DNC Chair Perez blasts Trump for breaking government promises to American Indians
Since long before the founding of the Republic, the settler populations from the Puritans onward did their best to wipe out the indigenous peoples of what is now the United States.
The vast majority of American Indians—likely in their millions—were killed by European-brought diseases. But public policy, spoken and written, was predicated on extermination, sometimes actually using that term, the only “good Indians” being dead ones in the widespread view voiced by General Philip Sheridan.
Extermination by other means
When the shooting portion of the Indian wars was mostly over and Native tribes confined to reservations, that extermination focused on religion, culture, language, and other markers of tribal identity, as well as tribal governance.
These attacks by the powers-that-be, from Myles Standish to Teddy Roosevelt, were based on the idea that the continent’s misnamed Indians were inferior. Just pagan savages deserving to be obliterated or at least to have their Indianness forcibly extracted at the same time their land was.
The situation has improved bit by bit in the past half-century. But the old views – particularly the ones related to taking the land – have not been wholly demolished by a long shot. The efforts of President Barack Obama to improve Washington’s treatment of the tribes with stepped-up government-to-government relations – to actually listen to what Indians have to say instead of just talking at them – was deeply appreciated by a wide array of tribes and individual Indians, even when they were critical of some of the president’s responses to what he heard them saying.
Trail of broken promises
Now, as with so much else, the man squatting in the White House is trying to turn back the clock by breaking promises to American Indians.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez pointed this out in some detail in an op-ed published in Monday’s Los Angeles Times:
[Indians] fought against the “skinny repeal” [of Obamacare] because they understood that it would harm them. The United States has long guaranteed Native Americans access to healthcare, mostly through commitments the federal government made to Indian tribes in exchange for land. Repeal of Obamacare would put much of this tribal healthcare at risk, including the care received by more than 290,000 American Indians and Alaska Natives through the Medicaid expansion.
But healthcare is just one of many areas where the Trump administration wants to break our government’s promises to Indian Country. […]
Trump’s advisors have repeatedly pushed for the privatization of Indian lands and resources. Before Trump even took office, the chair of his Native American Coalition, Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma), proposed that tribal land be put into private ownership and claimed the idea would receive widespread support from Indian tribes. Instead, the idea was widely condemned.
Land has been at the heart of the settler-Indian clash from the very beginning. The generally peaceful but tense beginnings of relations between the two devolved into outright warfare in the 1600s as ever-more European arrivals encroached on what had been Indian turf.
Those wars continued until 1890, each time resulting in more land being taken. Shooting the indigenous inhabitants dead, enslaving them, or forcing them off their land – sometimes with compensation and treaties – but always at gunpoint, actual or implicit.
Most of those treaties were violated before the ink dried, and much of the compensation disappeared, either canceled by the Senate or grifted into non-Indian hands by Indian agents who gained their positions via political patronage.
Near the end of the 19th Century, the allotment acts were passed. These were supposed to transform Indians into farmers by giving them individual plots while weakening or breaking tribal ties and selling to non-Indians the “surplus” land left after allotments were handed out. Thus, between 1887 and 1934, when the allotment process was ended, land held communally by Indians decreased from 138 million acres to 48 million.
Then came the termination acts of the Eisenhower years during which more than 100 tribes were dismantled and more land taken. It was left to President Richard Nixon to terminate the termination and end the wholesale expropriation of Indian land. Since then there has been a move toward acceptance of tribal sovereignty (within limits) and government-to-government relations between the tribes and the federal government.
This has not been without many hiccups, but relations have improved, and they did so markedly in the Obama era, although certainly not as much as many tribes and activist Indian groups would have liked.
These days, however, privatization of Indian trust lands – held by the Bureau of Indian Affairs but governed in part by tribal government – is being touted by Trump and many others. Naomi Schaefer Riley has written a book on the subject, The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians. As usual, the idea is presented as a solution to the many, oft-cited problems of reservation life – poverty, alcoholism, youth suicides, and violence. As usual, that ignores the crux of the problem.
Last September, Kelli Mosteller, Director of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Cultural Heritage Center in Shawnee, Oklahoma, wrote in response to Riley’s condensation of her privatization views in the Atlantic magazine:
Reform-minded authors like Schaefer Riley begin making their case by citing a number of terrifying statistics about poverty on reservations, violence against Native women, and teen suicide rates, among others. All are largely factual. Schaefer Riley’s solution, however, creates a false dichotomy, suggesting that success is limited to either the individual or the tribe. She claims that tribal citizens’ inability to privately own, and therefore capitalize on, tribal lands, “prevents American Indians from reaping numerous benefits.” This is a narrow interpretation of the resources and policies that would benefit Natives, and it disregards the cultural and spiritual values at the core of Native American tribal societies.
This frame of reference also fails to acknowledge that Native communities face the arduous task of overcoming these social challenges as a direct result of centuries of federal policies that disassembled traditional social structures, moved entire communities, and attempted to dismantle tribal sovereignty. Virtually every one of those policies had an end goal of eliminating tribal rights to land and advanced a non-Native understanding of how to properly “use” land.
While Schaefer Riley is correct that social problems persist on some reservations, she neglects to consider that since the passage of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 and the Tribal Self-Governance Act of 1994, hundreds of tribes have consistently shown improvement when allowed to manage their own affairs. Self-governance means that tribal governments decide where and how to allocate resources for certain programs, such as health care via funding from the Indian Health Service, to meet the needs of their community. Although more needs to be done, the solution proposed by Schaefer Riley would constitute an assault on tribal lands, not a path to prosperity.
Like so much of what Donald Trump has pronounced he favors, this one isn’t part of some innovative longstanding Trump agenda. It’s the same old Republican agenda in new clothes – what was once a bipartisan agenda – designed to continue the process of killing the Indianness of Indians. It stank in the 1880s and it stinks now.
(Originally appeared at DailyKos.)