Sovereign peoples, wards of the state

September 25, 1996|By Tim Giago

RAPID CITY, S.D. -- The most terrible thing that happened to the indigenous peoples of America was when the federal government stepped in and declared the Indian tribes to be its wards.

Former Secretary of the Interior James Watt had many enemies in Indian country, and he was roundly and loudly criticized few years back for calling the reservation system in America an example of ''failed socialism.'' Strangely enough, many tribal leaders agree with him.

The aboriginal economies of what is now America were based largely on the free-enterprise system. Commerce built on free trade between nations was the backbone of the Indian economy. Everyone had to work in order for the tribe to survive. There were no handouts. Every person within a tribe had a function within the community.

Tasks to perform

It didn't matter whether the tribe was in the Southwest where the economy was based on agriculture or the Great Plains where it was built on hunting the buffalo; everyone within the tribal unit had a specific task to perform: hunt- ing, planting, harvesting, cooking, skinning, scouting, sewing, building, teaching and so on, including the spiritual tasks performed by the holy men and healers. Very little was left to chance or to the generosity of another tribe.

Every tribal leader knew that if his people were to survive, they had to be totally self-supporting while on their own and allied to the larger and more powerful tribes for protection during times of war.

The early tribal social systems may have been communal, but they were not built upon a foundation of social welfare. Fifty years ago, it was considered disgraceful by most tribal elders to accept charity or welfare.

Tribes of the plains traded buffalo hides, knives, spears, spoons fashioned from buffalo horn, arts, crafts and even dried buffalo meat with other tribes for baskets, corn, squash and potatoes, and for things like decorative seashells. Commerce between tribes reached from coast to coast.

When the federal government stepped in and deprived the tribes of a way of life, first by drastically diminishing their land base and then denying them their aboriginal hunting and fishing grounds, it was the beginning of a social system totally alien to most tribes. They were confined to a reservation, denied the opportunity to work at anything traditional or meaningful, locked into a system of dependence, and then forced to adapt to a foreign lifestyle. The stifling cycle of social welfare now dominant on many Indian reservations began to take root.

One of the most frustrating misconceptions of non-Indians is that Indians are cared for from cradle to grave by the federal government. Such misguided thinking has perpetrated the social philosophy of more welfare, more handouts and more hand-wringing. For this reason private industry has shied away from building businesses on Indian reservations. ''The government is taking care of all their needs so they don't need us'' seems to be the stereotypical way of thinking.

Failed policies

Failed policy after failed policy initiated and implemented by remote control from the dungeons of social thought in Washington has served to create problems on most reservations that, at times, appear to be insurmountable.

Governmental policies such as the forced removal of Indian children from their homes to be placed in governmental and religious boarding schools to eradicate their Indianness and to indoctrinate them into believing they were something they were not have created nearly irreparable damage upon the hearts and minds of the Indian people.

So has the suppression of Indian religious practices, the mass relocation of Indian families from their reservations to the ghettoes of large American cities and the forcing of Indians to live under the constant threat of the abrogation of their treaties and the termination of their reservations.

And so today the Indian tribes of America find themselves in a mess that is not of their own making. Terminating their status as sovereign nations and abrogating their treaties is not the answer. To attempt this would lead to international condemnation of the United States and would render meaningless the words printed in every document the United States holds up to the rest of the world.

The answer to solving this tragic enigma is quite simple -- at least to most tribal leaders. Stop treating the Indian nations as dependent wards and start treating them like the sovereign nations they are. This would be a strong beginning.

As one tribal leader put it when broaching this subject, ''If the powers in Washington can't read our traditional sign language or our smoke signals, do you suppose they can read our lips if we speak to them in English?''

Tim Giago is editor in chief and publisher of Indian Country Today, a national weekly newspaper on American Indian issues.

Pub Date: 9/25/96

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