate has added enormously to Navajos’ difficulties.
Since the passage of the IRA, the Indian Bureau and the various tribes have had joint responsibility for reservation affairs. The scope and degree of authority granted by the Federal Government to tribal governments varies from tribe to tribe with the shift of responsibility being greater in larger tribes like the Navajo. Although tribal powers are limited, frequently by-passed by the Bureau, and emasculated by bureaucratic red tape, the fact remains that the tribes have come a long way since 1934.
Indian leadership has been developed and tribal councils have taken an active interest in tribal affairs. However, political consciousness among the tribes-people is still at a low ebb and does not provide the Council with strong grass roots support.
This political apathy is not only due to the low educational level of most Indians but also to a fatalism engendered by the frustration of the aspirations and demands of generations of Indians.
In the economic field, a number of enterprises initiated by the tribal communities have failed and made Indian leaders hesitant about proceeding in this area. The difficulties attendant upon an Indian political body operating in the business field are easy to understand: unfamiliarity with modern business practices and lack of capital. The basic objective of tribal enterprises should be the creation of employment openings on the reservations. Profitable operation ought not to be the primary consideration.
As things stand now, the development of self-government, though not too successful as yet, must be encouraged if self-reliant growth and well being is to be fostered. The heritage of paternalism which has bred such dependence on the Bureau by the Indians must be cut off as soon as possible.
The Off-Reservation Indian
Rapid population increase and underdevelopment of reservation resources are primarily responsible for the presence of about 100,000 Indians in American cities and towns. Government estimates indicate that the reservations at their optimum development will not provide a decent living for more than 60% of the present resident population. Such a prognosis should be treated with extreme caution since adequate reservation surveys are non-existent.
At any rate some of the Indians leaving the reservation find permanent agricultural employment nut most gravitate toward urban areas where they settle in slum districts. The situation of Indians near such towns as Tucson, Arizona and Rapid City, South Dakota is affected by the usual factors of exploitation, discrimination, resentment and exploded aspirations.
During the post-war period, Indian Bureau officials recognized the need to provide a better framework for the integration of off-reservation Indians into white communities. A formal program of relocation was instituted in 1951.
Federal Policy–Misguided Zeal. Private Pressures
The central feature of Congressional policy in the 82nd and 83rd Congresses has been aimed at the solution of the “Indian problem” through termination of federal responsibilities for Indian tribes. This general policy statement (enacted as House Concurrent Resolution 108, Aug. 1953) is given local application when specific acts are passed regarding particular tribes. Termination bills for six Indian tribes have already been passed.
The general intention and procedure for accomplishing termination may be summarized as follows:
End all federal relationships with the tribe, including trusteeship of tribal and individual property, all supervision of tribal assets and tribal government and all federal services; Transfer to the state the services formerly provided by the state government. Bring the tribe and all its members under the laws of the state (P.L. 280 enacted July 1953). Cancel all provisions for tribal self-government, except the self-government allowed any community under state laws. Cancel federal corporate charters; Transfer tribal assets to individuals, partnerships, corporations or to a trustee as the tribe elects. Allow the tribal members to sell their undivided share in tribal assets; Distribute tribal money on deposit in the U.S. Treasury on a per capita basis.
Along with this policy of federal withdrawal is a small increase in appropriations to give the larger and less acculturated tribes better facilities for health, education and economic development.
Finally, the Indian Service’s “Voluntary” relocation program for relieving overpopulation on the reservations by locating Indians in major cities is being pushed vigorously.
The most critical attack on the present termination of federal government services has come from Oliver La Farge of the Association on American Indian Affairs. Supported by many Indian leaders, he believes that a realistic investigation of recent policy trends shows a concentrated program to solve the “Indian problem” by doing away with the Indian.
Mr. La Farge sees three deadly factors working in unison to support present Federal policy–impatience, ignorant good intentions and greed.
Impatience–over the fact that a hundred years of Federal guidance has still not enabled the great majority of Indians to be able to take care of themselves without “special help.” He remarks that the amazing thing is not that the Indians did not make more progress, but that they were able to survive and retain so much of their integrity.
