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Stereotype of the Month Entry
(9/4/07)


Another Stereotype of the Month entry:

An answer for Indians

By JAY AMBROSE
Scripps Howard News Service
Tuesday, September 04, 2007

American Indians are poorer than any other racial or ethnic group in the United States by far, so let's try yet more dependence on federal money, even more heavy-handed bureaucratic control and more court rulings to keep creditors off their case.

Along with casinos, that will fix things, right?

Wrong, and not just by theoretical calculation, but by empirical investigation that testifies to what really, truly does work: Freedom from the overreaching of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, strategic thinking by tribal councils that eschew politics as usual, reliable rule of law and business initiatives.

Talk to Terry Anderson of the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Mont., and you get to a fundamental truth on the question by way of anecdote. Friends from out of the country wanted to visit a reservation. He warned them they would encounter poverty, but instead they encountered an Indian rancher who was plainly prosperous and distinct from many in his tribe in another way. He owned his property.

While some land on reservations is privately held, most is held in either individual or tribal trust by the BIA with the rationale that Indians need protection from the depredations of outsiders. As Anderson discovered after the incident some years back, the privately held land is far more productive than the trust land. When I asked this economist who heads PERC why private property produces enriching results, he had a short answer.

"Incentives matter," he replied, clearly meaning that the trust system wipes out initiative by wiping out almost any chance for profitable consequence. Indians, he said in an interview while I was a PERC media fellow, have traditions of private property, as in color-coding arrows to show who had rights to a slain buffalo.

The problems with the regulation-ridden, barrier-erecting trust system, which evolved out of a series of often well-meaning but sometimes unfortunate "reforms" after reservations were established in the late 1800s, can be partly understood by a trial and also by reading a story in a University of Montana student newspaper.

The trial is about Indians trying to recover as much as $200 billion that the BIA somehow lost while administering trust assets. Sorting things out is made preposterously difficult, among other things, by a lack of records.

The story is about a family at the Northern Cheyenne Reservation and its efforts to buy a house. After finding an appropriate, affordable property, it took the family a year to wade through BIA's red tape to actual ownership. Think of that, then think of what the BIA's controls mean to the more complicated issue of starting a business.

There obviously is a lot more behind Indian poverty than the trust system, such as tribal governments that often function erratically. One mistake is telling investors with federal court backing that they cannot collect what the Indians owe them. The consequence? No more investment.

Ah, but aren't casinos the answer, some ask. No. Casinos have only succeeded on a small number of reservations near urban populations.

William Yellowtail, a Crow who is now a professor and has been prominent in politics and government, thinks Indians themselves have not infrequently damaged their own prospects. He worried in an interview that too many are "frozen in regret" about the "historical catastrophes" their people have suffered instead of looking to the future with the will to be in charge of their own destinies.

The exciting information from studies by two Harvard scholars, Stephen Cornell and Joseph Kalt, is that the Mississippi Band of Choctaws, the White Mountain Apaches and other tribes are in fact following through on what a 1970s federal policy promised self-determination by disciplining their own institutions and telling the BIA that its most bothersome infringements can go hang. They are sending poverty packing while providing a lesson on what might work for other tribes.

The quickest glance at statistics on such matters as Indian health and education discloses there is a long, long way to go, but there is genuine reason to think that a sad, even tragic saga of lies, punishing defeat and inhumane abuse could be taking a happy turn in the 21st century.

(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado.)

Rob's reply
An answer to Jay Ambrose's "answer for Indians":

>> American Indians are poorer than any other racial or ethnic group in the United States by far, so let's try yet more dependence on federal money, even more heavy-handed bureaucratic control and more court rulings to keep creditors off their case. <<

One, the main problem isn't "dependence on federal money." It's "dependence on federal money" that's never more than a fraction of what's needed and what's owed under treaty obligations.

Two, Indians are the first ones to denounce Washington's "heavy-handed bureaucratic control." This is a problem with the US government, not Indian tribes.

Three, I don't know what Ambrose means with "more court rulings to keep creditors off their case." I don't recall any court rulings about Indians avoiding creditors.

The idea that government "handouts" hurt Indians but not the many non-Indians (defense contractors, farmers, veterans, homeowners, et. al) who receive them is a longstanding stereotype. See Indians as Welfare Recipients for a refutation of this stereotype.

