Title: “The New Trail of Tears: How Washington is Destroying American Indians.”
Author: Naomi Schaefer Riley
Naomi Schaefer Riley in “The New Trail of Tears” brings these facts to the reader to help one understand the magnitude of the problem. First, there are 562 recognized Native American tribes living on 310 reservations in the United States. Secondly, these are governed or regulated by three huge bureaus: The Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Indian Education, and the Department of the Interior.
Also, factored in are the departments of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Education and the Department of Justice. From1900 to 1920, BIA and BIE employee numbers grew from 101 to 262 but now number about 9,000.
These facts show budgets for these entities are stupendous, almost $3 billion in 2015, of which $850 million was of BIA's share for providing education to children who attend BIA schools on the reservations, an additional $300 million a year goes to the Department of Education for the BIE schools. HUD which provides housing received almost $800 million, the Department of Health and Human Services about $4 billion. Figures were not given for the Department of Justice. However, once President Nixon signed the 1975 Self-Determination Act, the law allowed the federal government to make block grants to the tribes for law enforcement, child care and environmental protection, tied to population numbers.
Riley says that the problems American Indians face today are lack of economic opportunity, lack of education, and lack of equal protection under the law. She states that since the 1934 Reorganization Act, the long-ago goal of assimilation and making the Indians independent, changed to permanently enshrine national federal oversight. In the name of protecting Native people from rapacious white people, the government has made itself indispensable to the Indians' daily economic life.
Land use is apparently a major problem. On reservations, very little land is deeded to individual Indians. Most who do own land do not have a clear title as ownership is held in “Trust” for their own protection by the government. Land is inherited equally among children and children's children so now one parcel may have 200 or more owners which is useless except for leasing (done, of course, by the federal government for them) to mostly white farmers or ranchers. Each owner perhaps gets an annual lease check in the amount of $2 or so. To accomplish anything requires the owner to submit to a myriad of regulations.
Almost no one on a reservation can afford to build a home or start a business because no one can get a mortgage because of the aforementioned Trust status of the land. No bank will loan money without clear title of land ownership and banks cannot foreclose on government land. Thus, economic development is stifled.
Modem housing is mostly provided by HUD whereby owners were to make rent like payments. Oft-times on many reservations this never happened and the government was powerless to collect. Riley claims people don't take care of the property because it is not their own and that the HUD housing is a "breeding ground" for more illegitimate children than ever who are raised by their grandmothers.
Justice and law enforcement are not consistent as there is a lack of coordination between the BIA, FBI, the Justice Department and county and state jurisdictions. They all have a pattern of deference to tribal police which leaves them substantially unaccountable. Tribal courts don't always offer the same kind of procedures and protection as the rest of the judicial system. Sometimes the people deciding the cases are related to the defendants, the victims or both.
The major portion of Riley's book deals with education on the reservations, which she says is marginal at best. Tribal school boards have conflicting ideas on what they and parents expect from their schools. Many want special emphasis on tribal language and culture. Others want students prepared for higher education so they can get better jobs. Some don't want white teachers, or outsiders coming in to teach. Tribal boards often override teachers' grading and disciplinary decisions where often kids are just passed on from grade to grade and even graduating without having completed the necessary work. She says other factors influence education such as family problems, unemployment, parents and students strung out on drugs and teen moms. Truancy laws are not enforced and in most cases the kids themselves make decisions as where to attend school if there are options, or to skip classes.
In some areas, there is a choice of schools, with charter and Catholic Schools doing a good job, but many folks seem to resent them, even those with Native American leadership. St. Lebre is one, located about 125 miles southeast of Billings, Mont., which serves 500 Crow and Northern Cheyenne students K-12. Since 2010, Riley states, 100 percent were accepted to college although not all went immediately with some attending a trade school or joining the military.
She states, "Many parents do not want their kids to leave home. It is almost the opposite of an immigrant mentality, where as much as they love their children. For them, the whole point of coming to this country was to move up socially and economically." Most Native American parents don't share this attitude."
She also says the many large Native minority groups live in four states, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Oklahoma. Their congressional leadership isn't demanding reform, they mostly demand more money, a "Bring Home the Bacon" mentality. They are not in Congress to change things or to ask the courts to fix jurisdictional ambiguities that make law enforcement of the reservations a nightmare. They seem to be more sympathetic to political correctness, tribal sovereignty and unwilling to intrude on the local activities of the tribes.
Those working in the above-mentioned bureaus and departments at all levels are not about to advocate for needed change and see their mission and jobs wither and disappear. It is politics as usual for most.
I think the author did an admirable job in pointing out things that are wrong with the current reservation system. However, she was long on fault finding short on solutions; perhaps because there aren't any unless someday the tribes themselves should demand change. I have personally lived on the Standing Rock Reservation for almost 50 years, and know that one cannot paint all tribal entities with the same brush. Standing Rock, and perhaps other tribes as well, often have progressive leadership, decent schools, and parents with intact families not using drugs and alcohol. Many tribal members on and off this reservation are successful in a myriad of professions including but not all, nurses, medical doctors, food service, the media, lawyers, educators and ranchers. This is a book all should read in an effort to find solutions to problems plaguing the reservations.