Greed–On the Navajo reservation are valuable minerals; certain Alaskan tribes lay claim to excellent salmon fishing areas; on the northern plains and in the Northwest there are valuable grazing and timber lands. Employing legal counsel, Indians no longer allow predatory interests to overturn their rights.
Cattle, fishing, timber and mining interests are now pushing for rapid termination. Shouting the slogan of liberty and equality for the Indian but significantly deleting the third part of this trinity–brotherhood–they are prevailing on the impatient and uninformed to annihilate the Indian land base for their own commercial advancement.
What specifically do Mr. La Farge and the Indians fear? Basically it is that termination and concurrent policies will spell the end of the tribal land base and leave Indians homeless, hapless and destitute. Terminating the trusteeship status of Indian land at once places them on the property tax roll. They are free to alienate their share of tribal lands but too poor or unknowledgeable to work the land profitably. Indians will be tempted by the quick cash offerings of white men. The specter of the “key tract” will appear with ever-increasing frequency. It has happened in the past and will be stepped up radically under termination.
Once Indians become landless do they have other employment opportunities? Lacking employment skills, having little or no command of English, despised by neighborhood communities, thrown into strange cultural environments and situated in the poorer economic areas in our country, the Indian is not likely to acquire an adequate livelihood.
Governed by state and local authorities hardly sympathetic to Indian needs and more easily influenced by local pressure groups than is the Federal Government, Indians rightly fear that necessary welfare services will not be forthcoming.
The Relocation Program
Does the relocation program provide a partial answer to Indian misery? If administered wisely and gradually one can expect some Indians to benefit from it. Some 5000 Indians have been relocated in the past two years and with appropriations nearly doubling this year to $900,000, the number of relocatees is expected to increase.
There are, however, serious flaws in the Bureau’s relocation program. The screening process for relocation application has not been adequate. Too often aged, physically handicapped and wholly acculturated Indians have been relocated.
The relocation agencies in large cities are doing, in many respects, a woefully inadequate job. The function of these agencies has really been to “place” the Indians and then forget about them. Perhaps this may explain why Indians, tempted to leave their homes by Bureau propaganda of the “land of sunshine awaiting them,” are bitterly disillusioned and are returning to the reservations at an alarming rate–a statistic conspicuous in its absence from Bureau figures.
The second and more fundamental criticism of the program is that the Bureau is placing too great an emphasis on relocation and not attempting to build up the reservation economy, thus promoting a type of squeeze operation. For example, considerable amounts of funds were recently transferred from the Welfare and Relief funds of the Bureau to finance relocation.
With adequate development many reservations could support most of their population. It is interesting to see what the Bureau has done in this respect. The drafting of comprehensive rehabilitation programs–in which lies the only real hope for Indian welfare–has been delegated to a proposed private nonprofit corporation which is supposed to secure the necessary funds from private foundations. These economic surveys are basic to any proposed program of reservation rehabilitation. It does not seem wise for the Bureau to delegate such an important part of its work to a private committee which has not yet established the corporation since the idea was conceived of two years ago.
It is difficult to see how the Bureau can place so much hope on relocation even if administered wisely. From the Bureau’s own figures, it can be seen that the cost of expanding the program is practically prohibitive. The relocation of 2,553 Indians in fiscal year 1954 cost $589,600. It is the practical result of termination which makes mass relocation appear to be a necessity.
If the Bureau would consult with the Indians themselves they would discover that these people desire a rigorous program of reservation development where acculturation comes gradually and the frustrations of maladjustment are minimized.
Negative, Fearful and Unenthusiastic
A democratic administration of Indian affairs should know the attitudes of those administered in order to be able to predict and evaluate the “success” of any program. Too often in the past the Indian Bureau has proceeded on the assumption that objectives could be achieved by fiat. This belief is predicated to a considerable extent on the largely valid assumption that Indians are powerless and fatalistic enough to accept any Government policies.
It is revealing how decades of federal programs have affected and formed some basic Indian attitudes. Anthropologists whose information about the Indian is voluminous, though rarely if ever used by the Bureau, generally agree that the following assumptions are held by most Indians today (June 1954, American Anthropologist):
“The Indian in the foreseeable future will remain a series of separate and identifiable groups despite absorption of some individuals.”
