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Bender: Bring back federal work programs

With the deepening of the recession, Native Americans – in particular reservation populations – need to find a ready alternative source of income, especially since reservation gaming is on the decline due to the crisis. Looking back into the pages of Indian history (although laden for the most part with appalling tragedy) there are some interesting surprises from which can spring rays of hope.

One encounter with the unexpected had to do with the Great Depression. This involved the Civilian Conservation Corps, which enabled many Native Americans to survive the Depression more comfortably than in pre-Depression days. Ironically, for many Indian populations the Great Depression was a time of comparative plenty due to the CCC.

The vast majority of American Indians lived in crushing and chronic poverty in the so-called prosperous ‘Roaring Twenties.’

To begin with, the vast majority of American Indians lived in crushing and chronic poverty in the so-called prosperous “Roaring Twenties.” An independent study of 1928 reported that 46.8 percent of Native Americans lived on a per capita income of only $100 to $200 per year, with only 2.2 percent receiving incomes of $500 per year. With the onset of the Depression in 1929, Native Americans’ economic situation became even more severe as normal income from wage work, land leases, the sale of oil and timber and arts and crafts dramatically decreased. By the latter part of 1931, Indian per capita income was only $81 per year.

The CCC was established as an agency to provide employment and training to young men and war veterans and, to a limited extent, young Native American men who could not find work otherwise during the Great Depression. The program included public works projects and initiatives to conserve and develop natural resources where reservation populations were involved. Participants received food, clothing and a base monthly wage.

During this time, BIA officials got excited about having an Indian component in the then newly-formed CCC. These authorities knew the reservations were in dire need of soil erosion control, forestation improvements, restoration of grazing lands and other CCC-type projects that could provide employment to Native Americans under the new program. Moreover, bureau leaders believed Native Americans should have their own organization apart from the regular CCC. In fact, President Roosevelt approved a separate CCC program for Indians. In the first program sign-up period more than 14,000 Indians were employed in just six months time.

Since the massive unemployment of the Depression-era severely limited the possibility of off-reservation work, the main focus of the CCC, which dealt with land preservation projects, was to help those who remained on the reservations. Therefore, the natural emphasis of the CCC was to conserve and improve reservation land so more Native Americans could make a living from ranching and farming.

The original Indian CCC projects were headquartered in cities located near reservations or in heavily populated Native areas such as Muskogee, Okla.; Minneapolis, Minn.; Phoenix, Ariz.; Spokane, Wash.; and Albuquerque, N.M. These district offices corresponded to the major geographic regions with the largest American Indian populations.

By July 1933, 56 reservations were involved. Native American reaction to joining the CCC greatly varied depending upon tribal and area divisions. For some Indians, traditional animosity toward the Army kept them from enrolling because the program was under military control. Others refused to consent to the medical examinations required. Some comparatively prosperous tribes such as the Klamaths, refused to join because they did well economically even in the Depression.

But the important reality of this program was that it worked in terms of providing employment to reservations that had been bereft of jobs for generations. There was a huge diversity of project work done by enrollees. The reports of the program list 126 different types of projects which ranged from improvement of grazing lands in Arizona to the operation of fish hatcheries in Wisconsin.

CCC field supervisors worked to select projects based on geographic conditions and specific reservation needs with the goal of affording Native Americans a decent livable wage. Hence, the Indian CCC in the Pacific Northwest and Great Lakes regions focused largely on forestation. Native enrollees commonly built trails, cut forest lanes and constructed lookout towers to protect Indian lumber resources from fires. Also, large areas of timber were covered by crews who maintained projects to combat blister rust disease and pine beetles. Just as necessary were the miles of telephone lines strung by enrollees between lookouts and headquarters so reservation fires could be quickly detected and extinguished.

In the Southwest, the northern Great Plains and the Great Basin of Utah and Nevada the Indian CCC concentrated on improving reservation grazing lands. To achieve this, Native workers controlled rodent populations, drilled wells, reseeded rangelands, developed springs and built thousands of earth and masonry dams. In the Southwest to improve grazing enrollees were able to control wild mustangs on livestock lands. This provided increased browsing for cattle, goats and sheep.

Such a program for all reservations in need would be small potatoes in cost comparison to the billions being thrown to the sinking U.S. corporations.

In tandem with range advancement was the control of soil erosion. The dams that stored water for livestock also reduced soil erosion and developed reseeded range that was resistant to the ravages of drought and wind. Oklahoma Indians built check dams and terraces to stop topsoil loss from water runoff and set out some 200 miles of shelterbelts in the western sector of the state to prevent wind erosion. The timber of the shelterbelts grew lush and tall and presented mute testimony against the notion that trees never flourished on the Great Plains.

The CCC also offered educational benefits to Native participants. But, the point to be made is that many Indians saw more employment opportunities during the Depression than before or after.

Congress abruptly terminated the Indian CCC July 2, 1942. Strangely, the specific details on the elimination of the program are missing because when the federal government transferred the Office of Indian Affairs to Chicago, few records were kept.

As we are in the midst of what could be another severe depression, the Obama administration needs to consider restarting a program similar to the Indian CCC of the 1930s. This time, however, a permanent program of this type should be considered to produce income for the economically disadvantaged reservations.

Economic pundits, political philosophers and well-meaning moralizing elements from all stripes of non-Indian America have been wringing their hands for years in an attempt to find a solution to Indian country’s paramount unemployment problems. Gaming has provided some relief, but with non-Indian casino patrons finding themselves in a similar economic abyss as their Native American counterparts have been mired in for countless generations, that source of Indian income will be diminishing significantly, if not drying up.

The government should make such a program permanent as it obviously has the funds. Such a program for all reservations in need would be small potatoes in cost comparison to the billions being thrown to the sinking U.S. corporations that are victims of their own greed, stupidity and overreaching.

There are other programs worthy of resuscitation by the Obama administration that could be applied to the economic ills of Native Americans and others. Programs such as the Works Progress Administration, which employed millions of U.S. citizens from 1935 – 1943 and the Federal Writers’ Project and the National Youth Administration, which provided part-time employment to young people ages 16 – 24, enabling hundreds of thousands of young people to maintain an education and obtain work experience.

The programs outlined above are just a few the Obama administration needs to quickly pursue and move into action. Again, emphasis should be placed on the re-animation of a permanent CCC program, for all reservation populations.

Albert Bender is a Cherokee lawyer and community activist from Antioch, Tenn.