>> Wrong, and not just by theoretical calculation, but by empirical investigation that testifies to what really, truly does work <<

What's "empirical investigation"? It sounds impressive, but about all Ambrose offers is anecdotes and opinions.

>> Freedom from the overreaching of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, strategic thinking by tribal councils that eschew politics as usual, reliable rule of law and business initiatives. <<

Yes...so? These are all things championed by Indian tribes themselves.

>> Talk to Terry Anderson of the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Mont., and you get to a fundamental truth on the question by way of anecdote. <<

Hah. Ambrose admits that his high-falutin' "empirical investigation" is nothing more than anecdotal evidence.

>> As Anderson discovered after the incident some years back, the privately held land is far more productive than the trust land. When I asked this economist who heads PERC why private property produces enriching results, he had a short answer. <<

Columnists have misstated and misapplied Anderson's position before. Here's one example: Tierney:  Federal Bureaucracies Caused Indians' Downfall.

>> Think of that, then think of what the BIA's controls mean to the more complicated issue of starting a business. <<

The BIA's "controls" and the collective ownership of land are two separate issues. Each could exist without the other.

Many gaming tribes are doing just fine with collectively owned land despite the BIA's interference. That proves neither one is an insurmountable obstacle.

>> One mistake is telling investors with federal court backing that they cannot collect what the Indians owe them. <<

I still don't know what Ambrose is referring to. It's probably some isolated case where a court ruled on the merits and didn't give Indians blanket protection from creditors. It's no more an obstacle to business than the millions of other rulings favoring one side or the other in business disputes.

>> William Yellowtail, a Crow who is now a professor and has been prominent in politics and government, thinks Indians themselves have not infrequently damaged their own prospects. He worried in an interview that too many are "frozen in regret" about the "historical catastrophes" their people have suffered instead of looking to the future with the will to be in charge of their own destinies. <<

Yellowtail's "worry" is another opinion, not a fact.

>> The exciting information from studies by two Harvard scholars, Stephen Cornell and Joseph Kalt, is that the Mississippi Band of Choctaws, the White Mountain Apaches and other tribes are in fact following through on what a 1970s federal policy promised self-determination by disciplining their own institutions and telling the BIA that its most bothersome infringements can go hang. <<

These two tribes are successful, but other tribes around the country are also successful. The reason? Indian gaming.

Here's the story on the Choctaws' success. From Choctaw Leader Describes Economic Miracle in the Billings Gazette, 4/3/03:

The crown jewel of the tribe's economic development has been gaming. In 1994, the Choctaw opened the Silver Star Hotel and Casino. Critics said the tribe would never attract enough tourists to its remote location. Martin and other tribal members used Las Vegas as their example 60 years ago, the nation's entertainment capital was nothing but a sleepy desert town.

The Choctaw's casino quickly attracted visitors from up to 300 miles away and was an "instant success," Martin said. Last year, the tribe opened a new 843,000 square-foot casino. The $750 million Pearl River Resort has 1,000 guest rooms, 4,000 employees and is situated on a 285-acre man-made lake, complete with a white sand beach.

Gaming has done to the reservation what oil has done to Saudi Arabia. The Choctaw have a modern hospital, good schools and a well-trained police force. Most importantly, Martin said, "Everybody has a job." In fact, the tribe imports thousands of workers each day to work at the factories and casinos. The tribe has also doubled the size of its property and now owns 30,000 acres in east-central Mississippi.</P>

The corollary information that Ambrose omits is telling. These tribes haven't abandoned their collective ownership of the land. They haven't stopped fighting the BIA for the money due them under the law. But they have taken advantage of gaming and are reinvesting the revenues in diversified enterprises.

>> They are sending poverty packing while providing a lesson on what might work for other tribes. <<

I'm not sure what lesson Ambrose means, since the tribes' success is almost unrelated to the things he complains about. Again, they're succeeding despite "more dependence on federal money, even more heavy-handed bureaucratic control and more court rulings to keep creditors off their case." Which means these things aren't the root problem.

Related links
Should Indians cling to reservations?
Indians owned the United States
The facts about Indian gaming


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Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.

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