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"Individual sovereignty" needs to be defended, too

Alarms go off in Indian country at the phrase ìproperty rights.î Historically, and in some quarters today, it referred to the rights of property carved by settlers out of aboriginal territory. Behind it stands an ideology of economic individualism that was used, both sincerely and with massive cynicism, to destroy tribes outright. But much of this doctrine deserves a close second look. Like many things these days, what once worked for Europeans might serve Native needs very well.

One of the founders of economic liberalism was John Locke, who we recently argued designed his theory of property to justify the English settlersí dispossession of the American Indian. As several shrewd scholars have noted, his theory that property rights arose when man ìmixed his laborî with the raw materials of nature only worked in the beginning, when primitive man came out of the State of Nature, or Englishmen settled in America. But keeping all this in mind, Native policy-makers have to face one massive fact: The economic principles that Europeans derived from Locke have had overwhelming success, and not just for Europeans.

Can they also serve the indigenous peoples of the Americas? This is the question raised in several new publications from the Bozeman, Mont.-based think tank PERC. The acronym has evolved over the years, from something like Political Economy Research Center, with its roots in John Locke and Adam Smith, to Politics and Environmentalism Research Center, with an emphasis on western resources. Some right-wing hardliners have accused the group of going soft on tree-huggers, but it has kept an admirable focus on arguing that its set of free-market principles can protect the environment as effectively, and maybe more so, than the agenda of the ìenvironmentalist movement.î Along the way, the group has developed a deep interest in American Indian economics.

PERC Executive Director Terry Anderson has been a driving force. He recalls spending summers on a reservation where his uncle managed a ranch. (He is also an accomplished bow hunter.) In 1995, he published ìSovereign Nations or Reservations? An Economic History of American Indiansî (Pacific Research Institute), and he has just co-authored the Stanford University Press book ìSelf-Determination: the Other Path for Native Americans.î PERC Reports, the instituteís monthly magazine, is marking the bookís publication with a special issue on ìAmerican Indians and property rights.î

These writings challenge many preconceptions, but, or because of that, they deserve careful attention. Anderson talks of his acute sense of the contrast between his comfortable middle-class upbringing and the poverty surrounding the Native ranch hands that he worked with and idolized. This contrast, he and his colleagues argue, is the direct result of the difference in economic, political and legal institutions. One of their more controversial and fascinating assertions is that Native life before contact had an innate sense of property rights, which produced highly efficient management of natural resources. Much of the highly romanticized tribal collectivism, they argue, was actually imposed later by the dominant society, at great cost to Native economic success.

They make very cogent points about the dysfunction of the reservation economy. The land tenure system, intended to protect tribes against predatory settlers and speculators, has been one of the greatest barriers to Native economic success. Anderson started his research in 1992 with a survey of agricultural productivity on large Western reservations. These territories, he writes, ìare a mosaic of land ownership,î some privately owned (in fee simple), some federal trust land allotted to tribal members (individual trust) and some tribally owned but held in federal trust. The trust tenures come encrusted with bureaucratic restrictions, and individual trust suffers the further problem of fractionation ñ ownership by hundreds of family members as the inheritance passed to succeeding generations. Anderson and his co-author, Dean Lueck, hypothesized that reservation fee simple lands would be much more productive than trust lands, and found in fact that they were by dramatic numbers.

Trust land has an even more severe disadvantage. Since it canít be alienated, it canít be pledged to raise capital, as in bank mortgages. A great deal of thought at the U.S. Treasury and elsewhere has gone into getting around this problem, but it still deprives Indian country of access to one of the most common sources of investment. We have seen at least one study that maintains that this factor alone is sufficient to account for the income difference in Montana between reservations and their neighboring counties. Nevertheless, the traditionalist argument of common land ownership as crucial to continued tribal identity is persuasive to most Native communities.

The PERC scholars focus on other institutions as well. Weaknesses in tribal courts and a lack of consistent business laws also discourage outside investment and stifle the energy of homegrown entrepreneurs. (The drive to incorporate the Uniform Commercial Code into tribal laws is one of the significant economic developments in current reservation life.) Anderson reports the astonishing finding that reservations which have accepted state court civil jurisdiction have seen per capita income grow at rate 15 percentage points above reservations with tribal court adjudication.

