How are Indian reservations doomed to failure? The Indians own the land in common. No Indian owns land individually. In many ways, personal initiative is crushed.
Why then do we stick with Indian land ownership in common? Because of the failure of the 1887 Dawes Act. That federal law tried to give Indians privately owned land, but the program didn’t work. Now everyone’s afraid to try something similar, even with improvements and safeguards.
Here’s a round-up of some of the factors that guarantee the reservations will remain hopeless death traps unless sweeping, desperately needed changes are made:
* On most reservations, the land is owned in common by the tribe and held in trust by the U.S. government. On these reservations, no American Indian has real estate -- a house, a shop or land -- that he truly can call his own.
* Some Indian reservations have tried to establish the equivalent of ownership, using 50-year land leases or land “assignments.” This has allowed about 35 percent of Indian households a form of homeownership. But that percentage is far below America’s overall homeownership rate of 70 percent.
* Because pieces of reservation land cannot be bought and sold on the free market, most banks won’t lend Indians money to build a house. The problem: If the homeowner defaults on the loan, the bank can’t take the house. No collateral means no loan.
* With little private homeownership, few American Indians have a stake in maintaining or improving their homes on the reservation. There is little incentive to care for the homes. Houses commonly are neglected, even as they fall apart.
* With little private business ownership, few Indians have a stake in making a business work on the reservation. As a result, reservations have few businesses and few home-grown jobs, and the incentive to prepare for a career is low.
* The federal government provides, at a basic level, free medical coverage and schools on reservations. These services appear to be a good deal, but they have severely limited results in an atmosphere that discourages Indians from caring for themselves.
The Dawes Act. When the unemployment rate for American Indians is a catastrophic 46 percent, as it is today, you’d think someone would be calling for a revolution. You’d think the loudest calls would be for homeownership, personal incentives and real jobs. But you’d be wrong.
And it’s all because of that damned Dawes Act, the General Allotment Act of 1887. That law divided up American Indian land among the Indians, and let them develop, farm, buy or sell their land as they pleased.
The law had poor results. Some critics complained that non-Indians and government agents abused the Dawes Act by tricking Indians out of their best land. Others said the Indians just weren’t ready. From 1887 to 1934, Indians sold away about half of all Indian country.
Privatization the problem? Today, it’s hard to find a defense of the Dawes Act. Many of the critiques take the position that, before the Dawes Act, the Indians lived well in changeless communes, and privatization killed their utopian culture. Those claims would be remarkable, if true. But there’s no evidence things happened that way.
The sad fact is, the Dawes Act didn’t ruin American Indian culture; the Dawes Act couldn’t work because earlier U.S. policy -- creating the reservations -- already had ruined Indian culture. The question now is, if letting each Indian head of household own 160 acres didn’t work a century ago, why not? And how might the Dawes Act have been rewritten to avoid its shortcomings?
The 1928 Meriam Report provided Congress a detailed analysis of the Indian land allotment experiment. The report, which became the basis for repealing most of the Dawes Act in 1934, did not find fault with private land ownership in itself. It found fault with the failure to prepare Indians for the opportunity.
Indians pauperized. Specifically, the Meriam Report did not conclude that individual ownership of land would always be a bad thing for Indians. It concluded that, because Indians had been kept idle for too long before the Dawes Act, they weren’t prepared to do anything with their land, except sell it.
The Indians had been living on a windfall economy. They had no compelling reason to work or build or improve. The U.S. government would take care of them. They were accustomed to unearned income. When they received private land, they saw it as just another way to collect unearned income. They sold.
Sadly, in describing the conditions that led to failure of the Dawes Act, the Meriam Report could have been reporting on many of the conditions on Indian reservations today:
Several past policies adopted by the government in dealing with the Indians have been of a type which, if long continued, would tend to pauperize any race.
Most notable was the practice of issuing rations to able-bodied Indians. Having moved the Indians from their ancestral lands to restricted reservations as a war measure, the government undertook to feed them and to perform certain services for them which a normal people do for themselves.
The Indians at the outset had to accept this aid as a matter of necessity, but promptly they came to regard it as a matter of right, as indeed it was at the time and under the conditions of the inauguration of the ration system.
They felt, and many of them still feel, that the government owes them a living, having taken their lands from them, and that they are under no obligation to support themselves. They have thus inevitably developed a pauper point of view.
When the government adopted the policy of individual ownership of the land on the reservations, the expectation was that the Indians would become farmers. Part of the plan was to instruct and aid them in agriculture, but this vital part was not pressed with vigor and intelligence.