This is in sharp contradiction with Federal policy and the American history of cultural absorption. This two-pronged tenacity accounts for much of the failure and frustration in Indian-white relations.
“Over the years, the Indian can expect no consistency in policies regarding him.”
“The interest of the dominant society will take precedence over Indian interests in any policy decision; Indian interests will be considered only when they coincide or at least do not contradict “white” interests.
While this dominance of interest is often the inevitable product of uncontrollable social forces, there are today many instances where the predatory hand of vested interests deserves severe condemnation.
“That the Indian can do little to affect decisions concerning Indians and that sympathetic non-Indian groups are virtually powerless.”
“The turning over of Indian affairs to the states is inevitable and will result in increased hostility and incapacity to render the requisite health and welfare services.”
Indian thinking is further complicated by their long history of real or imagined dependency upon federal protection and assistance. The result is a clash between their need for “security” and their desire for self-reliance. Indian leaders agree that the only path to cultural and economic progress is self-reliance.
The Indian Bureau has a difficult task in clearing up Indian suspicion and distrust of white intentions. What Indians want can be stated simply. They want to keep their lands, acquire the means to develop and use the land and its resources for the benefit of the Indian people, that their lives and the communities surrounding them may be improved, that their culture and their viewpoints be respected and that more voice in determining their own affairs be granted them.
A positive program for Indian rehabilitation directed to specific reservation conditions was recently presented to congress by the Indians’ own organization, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), devoted to the promotion of their legitimate interests. Unfortunately, comprehensive rehabilitation programs fall on deaf ears in the Indian Bureau.
One of the important activities of NCAI has been the American Indian Development program. Though yet operating on a small scale, this is an attempt by Indians to stimulate community interest, leadership and self-reliance through the “work shop” method.
Development Needed Before Withdrawal
Indian leaders recognized that the perpetual federal responsibilities embodied in the treaties must end sometime. But rapid federal withdrawal would lead, they feel, to the annihilation of the tribes. In this connection, Clarence Wesley, an Apache tribal leader, said “—Indians are in favor of a modified withdrawal system which would provide a gradual assumption of activities now administered by the Indian Bureau.”
The central problem, so far as the Indians are concerned, revolves around the preservation of their established rights, as defined by federal laws; the full development of their reservation resources and the establishment of adequate schools, hospitals and other institutional services.
The Government’s legal and moral responsibilities toward the Indian were a recognition that they were unprepared to enter an aggressively competitive white society. That unpreparedness still prevails today. That federal programs have failed so miserably over the years is no excuse to abandon the Indian today. Indians are too weak to hold on to what they have if termination is realized. Federal responsibility should end only when the conditions necessitating that responsibility be eliminated.
A recent conference of anthropologists concluded that “—as adequate skills, techniques and leadership are developed among them, and as the tribe’s economic situation improves, Indians can and will assume responsibility for financing and operating many community and other services formerly provided by government, and in some cases will eventually be able to assume the entire burden—An important factor in success is likely to be personnel at all levels who are not only competent, but understanding of the Indian point of view, non-authoritarian, and ‘people-oriented’—”
Challenge to the American Credo
The American Indian is the greatest test to our professed humanitarian and moral impulses in the treatment of ethnic groups here and abroad. The reason for this is simple. Programs for improving the Indian’s condition cannot be justified, as Point Four programs can, on the grounds that the Indians will turn Communist or revolt. Neither can one urge that in the absence of such programs, the Indian will wield his voting power or provide embarrassment for the United States in foreign countries like larger minorities can in this country.
The Indian has none of these “advantages” to spur programs designed to benefit him. The Indian is small, weak, expendable. He poses no threat to our security. Helping the Indian will not “pay” in the sense that foreign aid “pays”. The impulse to better the Indian’s livelihood can only comes from a sense of our moral obligations and our humanitarian ideals. Moral satisfaction and a healthy and vigorous Indian people will be the fruits of equitable treatment of the Indian.
The instances are rare when the government has responded to a legitimate desire based only on hope and not on votes, lobbies and other power factors. That is why the Indian is our greatest challenge.