Editor’s Note: In our August 29 issue, Jay Nordlinger reviewed The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians, by Naomi Schaefer Riley. He expands that review here in Impromptus.
Let me tell you about “lock-in” — a practice at Pine Ridge, the Indian reservation in South Dakota. One weekend a month, a particular school has lock-in. Literally, they lock the children into the school, where they play games and so on.
Hence, lock-in, for the kids’ protection. And, frankly, they could use this every other day of the month, too.
Naomi Schaefer Riley tells us about lock-in in her new book, The New Trail of Tears. She is a journalist based in New York. She has a particular expertise in education. She once worked at National Review.
At the end of her book, Naomi cites Tocqueville, and she herself is a kind of Tocqueville, for Indian country.
It’s safe to say, I think, that Indians rarely cross the American mind. Many people are upset that the Washington football team calls itself the “Redskins.” Would that these people were half as upset at what takes place every day on Indian reservations. Indians tend to be regarded as environmentalists, communitarians, and sages. They are endlessly flattered, or condescended to.
Naomi quotes Michelle Obama, telling a group of young Indians, “Today, on issues like conservation and climate change, we are finally beginning to embrace the wisdom of your ancestors.”
There are not many Indians in America. Their fewness might surprise you. There are 3 million Indians, of whom 1 million live on reservations. The total population of San Jose, Calif., is about a million. There are more people in Dallas — 1.3 million — than on reservations.
Whatever their numbers, Indians lead the country — in poverty, alcoholism, rape, child abuse, and suicide. Indian reservations are the worst places in America, and among the worst places anywhere. “The United States is the wealthiest nation on earth,” says Naomi, “but we have what amounts to a Third World country within our borders.”
I might dispute her a little: There are plenty of Third World countries that are poor but without the depravity of Indian reservations — with a lot less child rape, for example.
Indians lucky enough to have wit and drive — or simple nerve — leave the reservations. They get gone, as you would too. This leaves, on the reservations, the dregs.
I have spoken very impolitely, but politeness, or an erring sense of it, is one of the things that have been killing the Indians for years. Children on reservations don’t have many people to look up to. And they repeat the criminal or self-defeating behaviors they see around them.
(Three years ago, I touched on this in a piece from Pine Ridge — about alcoholism in particular. To read it, go here.)
Early on, children are instilled with a sense of historical grievance — a sense of terrible victimization. This is poisonous to the child. Justifiable or not, grievance is a poison to individuals and societies alike. It blocks progress, constantly.
Naomi Schaefer Riley begins her book with an essay, “What Does America Owe Indians?” (a burning question). She ends it with another one, “Native Americans as Americans.” In between are considerations of economics, education, identity, and the law. She provides chapter and verse. I will continue with some blunt generalizations.
For decades, federal policy toward Indians has been money and pity, laced with guilt, and accompanied by the blind eye. What I mean is, nobody really wants to know what goes on on Indian reservations. Naomi says that these places give us “a microcosm of everything that has gone wrong with modern liberalism.”
I think of James G. Watt, President Reagan’s first interior secretary — and the most controversial and lampooned member of that cabinet. In 1983, he said, “If you want an example of the failure of socialism, don’t go to Russia, come to America and go to the Indian reservations.” The world condemned him roundly. And he was right.
Reagan liked to quote FDR, much to the annoyance of Democrats. In his State of the Union address for 1935, Roosevelt said, “The lessons of history, confirmed by the evidence immediately before me, show conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.”
The Indians are not afforded “relief” by Washington; rather, they are doled a permanent and rotten way of life. And the effect on their spirit is not subtle but blatant.
Odd as it may seem, Indians have little freedom of movement or action on reservations, which are vast. A person can barely sneeze without government permission. “We are the most highly regulated race in the world,” a tribal leader tells Naomi. When their options are limited, people learn helplessness. That is true wherever they live, and whatever race they belong to.
At one point in the book, Naomi is on a Montana reservation, surveying the scene: a scene of typical squalor. Windows on homes are broken, with only a kind of tarp keeping the weather out. “Residents say they’re waiting for HUD to come fix things,” writes Naomi.
That’s the spirit (or lack of it).
Years ago, I was told, “This is a universal truth: People take care of what they own. They don’t take care of what they don’t own — a house they are renting, for example.” I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule. I’m also sure — pretty sure — that it is a rule.
Several Indian leaders tell Naomi that a lack of property rights is one of the things stifling the Indian. They are straitjacketed by government.
When the subject is property rights, you can’t help thinking of Hernando de Soto, the great Peruvian economist and reformer. I particularly thought of his writings and findings on the Arab world.
Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit vendor who self-immolated, thus launching the Arab Spring: Do you know what his last words were, as he lit the match? “How do you expect me to make a living?”
De Soto told our Congress, “The average Arab entrepreneur needs to present 57 documents and faces two years or more of red tape to obtain a legal property right over land or a business.” In Egypt, the legal opening of a business “requires dealing with 29 different government agencies and navigating 215 sets of laws.”
Many reservations have casinos — which are both cash cows and curses. Naomi talks to a man who once worked for a tribe in Minnesota. Thanks to casino revenue, members were given $80,000 when they turned 18. Consequently, there was no incentive to work, says the man. There was no incentive to further one’s education. The windfall “caused drugs and alcohol to be rampant. There was a lot of stress on families, the breakdown of families, addiction to gambling.”