In a fascinating recurrent theme, other writers see these institutional weaknesses as a burden on indigenous peoples throughout the Americas. They frequently cite the Latin American economist Hernando de Soto, one of whose book titles puts the question in a nutshell: ìThe Mystery of Capitalism: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else.î

One of their writers, the Crow leader and former Montana state legislator Bill Yellowtail, spells out the implicit criticism of tribal sovereignty. ìThis paradigm has an obvious shortcoming,î he writes. ìIt lacks consideration for the role of the Indian citizen, the individual, the person.î

Yellowtail argues for ìIndian sovereignty ñ the autonomy of the Indian person.î This means, he says, ìre-equipping Indian people with the dignity of self-sufficiency, the right not to depend upon the white man, the government, or even the tribe.î He warns against the myth of victimhood, personal and community despondency and hopelessness and its epidemic manifestations: ìsubstance abuse, violence, depression, crime, trash.î

He calls for a ìcircling back to the ancient and most crucial of Indian values ñ an understanding that the power of the tribal community is founded upon the collective energy of strong, self-sufficient, self-initiating, entrepreneurial, independent, healthful, and therefore powerful, individual persons. Human beings. Indians.î

This is language that is resonating in Indian country. Itís true that individual entrepreneurship, the spirit of undertaking economic activity on oneís own and building oneís own business and wealth, has been overshadowed by tribal corporate activity, especially the tribal enterprises fed by the astonishing flow of capital from gaming. But where traditions and opportunities have allowed it, some reservations have seen the emergence of a vibrant business class. This is a development that is needed to spread the wealth and dignity of life across the many divides in Indian country, between gaming and non-gaming tribe, between middle-class mainstream and impoverished reservation.

If it requires Native people to search for the useful ideas in the slogan ìproperty rightsî and in the classical economics of John Locke himself, the results can be worth the effort.

