Tuesday’s opening in Washington of the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of the American Indian was a hopeful and long-overdue occasion. Congratulations are due Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell for helping shepherd the project from concept to completion, as well as to all American Indians, who finally have a museum befitting their central place in North American history.
Many attending the opening expressed a desire that the facility not simply be about looking back, treating Indian culture as a relic of the past or focusing inordinate attention on the treatment of native peoples by Europeans. They hoped it will also be about looking ahead, and about fostering a brighter future for Indians. We share in those aspirations.
But the prime spot now reserved for celebrating Indian heritage in the nation’s capital shouldn’t prevent us from acknowledging that too many American Indians still live on the economic margins, enjoying few of the liberties, opportunities and material advantages most Americans take for granted. A candid appraisal of the dire conditions across much of Indian country mocks the pomp and pageantry this week in Washington. And nothing short of a revolution in federal and tribal policies will bring about the brighter future that’s hoped for.
Interior Department Inspector General Earl Devaney this week called Indian prisons “a national disgrace” during testimony before the Senate Finance Committee, based on an extensive internal investigation. Since 2001, there have been at least 11 deaths, 236 suicide attempts and 632 escapes from 70 detention facilities run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, according to Devaney, and many tribal jails were housing twice the number of prisoners for which they were designed.
Devaney told of crumbling facilities and unsanitary living conditions, poorly trained guards, inadequate medical treatment and the mixing of juvenile prisoners with adults, resulting in rapes and beatings. And this comes in spite of a BIA law enforcement budget that increased from $95 million to $170 million during the last five years, as well as $150 million earmarked by Congress since 1997 for the construction of new detention facilities. The BIA reportedly is having trouble accounting for how the additional funds were spent, and Devaney found what he called “clear evidence of a continuing crisis of inaction, indifference and mismanagement throughout the entire BIA detention program.”
In response to this and similar stories coming out of reservations, some Indian advocates reflexively call for more federal financial aid and intervention. But this clearly isn’t the answer and might be part of the problem. Too many reservation economies remain dependent on federal largesse. Too few tribes have taken the steps necessary to pull themselves out of poverty. “As Indian people, we have been almost like a Third World developing nation,” the head of the BIA, Dave Anderson, has said. “It’s unfortunate that America’s first people probably experience the bottom rung of every social dysfunction there is.”
Yes, but what to do about it now? It’s said that those who don’t learn from history’s mistakes are doomed to repeat them. Clearing a footpath to the brighter future for American Indians, therefore, will involve abandoning the tried and failed federal policies of the past. Changes are needed that will turn reservations into enterprise zones and encourage personal industry, education, entrepreneurship, higher rates of home ownership and less tribal and BIA bureaucracy. One goal should be the economic mainstreaming of Native Americans.
Some of this is already happening among tribes like Oklahoma’s Cherokee and Chickasaw, New Mexico’s Jicarilla Apache, Mississippi’s Choctaws and Colorado’s Southern Utes. Thanks to bold and visionary leadership, these groups have placed an emphasis on getting out from under Washington’s long shadow and seeing reservations not as pockets of poverty, dependency and social dysfunction, but islands of opportunity and economic development. But those tribes, sadly, still are the exceptions to the rule.