Plutocracy in the US and Egalitarian Indian Nations

iStock / Trump Tower, on 5th Avenue in New York City, is seen at night. The 58-floor skyscraper was finished in 1983.

Duane Champagne

Wealth commonly distributed in Indian country; is US government a plutocracy?.

When Europeans first landed in the Americas they generally found economically and politically egalitarian Indian nations and communities. Wealth and political power were generally distributed among a coalition of local political and economic units in the form of villages, clans, lineages or the like. There was considerable local political independence and local control over economic assets. Many European travelers and officials made comment and sometimes used the economic and political egalitarianism of the Indians as critiques against the centralized political power of absolutist European kings and the concentrated wealth and economic assets of hereditary aristocratic classes. The Americas promised a new kind of society with opportunities for economic gain and political freedom.

A contemporary complaint about U.S. society, and perhaps about many of the world’s present nations, is that there is a small percent of persons who have accumulated a large amount of economic assets. The top one percent is one current expression. The American President, Donald Trump, is known as a leader whose most extensive experience has been raising billions of dollars from real estate transactions. In some views, the president represents the very rich in America. One of his primary objectives is to reduce taxes on the rich.

Many contemporary and historical nations have been controlled and managed by a plutocracy, a word used to mean the rule of a nation by its richest members. Most contemporary nations declare they uphold some form or another of democracy. Most nations, however, tend to be managed by plutocratic groups that manage government in ways that serve the interests of the rich. Some researchers and commentators have raised warnings about the increasing inequality of wealth in the U.S. and other nations. Plutocracies have a strong historical tendency toward greater and more centralized concentrations of wealth and political power. Leading to increased centralized political power and less democracy.

Most indigenous nations around the world still tend toward cultural, economic, and political decentralization. Tribes in the United States, use the wealth gained from gaming in ways that support egalitarian redistribution of wealth and political power. By law, 70 percent of tribal gaming profits must be redistributed through social investments. Gaming funds are usually redistributed in equal amounts to all tribal members. Tribal gaming leaders do not get larger shares than other tribal members. By entering the gaming industry, many tribal communities entered into the American entrepreneurial market-based enterprise, incurring ownership, and investment risk. Gaming, for many tribal members is a means to obtaining a livelihood. However, gaming provides the means for the continuity and self-management of tribal cultures, communities, governments, and land. Profits from gaming supply resources for protecting tribal rights, and at the same time participating in the market economy.

The risk of accumulating large concentrations of wealth could lead to plutocratic governments in Indian country. However, so far, Indian gaming communities have remained egalitarian and politically decentralized, often along lines of kinship and local group cultural and economic identities and organization. Market economy and wealth have not transformed Indian nations into private individualistic entrepreneurs, but have become the means by which tribal communities can preserve community, government, culture, and economic well-being.

Nevertheless, while Indian gaming is legally possible for most tribes, about 10 percent of Indian gaming communities make significant profits. The economic inequalities of Indian gaming are distributed across the U.S. Most tribal communities remain economically and politically marginalized, for lack of economic opportunities. Many Indians prefer to live in tribal communities or otherwise remain attached. Markets can support tribal communities and their values of egalitarian economic and political distribution. Contemporary Indian nations remain an example that explores the possibility of avoiding plutocratic government and extreme concentration of economic wealth. The lessons of the early European commentators against absolutist states and aristocratic classes remain today as critiques of increasing concentrations of wealth and plutocratic government.