The long and tragic history of government control of property on Indian reservations has led to economic nihilism and moral breakdown. In this week’s Acton Commentary (published April 25), Anthony Bradley argues for a new approach that encourages local control and entrepreneurial business formation. The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.

Indian Country’s American Nightmare

by Anthony B. Bradley

If anyone believes the federal government knows what is best for local communities, they should visit an American Indian Reservation. Native Americans are currently immersed in a health care and economic deprivation nightmare that is the consequence of government interference, inefficiency, and inhumane policies. The Native American narrative is one of government creating problems and then, in the name of offering solutions, making matters worse by depriving local communities of their autonomy.

According to research led by Jeffrey E. Holm, professor of psychology at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine, national data show that American Indians (AIs) have a lower life expectancy than other Americans. In fact, Holm reports, AIs die at higher rates than white Americans and most other ethnic minorities from cardiovascular disease, tuberculosis, alcoholism-related diseases, motor vehicle crashes, diabetes, unintentional injuries, homicide, and suicide. National data show that AIs have a higher prevalence of many risk behaviors including cigarette smoking, obesity, absence of leisure-time physical activity, and binge alcohol use.

Many of the obesity and diabetes related pathologies have one root correlation: poor diet resulting from government programs. In the mid-19th century, under the Indian Removal Act, Native American tribes turned their lands over to the U.S. Government and relocated to Indian Reservations. This relocation disconnected AIs from their usual diet of lean meats, fruits, and vegetables as well as from an active lifestyle of hunting and gathering. By 1890, the government had banned Native Americans from leaving allocated lands to acquire food. In exchange, government offered rations of commodities such as flour, lard and sugar, which today, thanks to corn subsidies, has expanded to highly processed foods rich in carbohydrates and high-fructose corn syrup. These are not the basics of a healthy diet.

Thanks to government regulations, AIs also suffer from the type of economic deprivation that leaves Reservations with virtually no small businesses, including, for example, grocery stores. Communities lacking flourishing businesses are communities that become trapped in cycles of poverty and dysfunction. In fact, the economic malaise in and around reservations stems from a lack of property rights. Terry Anderson, executive director of the Political Economy Research Center, says that AI property rights were also affected by those 19th century treaties which put millions of acres of tribal and individual Indian land under the trusteeship of the Interior department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. As a result these lands cannot be developed, used as collateral for taking out loans to start businesses, easily inherited, or managed productively. Anderson argues that what AIs need is freedom to develop their own property, borrow against it, and make it productive or order to start businesses that lead to wealth creation. The result of a continuation of current policy, says Anderson, is that “Indian economies are likely to remain enclaves of poverty.”

Because welfare and government programs removed the need for institutions such as banks in the areas where AIs live, those institutions left. Drew Tulchin and Jessica Shortall, of Social Enterprise Associates,reported in 2008 that 86 percent of tribal lands had no bank in the community and that 15 percent of Native Americans are 100 miles or more from a bank. Of those financial institutions on or near reservations, only one in three offer start-up loansor small business loans, and while only one in four offer micro-business loans. Assertive AIs who might be inclined to better their situation have few entrepreneurial models to emulate: only 13percent of Native American entrepreneurs had entrepreneur parents, versus 75percent in the general population.

The social and moral breakdown among AIs that we all lament is situated within a context of economic nihilism, and without economic hope we should expect many self-sabotaging behaviors to continue. When a country takes a group of people, restricts their liberties, undermines their economic development, and keeps them dependent on welfare programs that provide unhealthy foods we cannot expect anything more than what we see today among AIs.

In the end, what Native Americans need—like all Americans—is an economic future that allows local communities to develop their property to meet their own needs in local ways, that frees people from government dependency, and that encourages an entrepreneurial spirit that brings innovation and hope rather than limitation and nihilism. Our Washington leadership, whoever is in the White House, should make Native American flourishing a priority because, for them and for all those shackled to government dependency, the American Dream continues to be a nightmare.

  • Stephanie Hilliard

    Overall, this is a good article. The plight of Native Americans after generations of living on reservations continues to be a tragedy. However, I would like to add one thought. I do not know that it is true of all tribes in the United States, but in the area of New Mexico where I used to live, I often heard tales of corruption within the tribal councils. Leaders who should have been working to help their people were instead perpetuating the system in order to make money from government handouts. They were doing little or nothing at the local level to further the autonomy or dignity of the people they supposedly represented. This issue should be taken into account when working to address the ongoing plight of the Native American population.