My wife and I recently had the opportunity to tour a few Western states and it gave birth to a flood of stirring thoughts – it was perceptive insight that one can only reflect upon by being in the presence of such a great witness.
During our trip we drove past the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation along I-90 in South Dakota, home to Oglala Lakota Native Americans since 1889. Today it consists of 3,469 square miles of land, larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined.
As we drove past I couldn’t help but notice the large trailer park that was on that reservation, hundreds and hundreds of older mobile homes that people were living in spaced only a few feet apart and many were in disrepair. I thought those proud people are living in government housing much like that of “the projects” in the large cities of America.
Teddy Roosevelt once said, “There should be relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil practice, whether in politics, in business, or in social life. I hail as a benefactor every writer or speaker, every man who, on the platform, or in book, magazine or newspaper, with merciless severity makes such attack, provided always that he in his turn remembers that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful.”
On our vacation we also drove through the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation near Lame Deer, Montana on Highway 212. That reservation is 444,000 acres in size and home to 5,000 people.
We saw cattle on several hills, prairie dogs, antelope grazing and a few wild Mustangs roaming. In contrast to God’s magnificent creative hand that flowed through that majestic land I saw man-made squalor.
In both of those Indian reservations were people, Americans, who Washington has forgotten.
We saw tee-pee poles leaning against dilapidated sheds, broken down cars, modular homes in disrepair and many were abandoned – there were scores of them that propagated the landscape.
The Cheyenne have a casino in Lame Deer, but it’s small and run down. There’s “A Chief Dull Knife” college in that town as well, but I couldn’t get over the fact that those people were living in a government subsidized ghetto.
In 1876 the United States government set up a welfare system for Native Americans – it was called life on the reservation. Sitting Bull said: “You are fools to make yourselves slaves to a pile of fat bacon, some hardtack, and a little sugar and coffee.”
Imagine if the government were responsible for looking after your best interests. All of your assets must be managed by bureaucrats. A special bureau is even set up to oversee your affairs. Every important decision you make requires approval and it comes with a mountain of regulations.
Chief Justice John Marshall set Native Americans on the path to poverty in 1831 when he characterized the relationship between Indians and the government as “resembling that of a ward to his guardian.” With those words, Marshall established the federal trust doctrine, which assigns the government as the trustee of Indian affairs. That trusteeship continues today, but it has not served Indians well.
Underlying that doctrine is the notion that tribes are not capable of owning or managing their lands. The government is the legal owner of all land and assets in Indian Country and is required to manage them for Indians. The federal government manages Native American reservations, but they are among the poorest communities in the United States.
All development projects on Indian land must be reviewed and authorized by the government, a process that is notoriously slow and burdensome. On Indian lands, companies must go through at least four federal agencies and 49 steps to acquire a permit – anywhere else it takes only four steps.
Reservations contain valuable natural resources worth nearly $1.5 trillion, according to a recent estimate, but the vast majority of those resources remain undeveloped because the federal government gets in the way.
As long as tribes are denied the right to control their own destiny, they will remain locked in poverty.
Congress needs to bring an end to the Federal Trust Doctrine and free those poor souls.
An evil snare of government crafted dependence could explain why 69 percent of Native Americans voted for Barack Obama in 2008.
Greg Allen’s column, Thinkin’ Out Loud, has been published bi-monthly since 2009. He’s an author, nationally syndicated columnist and the founder of Builder of the Spirit in Jamestown, Indiana, a non-profit organization aiding the poor. He can be reached at www.builderofthespirit.org or follow him on Twitter @GregAllencolumn.