Alarms go off in Indian country at the phrase ìproperty rights.î Historically, and in some quarters today, it referred to the rights of property carved by settlers out of aboriginal territory. Behind it stands an ideology of economic individualism that was used, both sincerely and with massive cynicism, to destroy tribes outright. But much of this doctrine deserves a close second look. Like many things these days, what once worked for Europeans might serve Native needs very well.One of the founders of economic liberalism was John Locke, who we recently argued designed his theory of property to justify the English settlersí dispossession of the American Indian. As several shrewd scholars have noted, his theory that property rights arose when man ìmixed his laborî with the raw materials of nature only worked in the beginning, when primitive man came out of the State of Nature, or Englishmen settled in America. But keeping all this in mind, Native policy-makers have to face one massive fact: The economic principles that Europeans derived from Locke have had overwhelming success, and not just for Europeans.Can they also serve the indigenous peoples of the Americas? This is the question raised in several new publications from the Bozeman, Mont.-based think tank PERC. The acronym has evolved over the years, from something like Political Economy Research Center, with its roots in John Locke and Adam Smith, to Politics and Environmentalism Research Center, with an emphasis on western resources. Some right-wing hardliners have accused the group of going soft on tree-huggers, but it has kept an admirable focus on arguing that its set of free-market principles can protect the environment as effectively, and maybe more so, than the agenda of the ìenvironmentalist movement.î Along the way, the group has developed a deep interest in American Indian economics.PERC Executive Director Terry Anderson has been a driving force. He recalls spending summers on a reservation where his uncle managed a ranch. (He is also an accomplished bow hunter.) In 1995, he published ìSovereign Nations or Reservations? An Economic History of American Indiansî (Pacific Research Institute), and he has just co-authored the Stanford University Press book ìSelf-Determination: the Other Path for Native Americans.î PERC Reports, the instituteís monthly magazine, is marking the bookís publication with a special issue on ìAmerican Indians and property rights.îThese writings challenge many preconceptions, but, or because of that, they deserve careful attention. Anderson talks of his acute sense of the contrast between his comfortable middle-class upbringing and the poverty surrounding the Native ranch hands that he worked with and idolized. This contrast, he and his colleagues argue, is the direct result of the difference in economic, political and legal institutions. One of their more controversial and fascinating assertions is that Native life before contact had an innate sense of property rights, which produced highly efficient management of natural resources. Much of the highly romanticized tribal collectivism, they argue, was actually imposed later by the dominant society, at great cost to Native economic success.They make very cogent points about the dysfunction of the reservation economy. The land tenure system, intended to protect tribes against predatory settlers and speculators, has been one of the greatest barriers to Native economic success. Anderson started his research in 1992 with a survey of agricultural productivity on large Western reservations. These territories, he writes, ìare a mosaic of land ownership,î some privately owned (in fee simple), some federal trust land allotted to tribal members (individual trust) and some tribally owned but held in federal trust. The trust tenures come encrusted with bureaucratic restrictions, and individual trust suffers the further problem of fractionation ñ ownership by hundreds of family members as the inheritance passed to succeeding generations. Anderson and his co-author, Dean Lueck, hypothesized that reservation fee simple lands would be much more productive than trust lands, and found in fact that they were by dramatic numbers.Trust land has an even more severe disadvantage. Since it canít be alienated, it canít be pledged to raise capital, as in bank mortgages. A great deal of thought at the U.S. Treasury and elsewhere has gone into getting around this problem, but it still deprives Indian country of access to one of the most common sources of investment. We have seen at least one study that maintains that this factor alone is sufficient to account for the income difference in Montana between reservations and their neighboring counties. Nevertheless, the traditionalist argument of common land ownership as crucial to continued tribal identity is persuasive to most Native communities. The PERC scholars focus on other institutions as well. Weaknesses in tribal courts and a lack of consistent business laws also discourage outside investment and stifle the energy of homegrown entrepreneurs. (The drive to incorporate the Uniform Commercial Code into tribal laws is one of the significant economic developments in current reservation life.) Anderson reports the astonishing finding that reservations which have accepted state court civil jurisdiction have seen per capita income grow at rate 15 percentage points above reservations with tribal court adjudication.In a fascinating recurrent theme, other writers see these institutional weaknesses as a burden on indigenous peoples throughout the Americas. They frequently cite the Latin American economist Hernando de Soto, one of whose book titles puts the question in a nutshell: ìThe Mystery of Capitalism: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else.îOne of their writers, the Crow leader and former Montana state legislator Bill Yellowtail, spells out the implicit criticism of tribal sovereignty. ìThis paradigm has an obvious shortcoming,î he writes. ìIt lacks consideration for the role of the Indian citizen, the individual, the person.îYellowtail argues for ìIndian sovereignty ñ the autonomy of the Indian person.î This means, he says, ìre-equipping Indian people with the dignity of self-sufficiency, the right not to depend upon the white man, the government, or even the tribe.î He warns against the myth of victimhood, personal and community despondency and hopelessness and its epidemic manifestations: ìsubstance abuse, violence, depression, crime, trash.îHe calls for a ìcircling back to the ancient and most crucial of Indian values ñ an understanding that the power of the tribal community is founded upon the collective energy of strong, self-sufficient, self-initiating, entrepreneurial, independent, healthful, and therefore powerful, individual persons. Human beings. Indians.îThis is language that is resonating in Indian country. Itís true that individual entrepreneurship, the spirit of undertaking economic activity on oneís own and building oneís own business and wealth, has been overshadowed by tribal corporate activity, especially the tribal enterprises fed by the astonishing flow of capital from gaming. But where traditions and opportunities have allowed it, some reservations have seen the emergence of a vibrant business class. This is a development that is needed to spread the wealth and dignity of life across the many divides in Indian country, between gaming and non-gaming tribe, between middle-class mainstream and impoverished reservation.If it requires Native people to search for the useful ideas in the slogan ìproperty rightsî and in the classical economics of John Locke himself, the results can be worth the effort.