'The New Trail of Tears' Is a Neo-Liberal Recipe for Our Assimilation

Naomi Schaefer Riley’s book The New Trail of Tears: How Washington is Destroying American Indians (2016) purports to be a pro-Indian exposé of failed U.S. federal Indian policies. In actuality, her book is an effort to sell us free-market neo-liberal capitalism while trying to push Indian “assimilation” as the supposed solution to the many woes that Indian Country experiences on a daily basis.

Undoubtedly, the most powerful point that Ms. Riley makes is found at the end of her book. She quotes the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America. His quote perfectly and succinctly identifies the process of domination and dehumanization that our nations have been forcibly subjected to for centuries by colonizing powers such as the United States on the basis of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and Domination.

The latter part of Riley’s Tocqueville quote reads: “The social tie, which distress had long since weakened, is then dissolved; they have no longer a country, and soon they will not be a people; their very families are obliterated; their common name is forgotten; their language perishes; and all traces of their origin disappear.”

What Tocqueville so capably summed up in those few words is the process of genocide hidden behind the façade of “civilization,” a word which Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines as “the forcing of a particular cultural pattern on a population to which it is foreign” (emphasis added). Tocqueville’s quote sums up the gradual disintegration of our nations that has been occurring as a consequence of the United States forcing generation-after-generation a Christian and Western European system of domination on our nations and peoples.

Riley blithely rejects out of hand any effort to address the doctrine of Christian Discovery. She leads up to this rejection by asking how efforts to do away with Columbus Day by people such as my Shawnee friend Glenn T. Morris, are “going to help the average American Indian?” “The short answer,” she says, “is it won’t.” She then continues, “Neither, for that matter, will the resolution passed in 2014 by the Catholic Leadership Conference of Women Religious asking the pope to repudiate the ‘Doctrine of Discovery.’” She continues:

The letter to the pope says that if he rebukes the doctrine, ‘all will know that today’s world is different from the 15th century as we move away from patterns of domination and dehumanization.’ Most people probably already know that.

Apparently Riley does not realize that institutionalized domination by states is what our nations and peoples are still living with as a destructive force to this day. Her own statistics document this. Also, Riley chose not to mention the quotes used by the Catholic Leadership Conference, quotes taken from the fifteenth century papal bulls. Riley does not quote the language used to dominate non-Christian nations. She chose to not mention in her book our efforts to address the institutionalized patterns of domination used against our nations which emerged out of the papal bulls of the fifteenth century and found their way into U.S. federal Indian law and policy.

In the last sentence of her book, Ms. Riley says that we as Indian people have “chosen” the forcible process of “civilization” to which our nations have been subjected: “Indians, as any visitor to a reservation can see, have chosen civilization; now it’s time for America to make them equal Americans.” This kind of writing is not only factually and historically wrongheaded, it provides nothing in the way of insightful analysis. What it attempts to do is the advance an anti-Indian political agenda that would resurrect in the twenty-first century policies that failed abysmally in the nineteenth and twentieth.

In the Tocqueville quote chosen by Ms. Riley, how did he write about our ancestors having chosen white civilization? Here’s how: “It is impossible to conceive the frightful sufferings that attend these forced migrations. They are undertaken by a people already exhausted and reduced; and the countries to which the newcomers betake themselves are inhabited by other tribes, which receive them with jealous hostility. Hunger is in the rear, war awaits them, and misery besets them on all sides.” To say that we have “chosen” civilization (U.S. domination) is patently ridiculous.

A host of failed U.S. policies were aimed at making us “equal Americans,” and they are the very same policies that resulted in our nations being in the predicaments in which we find ourselves today. Just to take one example, more than 90 million acres of our land base were overtaken and overrun by the dominating society of the United States in a supposed effort to make us “private property” owners and “equal Americans” by means of the Dawes General Allotment Act of 1887.

With regard to Indian lands held in federal “trust” status today, Riley quotes an eminent economist: “In other words, Indians have long suffered from what Nobel Prize winning economist Hernando de Soto has called ‘dead capital.’ They may possess a certain amount of land on paper, but they can’t put it to use by selling it, buying more to take advantage of economies of scale, or borrowing against it.”

Since Riley would have us believe she is a pro-Indian advocate, one might imagine that she would whole-heartedly condemn the process by which more than 65 percent of Indian lands were taken out from under Indian nations and put under the control of the dominating society of the United States. Not so fast. Instead, she quotes Terry Anderson saying:

There are, of course, arguments that the allotment experiment was a failure because it transferred so much [Indian] land to whites, but there is no systematic evidence to test this proposition. Certainly vast amounts of [Indian] land were transferred to whites, but by itself this is not prima facie evidence that Indians were worse off.

What kind of “evidence” would be necessary to “test” this? Just ask yourself, “How much better off would our Native nations be with an additional 90 million acres to work with as our national territories? And ask yourself: As a result of the General Allotment Act, who has been able to benefit from that 90 million acres that white society was able to help itself to as a result of the General Allotment Act? White society or the Indian nations? The fact that Mr. Anderson attempts to rationalize and dismiss these obvious consequences tells us that he and Ms. Riley are not to be taken seriously.

What I find more shocking than the superficial manner in which Riley has written about Indian Country, is her inability to grasp the domination and dehumanization that has resulted in our nations and peoples existing as we do today. This is what has led to the shocking statistics that she cites in an effort to make her case. That said, someone ought to inform Ms. Riley that a continuation of the same old neo-liberal agenda of attempting to assimilate us as individuals into the society of the United States is a non-starter and a non-solution to the problems she purports to address.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He is a producer of the documentary movie, The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code, directed and produced by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota), with narration by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree). The movie can be ordered from 38Plus2Productions.com.