By Albert Bender
With the deepening of the recession/depression, Native Americans, in particular reservations, need to find a alternative source of income, especially since reservation gaming is on the decline. Looking back into the pages of Indian history, although laden for the most part with appalling tragedy, there are some interesting surprises from which can spring rays of hope.
One encounter with the unexpected, had to do with the Great Depression. This involved the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which enabled many Native Americans to survive the Depression more comfortably than in pre-Depression days.
Ironically, for many Indian populations, the Great Depression was a time of comparative plenty due to the CCC. To begin with, the vast majority of American Indians lived in crushing and chronic poverty in the so-called prosperous Roaring Twenties. An independent study of 1928 reported that 46.8 percent of Native Americans lived on a per capita income of only $100 to $200 per year, with only 2.2 percent receiving incomes of $500 per year. With the onset of the Depression in 1929, Native Americans economic situation became even more severe as normal income from wage work, land leases, the sale of oil and timber and arts and crafts dramatically decreased. By the latter part of 1931, Indian per capita income was only $81 per year.
The CCC was established as an agency to provide employment and training to young men and war veterans, and separately to a limited extent to young Native American men who could not find work otherwise during the Great Depression. The CCC program included public works projects and also initiatives to conserve and develop natural resources. Participants received food, clothing and a base monthly wage.
During this time officials in the Bureau 0f Indian Affairs became very excited over having an Indian component in the then newly formed CCC. These authorities knew that the reservations were in dire need projects that could provide employment to Native Americans. Moreover, Bureau leaders strongly believed that Native Americans should have their own organization apart from the regular CCC. In fact, President Roosevelt approved a separate CCC program for Indians. In the first program sign-up period over 14,000 Indians were employed in just six months time.
Since the massive unemployment of the Depression era severely limited the possibility of off reservation work, the main focus of the CCC which dealt with land preservation projects, was to help those who remained on the reservations.
Indian CCC projects were headquartered in cities located near reservations or in heavily populated Native areas such as Muskogee, Oklahoma; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Phoenix, Arizona; Spokane, Washington; and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The important reality of this program was that it worked in terms of providing employment to reservations that had been bereft of jobs for generations. The program report list 126 different types of projects ranging from improvement of grazing lands in Arizona to the operation of fish hatcheries in Wisconsin. CCC field supervisors worked to select projects based on geographic conditions, reservation needs and the goal of affording Native Americans a decent livable wage. Hence, the Indian CCC in the Pacific Northwest and Great Lakes regions focused largely on forestation.
In the Southwest, the northern Great Plains and the Great Basin of Utah and Nevada the Indian CCC concentrated on improving reservation grazing lands.
Oklahoma Indians built check dams and terraces to stop topsoil loss and set out miles of shelterbelts in the state to prevent wind erosion.
Also, the CC offered educational benefits to Native participants. But, the point to be made is that many Indians saw more employment opportunities during the Depression than before or after that economic downturn.
The Obama administration needs to consider restarting a program similar to the Indian CCC of the 1930s. This time, however, a permanent program of this type should be considered.
The government should this time should let such a program be permanent. Such a program for all reservations in need, would be small potatoes in cost comparison to the billions being thrown to the sinking U.S. corporations, that are victims of their own greed, stupidity and avaricious overreaching.
There are other programs worthy of resuscitation by the Obama administration, programs that could be applied to the economic ills of Native Americans and others; programs such as the Works Projects Administration (WPA) which gave employment to millions of U.S. citizens from 1935-1943 and the Federal Writers Project and the National Youth Administration, which provided part time employment to young people in the age range of 16 to 24, enabling hundreds of thousands of young people to maintain an education and obtain work experience.