Monday, July 04, 2005

Happy White People's Independence Day!

I'm back, after a non-relaxing week off from posting, June being the fiscal year end in Satan's Workshop and all. What a bunch of lazy bastards, at least a dozen people have perused the site in the last week and only the divine Dr. B had a question or request, concerning a column by John Tierney blaming the BIA and Federal bureaucracy for the state of tribes. And some responses in blogeria.

I think Tierney's essay is flawed, but mostly because it's hard to encapsulate five hundred years of white/Indian relations in a few hundred words. If I had to choose one action to initiate immediate change in the federal/tribal relationship though, it would be abolishing the BIA. Closely followed by overturning every Supreme Court decision ever made even tangentially touching tribes.

Following one of Dr. B's links, Erik Loomis says:
Here's the real point of Tierney's argument. The expansive federal government has squeezed the economic life out of Native Americans and they are trying to do the same to the rest of us with their regulations, bureaucracy, and anti-growth policies. And maybe you can make this argument if you base your entire understanding of Indian history on a couple of right-wing economists and you don't read ANY of the massive amounts of history, anthropology, sociology, and Native American oral traditions that have been written about this problem.
It is certainly true that any serious discussion of Indian history does include the various -ologies which Erik cites (I would certainly add legal analysis to the mix), but whatever the various social forces at work here, with very few exceptions they ultimately find expresssion through the BIA and its underlying mission, to control Indians and facilitate the agenda of the dominant culture. Since the BIA is a monolithic bureaucracy, ticket items such as racism, theft, genocide, and other similar bad things, once expressed, find longevity through the perversity of institutional memory. Once something becomes entrenched in the institutional memory, it literally takes an act of Congress to undo it.

In the arena of economic development, the bureaucracy strangles development on reservations. Around a decade ago Senator McCain sponsored a piece of legislation designed to slash the BIA red tape concerning small business loans on reservations, the reason being that an SB loan in the rest of the world typically took a few days to process, compared to two years on a reservation. Cobell v. Norton is still making its way through the courts, a lawsuit involving the mismanagement of Indian trust accounts to the tune of two billion dollars over the last hundred years. I would also point out that this two billion represents collected revenue. One of the more important sources of potential revenue for tribes is the sale or lease of natural resources; grazing fees, mineral rights, land leases, et cetera. However, the BIA historically leases Indian trust lands at a fraction of the market value. There are a number of definitions for "trust," however I've never seen "to fuck over mercilessly" listed.

Erik continues:
It's also a poorly thought out argument to claim that the BIA is the most important reason that today's Indians have economic problems. The BIA certainly plays a part in it. But Tierney seems to separate the BIA and the will of the American people at the time of its creation. The BIA was just a part the general feeling of the American people that Indians were at best a nuisance to be isolated and at worst savages to be killed like wolves. Today, it reflects the general benign neglect that whites feel toward Indians.
First of all, what the fuck is benign neglect? In my mind this is a catchy little term to salve the conscience of modern Americans, but serves no useful purpose and is inherently contradictory. I would also point out that just as it is a mistake to separate the BIA from American society in general, it is also wrong to attempt to absolve the BIA of its failings and abuses by defining it solely as an expression of the will of the people. The BIA has been given a lot of latitude to construct its own policies in many instances, frequently with disastrous results. It has also acted as a driver of policy in its role as the official government experts on All Things Indian (tm).

Does Tierney's column suck? Essentially, yes. But in spite of that he makes a useful point, in that if we're looking to take drastic steps to improve the position of Indians and federal/tribal relations, getting rid of the BIA isn't a bad start.