Archive for the ‘#nativeamerican’ Tag

Understanding the Native Housing “Crisis”   5 comments

I ran across this article on how Native Americans are a large percentage of the homeless population because they are often couch surfing and live in a secession of overcrowded homes. The article comes from the UK publication The Guardian, so I read it with interest and then felt compelled as a tribal member to comment.

Image result for image of cherokee indian reservation housingThe federal government is responsible for managing Indian affairs for the benefit of all Indians. It has largely failed in that responsibility, resulting in Native American reservations being are among the poorest communities in the United States. Here’s how the government keeps Native Americans in poverty.

Chief Justice John Marshall set Native Americans on the path to poverty in 1831 when he characterized the relationship between Indians and the government as “resembling that of a ward to his guardian.” With these words, Marshall established the “federal trust doctrine”, assigning the government as trustee of Indian affairs. That trusteeship continues today, but being treated like minor children has not served Indians well.

This doctrine rests on the foundational notion that tribes are incapable of owning or managing their lands. With the exception of Alaska, government is the legal owner of all land and assets in Indian Country and is required to manage them for the benefit of Indians. Hawaiian Native land is held in trust by the State of Hawaii. Alaskan Native land is not held individually, but is controlled by Alaska Native Corporations.

Because Indians do not generally own their land or homes on reservations, they cannot mortgage their assets for loans like other Americans. This makes it incredibly difficult to start a business in Indian Country. Even tribes with valuable natural resources remain locked in poverty. Their resources amount to “dead capital”—unable to generate growth for individuals within tribal communities.

If the tribe discovers resources to develop, it isn’t free to make use of that opportunity. All development projects on Indian land must be reviewed and authorized by the government, a notoriously slow and burdensome process. On Indian lands, companies must go through at least four federal agencies and 49 steps to acquire a permit for energy development. Off reservation, it takes only four steps. This bureaucracy prevents tribes from capitalizing on their resources.

It’s not uncommon for years to pass before the necessary approvals are acquired to begin energy development on Indian lands—a process that takes only a few months on private lands. At any time, an agency may demand more information or shut down development. Simply completing a title search can cause delays. Indians have waited six years to receive title search reports that other Americans can get in just a few days.

Thanks to the legacy of federal control, reservations have complicated legal and property systems that are detrimental to economic growth. Jurisdiction and land ownership can vary widely on reservations as a result of the government’s 19th century allotment policies. Navigating this complex system makes development and growth difficult on Indian lands.

One such difficulty is fractionated land ownership. Federal inheritance laws required many Indian lands to be passed in equal shares to multiple heirs. Any Indian who didn’t win clear title to land by 1934 was left with a fractional share of the reservation’s land held in trust. With every generation, each share was divided among more family members and today hundreds of people may have a partial claim to one share of trust land. Often there are no records of where many of these people are. On the Crow reservation, 1 million of the 2.3 million acres are held in trust for such individuals. The Dawes Act created another problem: The non-Indian owners of privatized land in a reservation have always faced legal questions over whether they come under the jurisdiction of the tribal authority. The checkerboard pattern of private and trust land in some reservations make it tough for tribes to provide services and do land-use planning. After several generations, some of these lands may have hundreds of owners per parcel. Managing these fractionated lands is nearly impossible, so much of the land remains idle.

The result is that many investors avoid Indian lands altogether. When development does occur, federal agencies are involved in every detail, even collecting payments on behalf of tribes. The royalties are then distributed back to Indians, if the government doesn’t lose the money in the process.

Prosperity is built on property rights, and reservations demonstrates what happens when property rights are weak or non-existent. Because the vast majority of land on reservations is held communally under federal trust, residents can’t get clear title to the land where their home sits … which explains the abundance of mobile homes on reservations. This prevents Native Americans from establishing credit so they can borrow money to improve their homes because they can’t use the land as collateral. Besides, investing in something you don’t own doesn’t make a lot of economic sense.

