Magazine | August 29, 2016, Issue

Locked In

The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians, by Naomi Schaefer Riley (Encounter, 232 pp., $23.99)

Let me tell you about “lock-in” — a practice at Pine Ridge, the Indian reservation in South Dakota. One weekend a month, a school has lock-in, literally locking children into the school, where they play games and so on. Lock-in is timed for the arrival of government checks. When adults receive them, they have money to booze up, and when they do, they are likelier than ever to abuse the children. Hence, lock-in, for the kids’ protection.

They could use this all the other days 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 spent two years traveling Indian country, interviewing anyone and everyone, observing what she could, learning what she could. The result is a book that is part travel journal, part history, part anthropological study, part policy review, etc.

At the end of her book, she 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.

Riley 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: 3 million, 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.

But 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 Riley, “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.

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.

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. Riley 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 Riley. When their options are limited, people learn helplessness. That is true wherever they live, and whatever race they belong to.

Riley is on a Montana reservation, surveying the scene. It is 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.” That’s the spirit (or lack of it).

Many reservations have casinos — which are both cash cows and curses. Riley 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.”

Riley 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.

When it comes to education in Indian country, Riley 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). He knows what ails Indian communities, and does all he can to address it, whether people like it or not.

Tirelessly, he 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.

It is the pages on sex crimes that are the hardest to read in this book. 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?”

Riley 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.” Riley 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 Riley 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, she 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.

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