The greatest obstacle to Indian progress - that is the stability and
improvement of social and economic conditions for the people - has been
federal Indian policy. The policy dictates of U.S. leaders regarding Indian
nations have twisted and turned, reversed and flip-flopped so much over the
past century, it has been near impossible for Indian community leaders to
adequately plan and execute successful strategies.
Beyond the early military persecution and mayhem, the condescending
paternalism has been nearly too much to bear. Decisions made from afar to
impact Indian community issues, usually by bureaucrats bent on their own
benign or malign motivation, have been consistent only in wreaking havoc on
the Indian body politic. It was the "Friends of the Indian," after all who
most intensely called for the allotment (read grand theft) of Indian lands
at the end of the 19th century and designed the forced education of young
Indians in the memory-destroying boarding schools.
The flip-flops went back and forth for nearly a century, between
conservative ideology (termination) to liberal (trust status bureaucracy)
until out of a somewhat unexpected source - President Richard M. Nixon -
came a more Indian-driven approach: Self-determination. It was Nixon who
advocated and advanced the Indian Self-Determination and Education
Assistance Act of 1975, which was signed by President Gerald Ford. This Act
officially committed the federal government to "maximum Indian
participation in the government and education of Indian people." It has
provided the key, within federal law, for making manifest the quest for a
freedom based on Indian nation sovereign thought and action.
This Act of Nixon's was not, of course, without its struggle.
A recent Harvard University study on American Indian economics, reported by
Indian Country Today Associate Editor Jim Adams, concludes as much. As
Professor Joseph P. Kalt, director of the project and a joint author of the
study, told ICT: "If you look at the policy of self determination you would
conclude that it is the best policy in 100 or 200 years for solid progress
in taking the tribes out of poverty."
Produced by the Harvard Project on American Indian Development, the study
compared data from the 1990 and 2000 Census. It found striking improvement
in tribal income, education and housing. The rise in income has been a
trend before - but in this period of self-determination and growth of
assertion of tribal sovereignty, the meaning has changed.
In the 1970s, for instance, reservation income grew by 49 percent, but the
source of the growth in income was primarily from government grants. This
level of assistance was decimated by reductions during the Reagan and
subsequent administrations, including Clinton's.
Exactly 100 years from the passing of the Dawes Severalty Act that broke up
and gave away 100 million acres of Indian tribal property to mostly white
American citizens, the Supreme Court's 1987 Cabazon decision followed by
the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), initiated the process of
self-determined nation rebuilding in Indian country. As the surge of tribal
gaming through the 1990s brought forth a whole new source of revenue, it
spawned a tribally-based capitalization of numerous and already quite
diverse business enterprises.
After two centuries of wrestling in place with the mammoth federal
bureaucracy, Indian country is beginning to walk. This is what is making
It must be noted that an enormous economic gap remains between Indian
country and the dominant culture. While "real per capita income grew at a
much faster rate for Indians than for the U.S. as a whole, it is still less
than half of the national average," Co-author Jonathan B. Taylor reminded
The category on personal income revealed that: "Indians living on
reservations, real (adjusted for inflation) per capita income grew 33
percent in the '90s, compared to the U.S. growth rate of 11 percent." But
even at the present rate, Taylor calculated Indian country will not catch
up for at least another half a century. U.S. per capita income in 2000 is
$21,587, compared to reservation Indian per capita of $7,942.
Although the advent of gaming plays a decisive role in the gains, this is
not always uniform. Housing improved more for non-gaming tribes than gaming
tribes, for example. The study also detected a Navajo success story of some
magnitude. Despite a no-gaming option among Dine during those years, the
rise in per capita income of tribal members there kept up well with that of
gaming tribes. This nugget calls for a study in itself.
The Indian economic revolution is just getting started. Reports from the
Republican-dominated Congress describe a climate of serious cutbacks in
much-needed and treaty-guaranteed program funding. Considering the wanton
spending of the current administration, the fledging economic revival may
be all that tribes will be able to depend upon in the coming decades. Its
bases need constant defense and a continuously growing information flow.
The Harvard project is providing valuable research for Indian country. The
authors of the study provided the right focus that, as our own Jim Adams,
wrote: "Basically, sovereignty works."