This leads to what economists call the “tragedy of the commons”: If everyone owns the land, no one does and that results in substandard housing and the barren, rundown look that comes from a lack of investment, overuse and environmental degradation. It’s a look that’s common worldwide, wherever secure property rights are lacking. We’ve all seen pictures of Africa and South America, inner city housing projects and rent-controlled apartment buildings in the U.S. that look similar to Indian reservations.

Interestingly, more than a third of the Crow reservation’s 2.3 million acres is individually owned, and the contrast with the communal land—often just on the other side of a fence—is stark. You should Google view it. Terry Anderson, executive director of the Property & Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Montana, co-authored a study showing that private land is 30-90% more productive agriculturally than the adjacent trust land. The land isn’t better: A study of 13 reservations in the West put 49% of the land in the top four quality classes, while only 38% of the land in the surrounding counties was rated that highly. For the Crow reservation, 48% of the land made the top four classes; only 33% of the adjacent land did.

“The raw quality of the land is not that much different, it’s the amount of investment in that land that’s different.” Terry Anderson, Executive Director, Property & Environmental Research Center, Bozeman, Montana

Any land reform effort must go through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which isn’t about to pave the way for its own demise by signing off on an effort to privatize reservation land. Under the 1887 Dawes Act, land could be allotted to individual Indians (and my ancestors took advantage of this in Kansas), but by 1934 so much land had been privatized that Congress reversed course and returned to a policy of communal tribal property.

“Allotment threatened the bureau so it had an incentive to end the process.” Dominic Parker, an economics professor at Montana State University.

Image result for crow indian reservation montanaI can guarantee you that my tribe’s council is like most other councils and have no intentions of giving up the patronage and power that comes with controlling vast amounts of land. Washington DC spends $2.5 billion a year on Native American programs, which is a powerful deterrent to change.

“For the bureau and other narrow interests, staying with the convoluted system of land ownership is safer than improving property rights,” Dominic Parker

And then there’s that fractionated land, again.

Anderson puts the choice for tribes in sharp terms:

“If you don’t want private ownership, and want to stay under trusteeship, then I say, ‘fine.’ But you’re going to stay underdeveloped; you’re not going to get rich.”

It’s more than reservation residents not having the right incentives to upgrade their surroundings. With some exceptions, even casinos haven’t much benefited the dozens of reservations that have built them, which includes my own. Companies and investors are often reluctant to do business on reservations—everything from signing up fast food franchisees to lending to casino projects—because getting contracts enforced under tribal law can be iffy. Indian nations can be small and issues don’t come up that often, so commercial codes aren’t well-developed and precedents are lacking. Indian defendants have a home court advantage.

“We’re a long way from having a reliable business climate. Businesses coming to the reservation ask, ‘What am I getting into?’ The tribal courts are not reliable dispute forums.” Bill Yellowtail, former Crow official and former Montana state senator

Many reservations are rich in natural resources, but there’s no big rush to develop them, given the tangled issue of property rights and the risk of making a big investment without a secure legal footing.

“We have 9 billion tons of high-quality coal sitting under the reservation, going largely untapped. Natural gas, too. Potential development galore, but that potential is never realized.” Yellowtail

Some tribes are taking steps to improve their legal structures, such as adopting new commercial codes to make their laws more uniform. Over a 30-year period, reservations that had adopted the judicial systems of the states where they’re located saw their per capita income grow 30% faster than reservations that didn’t, according to a study by Anderson and Parker. A separate study by Parker showed that Native Americans are 50% more likely to have a loan application approved when lenders have access to state courts.

“Putting reservations under the legal jurisdiction of the states, and facilitating better legal codes and better functioning court systems, would assist tribes in developing their land,” Anderson

Personally, I think a larger obstacle to these reforms isn’t logistics or special interests, but the culture of the reservations and the generational dependency. I don’t know a lot of tribal members who donate their “per capita payment checks”—derived from tribal nation trust income — back to the tribe.

“Privatizing land is fine but it falls far short of the answer. Our people don’t understand business. After 10 or 15 generations of not being involved in business, they’ve lost their feel for it. Capitalism is considered threatening to our identity, our traditions. Successful entrepreneurs are considered sell-outs, they’re ostracized. We have to promote the dignity of self-sufficiency among Indians. Instead we have a culture of malaise: ‘The tribe will take care of us.’ We accept the myth of communalism. And we don’t value education. We resist it.” Yellowtail

Yellowtail believes that the situation is improving. I agree with him in part. There are more reservation entrepreneurs than 20 years ago as networks of Native American business people have sprung up in Montana, Oklahoma and elsewhere.