Naomi reports a poignant detail from another state, New York. Kids with sudden cash will walk into a store to buy candy. They’ll hand over $50 or $100 — without expecting any change. They have never been exposed to the norms of the mainstream world.
You know how you read of lottery winners, who, a few years later, are broke and miserable? Many of the Indians are like that, says Naomi, in the wake of their casino money.
Above, I used the word “curses.” Reservation casinos are “both cash cows and curses.” I know why I used that word. When I was reading The New Trail of Tears, and in particular its section on casinos, I thought of a Bahraini I had just met in Norway, at the Oslo Freedom Forum, the annual human-rights conference. He said something like the following:
“Here in Norway, oil is a blessing. They know how to use it. For us Gulf Arabs, oil is a curse.”
That is a deep, important subject.
Naomi Riley quotes one man as saying that he used to be “a professional Indian.” I loved that. He lobbied for all the usual goodies, and pushed all the usual grievances. But then he had an awakening — an awakening about what really ails Indian country, and how it might be ameliorated.
I just loved that. May ever more people have such an awakening.
When it comes to education in Indian country, Naomi has little good to report. How could she? But she introduces us to a bright light — Ben Chavis, a well-known, no-nonsense educator. He is a Lumbee Indian from North Carolina (not to be confused with the Ben Chavis who used to head the NAACP, and also happens to be from North Carolina).
You know who he reminds me of? Joe Clark, the high-school principal in New Jersey who was famous in the 1980s. He imposed discipline on a school in Paterson. He roamed the halls with a baseball bat. He was pictured on the cover of Time magazine wielding that bat. And Hollywood made a movie about him: Lean on Me, starring Morgan Freeman.
Ben Chavis runs a math camp in the summer for Indian students. They don’t like it, many of them. He doesn’t care. They complain to him and tell him what they want. He says, “I’m the adult, and I know better.” This is a minor miracle.
Untiringly, Chavis advocates education, entrepreneurship, and responsibility. Not long ago, one of his sisters accused him of “acting white.” His reply was for the ages: “Honey, you’ve got to be more specific. ‘Acting white’ is not enough. I’m acting Jewish. Or maybe Chinese.”
Indians who try to break out of dependency and stagnation are often accused of being race traitors. They are “apples” (red on the outside, white on the inside) or “Uncle Tomahawks.” Envy rears its head, and notions of tribal solidarity can be cruel.
Have you ever heard of the Indian Child Welfare Act? It must be one of the worst-named laws ever. The Indian Child Abuse Act is more like it. There are people in this world — trust me — who would rather Indian kids were raped on reservations than ensconced in loving homes with white parents.
Naomi’s pages on the ICWA will make your blood boil.
Her pages on sex crimes are unbearable to read. I will be very brief: Little kids are raped by adults; in turn, they rape each other. If you see this and try to report it, you may be hushed or ostracized — because you are a threat to tribal solidarity.
That’s if you’re an Indian. What if you’re white, and learn of these horrors? You may think, “I have no standing to raise an alarm. Think of what we have done to the poor Native Americans, over the centuries! Plus, don’t they have their own law enforcement, their own mores? Their own culture?”
Naomi makes an astute comparison to recent events in Rotherham, England. There, the widespread rape of children was ignored, because good progressives were loath to criticize Muslims.
She has written an important book, Naomi Schaefer Riley has. She has also done American Indians a great favor. She cares about them enough to have investigated their lives, and written honestly about them. People may fancy themselves friends of the Indians if they condemn “Redskins” as a nickname for a football team. Or if they say “Native American” instead of “Indian.” Naomi is their real friend.
When I first saw the cover of her book, I wrinkled my nose at the subtitle: “How Washington Is Destroying American Indians.” Is it Washington doing the destroying or the people themselves? Are they without volition? No — but Naomi makes the case that federal policy, however well-intentioned, has hampered them, and crippled them.
She recommends a number of reforms, including the introduction of charter schools. Her answer to the question of that opening essay — “What Does America Owe Indians?”—is inarguable, from my point of view: We owe them “nothing less than the opportunity to live lives of freedom and dignity in the land we all share.”
As you may be able to tell, Naomi Riley is a good and compassionate soul. All through her book, she is measured, sensible, and polite. (Largely polite.) I myself am not in so polite a mood — and I wonder whether Indians would be better off if reservations were simply abolished. Broken up. Dissolved. For too long, they have been incubators of misery, emasculation, and perversity. How many generations is enough? How many more must suffer?
People would call the breakup of the reservations one final injustice. One last blow against our eternally wronged Natives. Let them.
And let the Indians get on with their lives, without this charade of sovereign nations within a big sovereign nation. Let them be like immigrants — though they were here first — striving and integrating like other groups. If they want to teach their children songs and dances, languages and religions, who’s to stop them? But enough of the reservation racket, the reservation trap.
I think of the Gypsies, or Roma, in Europe. Generation after generation, they have kept their racket going. Children are born into a life of begging and crime. They never have a chance. Who can call this compassion or plead “cultural diversity”?
Those who defend or excuse or sentimentalize reservations should be forced to live on them. Or at least visit them. Or at least know something about them. Then we might have a talk.