On January 30th, 2017 the American Enterprise Institute hosted a panel discussion entitled, How federal policy affects Native Americans: Naomi Schafer Riley on her book, ‘The New Trail of Tears: How Washington is Destroying American Indians.’ A video of the panel can be found here. On the panel with Naomi Schafer Riley (NSR) were Congressman Rob Bishop R-Utah, the Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee which oversees Indian Affairs in the House of Representatives, Chris Edwards from the Cato Institute, and Keith Moore a former director of the Bureau of Indian Education.
The panel began with a talk from NSR regarding her book The New Trail of Tears (TNToT). The book has already been discussed at length here on Turtle Talk, Professor Fletcher’s commentary can be found here. The discussion at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) was disheartening and alarming. NSR began by attacking the community at Pine Ridge for its poor retention of teachers, and went onto blast a former principal of a school for firing all of the Teach for America (TFA) teachers at that school because they “were too white.” While this may have once been true it is simply not the case anymore. What NSR fails to mention is that several of the Tribes in South Dakota have partnered with TFA to bring TFA to Indian reservations in South Dakota. For example in 2015, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe formed a partnership with TFA to recruit tribal members to become teachers in reservation schools. In 2013, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe passed a resolution supporting TFA and its efforts on their reservation; this followed a similar resolution passed by the Ogalala Sioux Tribal Council as well, supporting TFA’s efforts on Pine Ridge. Just over a year ago, the Rapid City Journal documented the ongoing relationship between TFA on Rosebud and Standing Rock, as well as at the Red Cloud Indian School on Pine Ridge. Rather than giving her audience all of the information regarding the decisions that Tribal leaders are making to support the development of their youth, NSR retreats to portraying reservations as bleak and hopeless places where no child has a chance at receiving a decent education. Her claim that Tribes in South Dakota are unable or unwilling to partner with organizations like TFA does not stand on its merits, and is likely confined to the one incident in her talk, in which she cites an unnamed source.
The largest attack that NSR launched against Tribes in her talk at AEI was concerning Indian land ownership and the holding of Indian land in trust for Tribes and Indian individuals by the Federal government. NSR cites this as the single biggest contribution to the poverty that plagues many Tribes. She then cites several statistics in making her argument for the exploration and development of mineral, oil, and natural gas developments on reservations. According to NSR, Tribal lands hold 30 percent of the nation’s coal reserves west of the Mississippi, 50 percent of the nation’s uranium, and 20 percent of the oil and gas in the United States. However, NSR states it is nearly impossible to develop these resources held by Tribes because of the bureaucracy and regulations that are currently in place. She fails to mention the successes that some Tribes have had in responsibly developing their natural resources, and leaves out the environmental disasters that have plagued Tribes for generations when these resources are mismanaged. NSR fails to mention the successes that the Southern Ute Tribe have had in energy development, the successful and profitable assumption of forest management by the Salish-Kootenai Confederated Tribes on the Flathead Reservation in Montana, or the tribally owned coal mining efforts of the Navajo. Indian Country has successes in developing its energy resources. NSR fails to mention the irresponsible extraction of uranium from the Navajo reservation from 1944 to 1986 which has resulted in millions of dollars of cleanup efforts from the Tribe and the EPA, as well as health risks to thousands of Tribal members from contaminated drinking water, and other risks. The uranium contamination problems on the Navajo reservation are an example of why Tribes need environmental regulations when it comes to the development of energy resources on their reservations. It is perhaps true that the current regulations that are in place now should be streamlined, but not at a risk to the health of Tribal members, and the wholesale destruction and contamination of Tribal lands.