“We have to start with micro loans, encouraging small businesses. Then we have to make it okay to leave the reservation because the most successful are going to want to branch out. Entrepreneurs are going to have to stick their neck out, be a role model. We Indians are going to have to do it.” Yellowtail

What it really comes down to is that we have these enclaves of the 3rd world inside the richest country in the world and it’s mainly because of government regulations designed to “protect” Indians, but that actually treat them like children and prevent them from making decisions in their own best interests.

Yeah, there’s alcoholism and a horrible past of white people misusing Indians in past generations, but the current system doesn’t work because it can’t work. Lack of private property rights is the single-largest driver of poverty worldwide, so why should we be surprised that it’s the single-largest driver of reservation poverty?

You’re not going to hear every Native American say that because so many of them believe the lies that the reservation protects their culture and keeps them from being exploited. They’ve been mislead that in the past Indians didn’t believe in private property. I know members of my own tribe who believe that even though history shows they had private property rights that were somewhat similar the American colonists.

If we want to fix the reservations, the best way to do it is for the government to turn the land over to the tribes with the proviso that the land be allotted into private hands by a certain date and then white people just got out of the way and let Indians figure it out.

Watch! There’ll be a McDonald’s on the corner across from the casino by Friday and a Walmart opening before Christmas. Maybe there will be few failed businesses and mistakes made along the way. That’s the price of being treated like an adult.



Indian Property Rights   Leave a comment

So now that we’ve laid some myths to rest, let’s look at what the Indians got right. While the tribes occasionally suffered from the “tragedy of the commons,” most American Indian tribes understood the importance of getting the incentives right. Personal ethics and spiritual values were important, but those ethics and values worked along with private and communal property rights. YES, property rights that strictly defined who could use resources and acted to reward good stewardship.

In a short story like “Bridge at Adelphia”, I could not really explain pre-Columbian Indian institutions and how they differed and correlated with the modern context of law, government, and property rights. The Indians didn’t lack rules. Sometimes they were customs, other times they were formal, but history is replete with examples of how Native American property rights conditioned human interaction with the natural environment.

Indian land ownership/control systems varied considerably according to tribe. Some tribes had completely or almost completely communal systems, while other tribes had systems that were hardly less individualistic than our own. The degree of private ownership reflected the scarcity of land and the difficulty or ease of defining and enforcing rights. Truly communal property was scant among American Indians. In my mother’s tribe, the tribe allocated plots to families, who farmed them and harvested the bounty to be stored in the family’s own storehouse. Boundaries were marked and the agricultural land was considered privately owned by a family or clan rather than by individuals.

Families among the Mahican Indians in the Northeast possessed hereditary rights to use well-defined tracts of garden land along rivers. Away from the rivers, however, where the value of land for crops was low, it was not worth establishing ownership.

In the Southeast, where Indians engaged in settled agriculture, private ownership of land was common. “The Creek town is typical of the economic and social life of the populous tribes of the Southeast,” writes historian Angie Debo. “Each family gathered the produce of its own plot and placed it in its own storehouse. Each also contributed voluntarily to a public store which was kept in a large building in the field and was used under the direction of the town chief for public needs.”

Fruit and nut trees, which required long-term investment, were privately owned and usually inherited. “So important were the piñon resources that groves of trees were considered family property in several locations” within the Great Basin area of the West, says a historian (Fowler 1986, 65). In one case a Northern Paiute reflected that his father “paid a horse for a certain pinon-nut range,” suggesting that the property rights were valuable and tradable.

Where Indians depended on hunting and fishing, it was imperative that they controlled access to hunting territories and to specific harvest sites. Hunting groups among the Montagnais-Naskapi of Quebec between Hudson Bay and the Gulf of St. Lawrence recognized family and clan hunting areas, particularly for beaver. Similar hunting groups and rules existed in other regions.

