Native and Other Americans

By Weisberger, Bernard A. | American Heritage, May 1999 | Go to article overview

Native and Other Americans


Weisberger, Bernard A., American Heritage


Indian policy has always had more to do with current social thinking than with tribal life

A CERTAIN DEFTNESS IS NECESSARY WHEN WRITING ABOUT Indians (or Native Americans), to avoid the booby traps of overgeneralization, sentimentality, indignation, or defensiveness. Let me begin then with a straightforward recital of some facts laid out in a recent news story: "Backlash Growing as Indians Make a Stand for Sovereignty." The tribal government of Montana's Crow Indians tried to tap into some of the profits of the tourist trade that every year fills their reservation--the site of Custer's last stand--by levying a 4 percent tax on the businesses that serve the visitors, including those owned by non-Indians, who have no vote in the matter. It's vital to the Crow people to have an independent source of income and it's also, one might think, a matter of belated justice to the dispossessed. But the white owner of the Custer Battlefield Trading Company doesn't see it that way: "I didn't persecute anybody. We didn't do anything to them, and we don't owe them anything."

The clash is one battle in a wider war, sparked by more aggressive Indian assertions of sovereignty over lands protected by treaties with the United States, which take priority over state laws under the Constitution.

In Wisconsin and Minnesota, federal courts have awarded Indians extensive hunting and fishing rights untouchable by the states; in California, San Manuel and other Indians are resisting a governor's attempt to bring their profitable casinos under rules that apply to non-Indian gambling enterprises, and in other states as well the sheltering of Indian enterprises has provoked a backlash.

The issue isn't simple. It pits property rights and States' Rights against historic promises to the Indians, and it echoes larger social debates over such matters as multiculturalism and free enterprise.

Do Indians on reservations still need separate governments of their own? Do they possess a set of specially valuable cultures to be cherished and preserved, or should they melt into the broader American mold?

Such questions have been explored in this magazine's pages, in "Revolution in Indian Country," July/August 1996. What intrigues me about them is how they frame themselves neatly within the context of the conservative and high-rolling 1990s. Haven't we been hearing spirited attacks for years now on allegedly excessive federal power, confiscatory taxes, special privileges for minorities, the disuniting of America by ethnic particularism, and the unfair regulatory tilting of the economic playing field? Whatever Congress does about Indians anytime soon will say as much about con temporary social thought as it does about Indian life. That's been the case in the past too. The very existence of the current tribal governments is owed to legislation enacted sixty-four years ago, when the country was in a very different frame of mind, and that law, the Wheeler-Howard Act of 1934, was itself a dramatic reversal of a forty-seven-year-old statute, the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887. Wheeler-Howard aimed to preserve tribal life and the reservations. The Dawes Act was devised, with the best of intentions, to destroy them.

By 1881 almost all the Indian peoples within the United States had been compelled to sign treaties that confined them to reservations and made them dependents of the federal government. That year Helen Hunt Jackson, a New England-born literary woman of fifty, wrote A Century of Dishonor. The book detailed the many violated promises that had accompanied the process and the corrupt practices by which white settlers, with government connivance, were continuing to encroach on the remaining lands and rights of the impoverished and vanishing tribes. "I think I feel as you must have felt in the old abolition days," Jackson wrote to a friend; and like the abolitionists, she was as much outraged by the immorality of her fellow whites as she was sympathetic to their "victims," of whom she knew little directly. …

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