The recent Navajo-Hopi land deal illustrates an "Indian problem" of a different sort than commonly thought. When most people talk of an "Indian problem," they are speaking of the Indians' hand-to-mouth existence. But there is a much more insidious "problem": the reservation system. It is my contention that the reservation system and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) are inherently contrary to the Indians' welfare. The only question is: what is to take their place?
To be sure, the Indians do live in abject poverty. The question before us is: why? Why are the reservations lands of squalor in the affluent sea that is America. It is because of the way the reservations are set up. The Navajo-Hopi land deal consisted of 400,000 acres ceded to the Hopi tribe, not any Hopi individuals. The reservations have entrenched collective rights over individual rights. This leads us to the same question that faces any Communist or socialist country: what incentive, if any, does this legal framework create that would make it valuable to own and operate a business? The answer is none. The reason America is such an economic superpower is precisely because of our enshrinement of property rights. For example, a large corporation like Nissan is willing to build a factory in the United States (despite our inane tax, labor, and safety laws) because whatever property it creates or owns is its by right. However, Nissan would be hesitant to build a factory on a Navajo reservation because the tribe owns the land and Nissan can use the land only by permission. As Thomas Bowden said, "An individual Indian who faithfully [tends] crops [acquires] no ownership rights in them.... 'No instance is know of individual ownership of tribal lands," said a Federal court in 1961" (20). There can be no collective rights since the collective qua collective does not exist except as a collective of individual.
The concept of the "reservation" is certainly disgusting, but what is far more damnable is our Federal government's mishandling of the whole situation. Never mind the hundreds of years of treaty-breaking—that is another essay in itself—look at recent history. It is a case of throwing gasoline on a smoldering fire trying to put it out. Everything the government does, it causes more problems. The government saw what it deemed poor living conditions and passed the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the Indian New Deal. This New Deal led to the exact same consequences except the Indian New Deal was tested on a great deal fewer people. The Indian New Deal only intensified the negative effects it was ostensibly designed to eliminate: widespread alcoholism, unemployment, welfare dependence, poverty, and a sense of impotence in determining their future. Another example of the government's ineptitude is the attempted resolution of the 75-year old Navajo-Hopi land dispute. It did this by granting the Hopis currently staying on Navajo tribal land a "lease" of seventy-five years duration. This does not address the issue; in typical governmental procrastination, it merely puts it off for another day (27,375 days, to be exact.) Prior to 1935, the reservation Indian was not a citizen and could not become one through naturalization. (Embry 35) The Indians could not freely practice their religion (it was frowned upon by the authorities), could not own newspapers, and could not complain in any significant capacity. The United States Constitution, with its guarantees in the Bill of Rights, simply did not apply.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs deserves special treatment apart from the general criticism of government-Indian relations, since it is, effectively, another government. The BIA was created in 1824 with the express purpose of assimilating Indians into the American "melting pot." By the 1930s, with the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), the BIA's role had become that of warden or guardian to the Indians. With this new mission came new power and greater autonomy. So much so that the BIA has become a government within our Government. Accountable only to the President and the Secretary of the Interior, BIA agents have total control over the reservations. What's more, Indians cannot hold office in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The tribal governments are not allowed to levy taxes, maintain a police force, and their decisions can be overruled by the President or the Secretary of the Interior. This institutionalized barrier to self-determination amounts to fascism of the Mussolini variety minus the efficiency. The BIA treats the Indians like we once treated the blacks: as second-class citizens. It was not until 1935 that the Indians were allowed to leave the reservations without the permission of the agency's reservation Superintendent. Look at this statement by one of these reservation Superintendents and see the racist subtext: "All offenses are punished as I deem expedient, and the Indians offer no resistance." (Embry 35) The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 ended the majority of these oppressive policies, but it created many more as well (Levitan 101). The Bureau of Indian Affairs is patently unconstitutional. Nowhere in the United States's Constitution does it enumerate the power of the government to oppress its citizens. Because of the loose constructionism dominant in the judicial system nowadays, the courts have never recognized the BIA as illegal.
What is the solution to this "Indian problem?" Either the reservations must be made sovereign nations or they must be dissolved and their denizens set free to assimilate into the rest of American culture. Each of these solutions presents difficulties and obstacles to overcome. The sovereign nation paradigm would give the Indians the greatest power—self-determination. Furthermore, the Indians could act as a true nation would, i.e., keep a military, have its own courts, economy, currency, etc. However, such a number of nations within the boundaries of the United States poses a possible national security threat should the Indians ever become justifiably outraged at their past treatment. Additionally, a new layer of the State Department would have to be created and the new nations would be the likely recipients of American foreign aid subsidies. From the Indians's standpoint, their economy would be extremely isolated and susceptible to embargo. The other solution is to dissolve the Indian reservations and let their residents join American society as equals. This is the route traditionally taken by immigrants and other ethnic groups. When the slaves were emancipated, they were given full citizenship and have become as integrated into our society as have any of the European immigrants. Assimilation would give the Indians the best opportunity for advancement as individuals. They would acquire the power of true self-determination, at a price. They would have to voluntarily renounce their tribal ties. Although this action would be in their best interests ultimately, it would be very unpopular. Moreover, this route has been tried before—by the military. The Ghost Dance craze of 1890-91 (Hagan 130-34) came into being when the military started its forced acculturation of the Indians at the behest of the Interior Departments. Both of these methods—sovereignty and assimilation—have their merits, but which one is the most beneficial and feasible?
The sovereignty paradigm is too impractical and potentially dangerous, J. Fife Symington's decree of Navajo sovereignty notwithstanding. Assimilation, when approached with a healthy dose of foresight and compassion, has traditionally been very successful. First, the reservations and the BIA would have to be dissolved. This is easier said than done: witness the recent Navajo-Hopi land deal's helplessness to relocate some of the disrupted clans. The land that is occupied and has been improved will be ceded to the individuals who occupied and improved it. Any land that has not been improved will be sold via a public auction and the revenue evenly distributed amongst the taxpayers in the form of a refund check, minus the funding for a Freedman's Bureau of sorts to oversee the assimilation of the displaced Indians. This Freedman's Bureau (for lack of a better name) would exist for the duration of the transition and then, like the reservations, be terminated. Finally, and most importantly, full citizenship must be conferred on all Indians. That way, they have the same chance of succeeding that every other American does. This plan would allow those Indians who have invested considerable time and effort on their land to retain their investment while those who had not improved the land would have a clean break from their former reservations. As an added bonus, the Bureau of Indian Affairs' dictatorship would end and with it, its drain on the Indian's emotions and the taxpayer's wallet. Most importantly, this plan would accomplish the Bureau of Indian Affair's explicit goal set in 1824: to let the Indian be an American.
- Bowden, Thomas A. The Enemies of Christopher Columbus: Answers to Critical Questions about the European Discovery of America.. Baltimore: Thomas A. Bowden, 1992.
- Embry, Carlos B. America's Concentration Camps: The Facts about Our Indian Reservations. New York: Van Rees, 1956.
- Hagan, William T. American Indians: Revised Edition. 2nd edition. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1979.
- Levitan, Sara. Big Brother's Indian Programs—With Reservations. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971.