NSR then moved to attacking per capita payments, citing the Seneca Tribe of New York as an example of what she views as a welfare state with lazy and indolent Tribal citizens who are unwilling to work, and only sit around waiting for their next per capita check. Why NSR picks a Tribe like the Seneca to highlight as an example of the stereotype of the “lazy welfare Indian” is beyond me as their economic ingenuity and successes are well documented. What NSR fails to do, is mention that many Tribes with successful gaming operations that provide per capita payments to their members also provide the financing for their Tribal members to receive an education. Additionally, the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, the Twenty Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians, the Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians, and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians are just a few examples of Tribes that help Native Americans from different Tribes experience higher education. NSR’s talk failed to mention any of the positive directions that Tribes have made in developing their Tribal economies and governments to better serve their citizens despite nearly insurmountable challenges. Mentioning the successful development of energy resources by Tribes, or the economic diversity of the Seneca, and the priority on higher education that many Tribes have doesn’t fit the narrative that NSR pushes throughout her book and her lectures, that Indian Country is a “microcosm of everything that has gone wrong with modern liberalism.” Though Indian Country has its challenges it is not the bleak picture that NSR paints, and the remedy that she suggests “privatization” i.e. termination has not worked in the past and will not work in the present. Ironically enough NSR cited an unnamed Lumbee Indian in closing her talk as support for the privatization of Indian lands, the Lumbee are not a federally recognized Indian Tribe.
After NSR spoke House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop of Utah spoke. Congressman Bishop’s message was refreshing compared to NSR’s anti-Indian screed. The Congressman acknowledged the success that Tribes have had in managing their own affairs when given the opportunity to develop Tribal economies and governance structures. The example that he cited was the Southern Ute Tribe. Congressman Bishop’s diagnosis of the problem that plagues the bureaucracy was spot on, the government needs to recognize that Indian policy cannot be monolithic in nature and should try to work on policies that recognize the diversity of Tribes and that work for each individual Tribe. These are principals that academics like Joe Kalt have been advocating for, for years. It’s great to see a semblance of these ideas reflected in the policy aims of a high ranking member of Congress.
Following Congressman Bishop’s speech, Keith Moore former Director of the Bureau of Indian Education gave the “Indian” perspective for the panel. Moore’s speech was troubling in so many different ways. Moore compared reservation Indians to crabs in a barrel seeking to drag back those who leave the reservation to attend school. The abundance of Tribes that offer scholarships for their members to attend colleges and trade schools, the development of Tribal colleges, the endowing of Indian studies programs, and Tribes providing scholarships so that the citizens of other Native nations can attend college show just how completely wrong on this point Keith Moore is. Perhaps the most disturbing anecdote that Moore gave was his relating of how hard it is to use reservation land for capital for mortgages and other purchases. Moore recently bought a home, but only after selling the home that he owned in the Black Hills. It is sad that though Moore was fortunate enough to own a piece of the sacred Black Hills, that the Sioux Indian Nation has fought for years to reclaim, and has stated over and over again is not for sale, that he would feel compelled to flip his property there. What does it say about Moore that he would so gleefully flip a piece of land that his nation considers to be sacred and not for sale?
The last speaker on the panel was Chris Edwards from the Cato Institute. Edwards’ portion of the program was devoted to reservation economics and an attack on trust lands and Tribal land ownership. Edwards mentioned Tribal jurisdiction as a barrier to investment on reservations, outside businesses are according to him wary over what they see as an impartial system that favors Tribes. Tribes have found innovative ways to partner with private businesses, yet this isn’t mentioned by Edwards. Edwards like NSR and Moore fails to mention one successful partnership between a Tribe and a non-Indian owned business entity while proceeding to tear down Tribal economies. If Edwards were to take more than a cursory look at Indian Country he would see innovative business partnerships like the one that exists between the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the Miami Dolphins, where the Tribe bought the naming rights to the Dolphins stadium through their Hard Rock brand.
After Edwards the panel engaged in a Q&A. The answers to some of the questions were truly scary. For example Moore told one audience member in regards to a question regarding privatizing Indian lands that the Dawes Act (The Allotment Act, which resulted in the loss of millions of acres of Indian lands) was a good idea that was simply waylaid by incompetent bureaucrats. Moore also stated that Cobell, the largest settlement between Tribes and Indian Nations needed to be studied to see if it was even a good thing for Tribes. In response to a question regarding the voting rates of Indians, and whether there were any Native American’s in Congress, none of the panel members gave an answer, both Congressman Tom Cole, and Congressman Markwayne Mullin are enrolled members of federally recognized Tribes that are currently serving in Congress. It may have pained NSR to do but she should have told the audience member about the rampant voter suppression that has occurred in South Dakota where Pine Ridge is located and postulated that this might have something to do with the poverty that, that Tribe deals with. However, this piece of information wouldn’t fit into the narrative that NSR and AEI sought to create with this panel, that Indians are experiencing poverty at alarming rates and it is their own fault with a hearty assist from the federal government.