It almost seems as if the government assumed that some magic in individual ownership of property would in itself prove an educational civilizing factor, but unfortunately this policy has for the most part operated in the opposite direction.
Individual ownership has in many instances permitted Indians to sell their allotments and to live for a time on the unearned income resulting from the sale. Individual ownership brought promptly all the details of inheritance, and frequently the sale of the property of the deceased Indians to whites so that the estate could be divided among the heirs.
To the heirs the sale brought further unearned income, thereby lessening the necessity for self support. Many Indians were not ready to make effective use of their individual allotments. Some of the allotments were of such a character that they could not be effectively used by anyone in small units. The solution was to permit the Indians through the government to lease their lands to the whites.
In some instances government officers encouraged leasing, as the whites were anxious for the use of the land and it was far easier to administer property leased to whites than to educate and stimulate Indians to use their own property. The lease money, though generally small in amount, gave the Indians further unearned income to permit the continuance of a life of idleness.
Core protection. It is time to try another Dawes Act, but with safeguards. The most important element to any new program for allocating private land to American Indians would be education on homeownship and building communities. The program also should have limits on land sales. In most cases, a large core of each reservation should be set aside permanently for Indians and posterity.
From 1887 to 1934, the Dawes Act proved that private land ownership doesn’t automatically work its economic “magic” in every community. The “magic” needs nurturing and encouragement. It needs a heightened sense of personal initiative and social responsibility.
The last 72 years on Indian reservations has proved that, when an overprotective government tries to compensate for the chronic absence of private homes and businesses, the result is hopelessness and poverty. This has to change, and there’s no reason the change should wait.
An artificial wall. Before the reservations, “a life of idleness” was never a part of Indian culture. Indians couldn’t have survived and cultivated the American wilderness for thousands of years without hard work and innovation.
An artificial wall has imprisoned their spirit. Tear down that wall.
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Teachers and students:
I’ve noticed that many teachers and students evaluate the Dawes Act based on their biases toward capitalism and socialism. (Total capitalism would be an economy with no government control. Total socialism would be an economy with complete government control.)
To debate this subject through a capitalism-versus-socialism prism would be a sad mistake, primarily because, if you take sides there, you instantly end the debate over how to solve the social and economic problems on American Indian reservations.
The fact is, both capitalism and socialism have failed our Indian reservations in one way or another. The answer is not one system or the other, but in a mix of the two: More free market forces (individual land ownership and free commerce on reservations) combined with some government safeguards (limits to selling reservation land and laws against unfair practices).
A form of socialist policies, under which the U.S. government provides basic services, has not worked on Indian reservations because these policies have reduced individual initiative, encouraged joblessness and weakened the sense of personal responsibility.
A form of capitalistic policies, under which unregulated free-market forces were introduced to the ownership of reservation land, did not work under the Dawes Act because the free-market forces were introduced too abruptly and because, in matters of individual land ownership, Indians had almost no experience to draw from.
My advice to teachers and students is, don’t lock yourself onto one track to solve the problems on American Indian reservations. Avoid arguing for total government control or totally tribal control or total business control or total individual control.
Consider all the social and economic forces at work on reservations. Compare them to other American communities. Look at what is unique to reservations. Look also at human nature and the general U.S. economy, which we all have in common.
Then propose something new. For well over 100 years, something has been terribly wrong.
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10 largest American Indian tribes, 2000
Latin American Indian 180,940
20 most populous Indian reservations, 2000
Navajo Nation (Ariz.-N.M.-Utah) 175,228
Cherokee (Okla.) 104,482
Creek (Okla.) 77,253
Lumbee (N.C.) 62,327 (not fully recognized as an Indian tribe)
Choctaw (Okla.) 39,984
Cook Inlet (Alaska) 35,972
Chickasaw (Okla.) 32,372
Calista (Alaska) 20,353
United Houma Nation (La.) 15,305
Sealaska (Alaska) 15,059
Pine Ridge (S.D.-Neb.) 14,484
Doyon (Alaska) 14,128
Kiowa-Comanche-Apache–Fort Sill Apache (Okla.) 13,045
Fort Apache (Ariz.) 11,854
Citizen Band Potawatomi Nation–Absentee Shawnee (Okla.) 10,617
Gila River (Ariz.) 10,578
Cheyenne/Arapaho (Okla.) 10,310
Tohono O’odham (Ariz.) 9,794
Osage (Okla.) 9,209
Rosebud (S.D.) 9,165
SEE ALSO: Save Monument Valley, Arizona.