Quoting Indian informants, anthropologists Frank G. Speck and Wendell S. Hadlock report that for Indians in New Brunswick,

It was . . . an established “rule that when a hunter worked a territory no other would knowingly or willfully encroach upon the region for several generations.” Some of the men held districts which had been hunted by their fathers, and presumably their grandfathers.

They even had a colloquial term that translates to “my hunting ground.”

Indian tribes of western North America defended their hunting, fishing, and gathering territories against trespass. Steward reports that among Paiute Indians of the Owens Valley in California, “communal groups stayed within their district territory,” which was bounded by natural features such as mountains, ridges, and streams.

Each distinct Apache band “had its own hunting grounds and, except when pressed by starvation, was reluctant to encroach upon those of a neighbor. . . . Each local group had exclusive rights to certain farm sites and hunting localities, and each was headed by a chief who directed collective enterprises. . . . ” Keith H. Basso

Customs and norms regulated the harvest. There was a district head man who determined where and when to hunt based on his knowledge from the past.

In the Pacific Northwest, Indians had well-defined fishing rights. To capture salmon returning from the ocean to spawn in freshwater streams, Indians placed fish wheels, weirs, and other fixed appliances at falls or shoals where the fish were naturally channeled.

Unfortunately, the white man’s law usurped these secure Indian fishing rights and replaced them with a system that encouraged the tragedy of the commons.

Their technology was so efficient that they could have depleted salmon stocks, but they realized the importance of allowing some of the spawning fish to escape upstream. Robert Higgs quotes a Quileute Indian born about 1852: “When the Indians had obtained enough fish they would remove the weirs from the river in order that the fish they did not need could go upstream and lay their eggs so that there would be a supply of fish for future years.”

Relying on salmon as their main source of food, the coastal Tlingit and Haida Indians established clear rights to fishing locations where salmon congregated on their journey to spawning beds. The management units could exclude other clans or houses from their fishing territories. When territories were infringed upon, the trespasser was required to repay the owning group or potentially face violent consequences. The eldest clan male who was the “keeper of the house” had the power to make and enforce decisions regarding harvest levels, escapement, fishing seasons, and harvest methods.The upshot was that salmon runs were sustained by rules made locally.

Unfortunately, the white man’s law usurped these secure Indian fishing rights and replaced them with a system that encouraged the tragedy of the commons. It was “economically inferior to the property system originally established by the tribes,” one scholar concludes.

Even where activities were communal, positive incentives, including incentives quite similar to ownership, made success possible.

Faced with the reality of scarcity, Indians understood the importance of incentives and built their societies around institutions that encouraged good human and natural resource stewardship.

On a buffalo hunt, the successful hunter was “entitled to keep the skin and some choice portion of the meat for his family,” writes Steward. An elaborate nomenclature was used by the Omaha to describe rewards for those who killed and butchered buffalo. “To the man who killed the animal belonged the hide and one portion of tezhu [side of meat] and the brains.” Brains were used to tan the hide, so it makes sense that the brains would go with the hide. Other portions were as follows: “To the first helper to arrive, one of the tezhu and a hind-quarter; to the second comer, the ugaxetha [includes the stomach, beef tallow, and intestines]; to the third, the ribs [tethi ti].”

Hunters marked their arrows distinctively, so after the hunt, the arrows in the dead buffalo indicated which hunters had been successful. Disputes over whose arrow killed the buffalo were settled by the hunt leader.

In sum, faced with the reality of scarcity, Indians understood the importance of incentives and built their societies around institutions that encouraged good human and natural resource stewardship. Ethics and spiritual values may have inculcated a respect for nature, but an elaborate set of social institutions that today would be considered private property rights rewarding stewardship.

And, hey, those of you who share my white DNA — myths are not a solution to modern environmental problems. Let’s look at what really worked with Indian society’s interaction with the environment. They devolved authority and responsibility to the local level because they understood that resource conservation is best done by the people who are there and who love their own land. Rather than shunning property rights and insisting that is what is wrong with modern society, we should embrace them, as did my mother’s people.

