Contrary to popular belief, especially among non-Natives, American Indians did not simply relinquish their rights to lands, waters, and other natural resources. Indeed, as a result of historic negotiations and treaties between the U.S. government and tribal nations, federal agencies are obligated to provide specific rights, services, and protections as payment for the basic wholesale exchange of the land mass of the United States.
Misnomer—the use of a wrong or unsuitable term to describe something.
The United States contractually owes tribal nations. “Indian benefits” is a misnomer for the debt owed to Native peoples. The federal government pledged through laws and treaties to compensate for land exchanges accomplished through the forced removal of tribal nations from their original homelands. Unfortunately, payment is commonly expressed as “benefits.” This term—benefits—implies giving assistance, subsidy, or even charity, rather than deserved reimbursement. The Department of Interior even describes the obligated recompense for American Indians as benefits on its webpage.
On the same website, Indian Affairs describes their programs as part of the “unique and continuing relationship with and responsibility to tribes and Indian people.” Words like “support,” “assist,” and “serve” are used in the description of the nature of the relationship between the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian people. That is, the purpose of Indian Affairs is to help us develop our “tribal governments, strong economies, and quality programs.” Within this context, the federal government and its Indian policies are benevolent—for the good of Indians and tribes.
Even the payment bartered keeps changing—and not for the good of Indians and tribes. In 2004, a U.S. Commission for Human Rights report found that the conditions in Indian country are at a crisis point due to chronic underfunding by the federal government. This same report contends that the mismanagement of funds by the BIA in 2000 resulted in a $7.4 billion dollar deficit in unmet needs for Indian country—a third of that in child welfare services. Not one of the six federal agencies responsible for the major expenditures in Indian country received a positive review from the Commission, i.e. the Department of Interior, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Justice, Department of Education, and Department of Agriculture.
In any other world, this would constitute default, or perhaps, breach of contract. Instead, the lack of payment by the federal government to the sovereign tribal nations translates into necessary budget cuts and decreased social welfare spending.
Propaganda—communication dispersed widely to influence personal and societal attitudes.
Even worse, tribal citizens endure the stigma that accompanies this discourse of Indian benefits. Whether receiving health care, picking up USDA commodities, or living in subsidized Indian housing, Native people experience shame from being treated as if they are receiving a hand-out, not deserved reimbursement. How do I know? Over the past three years, as part of my academic research about issues in Indian Country, I’ve spoken with hundreds of Native folks representing tribes from all over the country. No matter how the conversations begin, an unsolicited discussion about benefits always comes up.
Most of these Native folks express real anger when discussing the normality of non-Indian people thinking that Indians do not pay taxes and receive copious benefits, like free education, housing, healthcare, and profits from casinos. They believe that nonNative people, in general, misunderstand what services are offered and how often people receive them. Comments like “we’re all getting money from the casinos or handouts from the government” are so common. They speak of the humiliation of sitting in clinics or signing up for programs.
Lillie, an indigenous woman pursuing a master’s degree, summed it particularly well, vehemently stating, “I get sick of working with friends or people and they say, ‘Well, at least you get your school paid for.’ Uh, no, I don’t. Then they say, ‘But you get your healthcare free.’ Yeah well, you sit in the clinic all day. See how you like it. It’s a shoddy system. Also, people think we don’t pay taxes. Hey, nobody gave me that memo.”
Framing the obligatory and promised compensation by the U.S. government as merely "benefits" perpetuates the idea of Native dependency, rather than tribal sovereignty. On its most basic level, sovereignty is tribal self-rule. Sovereignty is the one thing that has been successful in breaking the historical socioeconomic dependency of tribes on the U.S. government.
However, the rhetoric of sovereignty itself becomes the stumbling block. After all, if tribes are sovereign nations with self-rule, why does the U.S. have to support and assist them? Why must the good people of the United States continue to support “Indian Benefits” with their hard-earned tax dollars? The American public must be educated that we’re not asking for any favors or charity—just what is owed to us. Nothing more, but certainly, nothing less.
Dwanna L. Robertson is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a public sociologist, and an invited speaker. Having grown up in Oklahoma, attending stomps and going to wild onion dinners, she can’t wait to get back west as soon as possible.