American Indians are the poorest of all of America’s ethnic groups. Why? After all, the government has granted them massive reservations and created entire agencies to look after them. Well, maybe that’s why. Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of “The New Trail of Tears,” explains.
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We’ve all heard about how many bad things the U.S. government did to American Indians in the past. But what about today?
Like most people, the only time I hear about today’s American Indians is when people are outraged about sports mascots or team names, like the Washington Redskins. But sports teams’ names are the least of Indians’ problems.
Did you know that Indians have the highest rate of poverty of any racial group in America? Did you know that alcoholism is more common among Indian youths than among youths in any other ethnic group? Did you know that the rate of child abuse among Indians is twice as high as the national average?
Until I visited Indian reservations for my book, The New Trail of Tears, I didn’t know any of this. What was at the root of these terrible problems? I wondered. And the deeper I dug, the more I realized that, between the 19th century and today, nothing has changed: it’s still the government.
The two main agencies that oversee the activities of Indians who live on reservations are the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or BIA, and the Bureau of Indian Education, or BIE. Education, economic development, tribal courts, road maintenance, agriculture and social services – the federal government basically funds and controls all of it. It’s no wonder Indians say BIA stands for “Bossing Indians Around.”
Together, these two agencies have combined budgets of $3 billion per year, and have 9,000 employees. That’s one employee for every 111 Indians on a reservation. Of that $3 billion per year, the BIE uses $850 million of it to educate 42,000 students. That’s more than $20,000 per student, compared to a national average of $12,400 per student.
Plenty of other federal agencies also have programs for Indians. For instance, the Indian Health Service had a 2015 budget of over $4.6 billion. And yet, there are widespread and documented reports of nurses being unable to administer basic drugs, of broken resuscitation equipment, and of unsanitary medical facilities.
Obviously, inadequate funding isn’t the problem.
The billions of dollars that the federal government spends on Indians every year hasn’t made their lives better. In fact, by most measures of economic and social health, the lives of American Indians are only getting worse.
Aside from issues of culture, the only way out of this morass is economic growth, but the reservation system makes this almost impossible. Following a series of treaties and laws over many decades – some well intentioned, some not – the federal government decided to hold Indian land “in trust” in order to prevent non-Indians from ever buying that land. But other than Indians, the only people who have things held in trust for them are children and the mentally incompetent.
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