Myth-Driven Ecology   Leave a comment

Ted Perry wrote a script for a movie about pollution. In it, he paraphrased a translation of a speech made by Professor William Arrowsmith concerning a statement made by Chief Seattle. Since that time, the environmentalists have claimed Seattle said “All things are  connected like the blood which unites one family. Whatever befalls the earth, befalls the sons of earth.” But historians say Perry put a lot of words in Seattle’s mouth that the chief probably never said — including “every part of the Earth is sacred to my people.”


This romanticized version of the Indian ecological ethic obscures that the fact that American Indians transformed the North American landscape, sometimes in beneficial ways and other times in extremely harmful ways. Their manipulation of the landscape was a rational response to abundance or scarcity interacting with tribal institutions that governed resource use.

Yes, like people everywhere, American Indians responded to incentives. Where land was abundant, it made sense to farm extensively and move on. I allude to that in my story. The Choctaw, Iroquois, and Pawnee would clear land for farming by cutting and burning forests. Once cleared, fields were extensively farmed until soil fertility was depleted; then they cleared new lands and started the process again.

Deforestation was common wherever Indian populations were dense and farming was intense. The Anasazi did not simply vanish from southeast Utah in the 13th century. There is archeological evidence that they depleted their wood supplies for fuel, so had to move away.

Similarly, where wild game was plentiful, Indians used only the choicest cuts and left the rest. What? No! They didn’t. Yes, they did. Buffalo were herded over cliffs because it was a much safer way to harvest the meat than throwing spears at large aggressive animals. And, yes, that practice wasted tons of meat that was left to rot or be eaten by scavengers.

Furthermore, my mother’s ancestors burned wooded areas from east to west to remove the undergrowth and increase forage for deer, elk, and bison. Historians believe that, because of this burning, there may have been fewer “old growth” forests in the Pacific Northwest when the first Europeans arrived than there are today.

The demand for meat, hides, and furs by relatively small, dispersed populations of Indians put little pressure on wildlife, but occasionally game depletion resulted in the “tragedy of the commons.” This term, coined by biologist Garrett Hardin, describes what happens when no one has ownership of a resource and anyone has access to it.

Wild animals represented a “commons.” They belonged to no one until they were killed. If anyone left an animal, in the hope that it would be there later, someone else was likely to kill it. Without ownership, no one had an incentive to protect the animals. In fact, the extinction of the mammoth, mastodon, ground sloth, and saber-tooth cat may well have been due to prehistorical overkill by exceptionally good hunters.

The living in harmony myth is kind of silly, actually, because there is incredible evidence that it is not true.

“to claim that Indians lived without affecting nature is akin to saying that they lived without touching anything, that they were a people without history. Indians often manipulated their local environments, and while they usually had far less impact on their environments than European colonists would, the idea of “preserving” land in some kind of wilderness state would have struck them as impractical and absurd. More often than not, Indians profoundly shaped the ecosystems around them. . .” Louis S. Warren 


Posted October 17, 2016 by aurorawatcherak in History

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Getting Indian History Right   Leave a comment

In researching for my short story “Bridge in Adelphia” for Echoes of Liberty, I did some extensive study on Indian land use in the 1800s. Because I am a tribal card holder who occasionally visits my relatives on the Rez, I knew that the environmental movement has been promoting myths about my mother’s people for decades.

According to former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall “The Indians were, in truth, the pioneer ecologists of this country.”

According to Herb Hammond in the Sierra Club book Clearcut “For many thousands of years, most of the indigenous nations on this continent practiced a philosophy of protection (first) and use (second) of the forest. … In scientific terms, we recognize that their use of the forest was ecologically responsible—meaning that it kept all the parts.”

That is an INaccurate image of a Native American environmental ethics that might scratch an ego or two, but doesn’t really mesh with history. The supposed spiritual connection attributed to Native Americans frequently is made up of whole cloth because it ignores the history of Indian laws, traditions, rules, and habits that guided Indian societies. This environmental reinterpretation of history deprives us all of a full understanding of how we can conserve our natural heritage.


Posted October 15, 2016 by aurorawatcherak in History

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