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Attack on the Tribal Middle Class, Part I

Read part II and part III.

No matter what the growing “Occupy Wall Street” movement seeks to accomplish, it has struck a nerve. Members of the American middle class are losing jobs, homes and savings because of the greed and carelessness of “too-big-to-fail” banks. Meanwhile “the country’s six largest financial institutions . . . now have amassed assets equal to more than 60% of our gross domestic product” (The Guardian). That wealth is not trickling down. According to a recent international study, the United States has the fourth highest income inequality rate per capita – trailing only Chile, Mexico and Turkey.

Make no mistake, the American middle class is hurting. Yet while the non-Indian middle class is at least being considered for U.S. governmental support, the tribal middle class – no stranger to the acute pains of economic recession or income inequality – faces rising attack by state and federal government.

Generally speaking, the middle class is comprised of persons with regular, formal employment, a salary and some benefits, and a reasonable amount of discretionary income – in other words, people who are not living hand-to-mouth. As one economist explains, the middle class are “people who are not resigned to a life of poverty, who are prepared to make sacrifices to create a better life for themselves but who have not started with life’s material problems solved because they have material assets to make their lives easy” (The Economist).

While innumerable Indians still live in abject poverty (despite Indian gaming), an increasing number of tribal citizens are now firmly part of the middle class as a result of hard work and sacrifice. This three-part series explores the tribal middle class, beginning below with a discussion of its genesis, which ironically was the result of federal policies that sought to destroy Indian America. Part Two will consider the emergence of a distinctly tribal middle class, including the tribal small business/private sector, as a consequence of Indian self-determination policy. Part Three will examine the rising national attack on the tribal middle class and how Indian Country might countervail that attack.

The creation of the Indian middle class stemmed largely from a focused and determined federal policy to “[k]ill the Indian[,] and save the man.” This policy emerged in the late 1800’s with the proliferation of Congressional attempts “to keep order in Indian country,” and to otherwise legislate Indian affairs for the “national interest.” The “national interest,” of course, was to “encourage Indian assimilation into the white system of private property ownership” (Yankton Sioux Tribe v. Podhradsky).

In 1860, the United States began to forcibly remove Indian children from reservation homes to “teach” them the importance of, among other things, private property and individual wealth. Indian boys were taught trades and girls learned the domestic tasks of white households, the goal being that they would assimilate into the American middle class upon their “graduation.” Indeed, generations of Indians raised in the boarding school system never returned home. Countless tribal people shamefully adopted a federally imposed Western lifestyle and assimilated into middle class America.

In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment (Dawes) Act, giving the federal executive branch authority to carve up Indian reservations into personally assigned allotments for distribution to individual Indians. Once a reservation had been divided into allotments, the government purchased “surplus land” and opened surplus areas to white settlers. The magic of private property ownership was supposed to drive Indians to adopt the “habits of civilized life” and in turn, towards the progressive individualism of the American dream. “Within a generation or two, it was thought, the tribes would dissolve, their reservations would disappear, and individual Indians would be absorbed into the larger community of white settlers” (South Dakota v. Yankton Sioux Tribe).

The Urban Indian Relocation Program also furthered the assimilationist agenda. In 1940, 92% of the Indian population lived beyond metropolitan areas, earning over four times less than non-Indian suburbanites. Then, in 1952, the federal government declared its policy of Indian relocation, enticing Reservation Indians to seven major cities where jobs were supposedly plentiful. Today, 61% of all Indians live outside of Indian Country. Although the consensus is still out on whether these relocation programs worked, a gap emerged between those Indians who absorbed into the American middle class, and those who refused to assimilate. The 1928 Miriam Report, for example, found that while some “relocated” Indians lived in “cheaply furnished rooming houses with rents comparatively high” and conditions “below a reasonable standard of living,” the more “well-established” Indians were “rather attractively housed . . . in the less expensive suburbs.”

World War II also played a role in the creation of the Indian middle class. American Indians served in the war in great numbers. In national celebration of Indians’ war contributions and sacrifices, the United States declared “a new sense of capacity of Indian people and of American obligations to them.” The federal government, claiming that “equality for American Indians depended on freeing them from federal supervision,” thus set out to secure “the progress of the Indian toward the goal [that] is rightfully his – to take his place in the white man’s community on the white man’s level and with the white man’s opportunity and security status” (H.R. Rep. No. 78-2091 (1944)). Federal termination policy ensued.

Although federal termination policy was later reversed, termination and early assimilation policies widened the gap between those “urban” Indians who settled into the American middle class, and those “rural” Indians who continued to live amidst then fledgling tribal economies. Both ways had their downside. While the move to suburbia came at the expense of 38% higher rates of accidental deaths, 54% higher rates of diabetes, and 126% higher rates of liver disease and cirrhosis; the poverty and unemployment rate on Indian Reservations remained the worst in the nation, with 80% living below the poverty line and unemployment rates as high as 80%.

Amidst such schizophrenic socio-economic conditions, by the mid-20th Century, the American Indian middle class was forged.

Gabriel S. Galanda, an enrolled member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes, is a partner at Galanda Broadman, PLLC, in Seattle. He represents tribal governments, businesses and members in all varieties of dispute and business dealing. Gabe can be reached at (206) 691-3631 or