Owning your own land: An answer for Indians?

by Jay Ambrose
Scripps Howard News Service

American Indians are poorer than any other racial or ethnic group in the United States by far, so let’s try yet more dependence on federal money, even more heavy-handed bureaucratic control and more court rulings to keep creditors off their case.

Along with casinos, that will fix things, right?

Wrong, and not just by theoretical calculation, but by empirical investigation that testifies to what really, truly does work: Freedom from the overreaching of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, strategic thinking by tribal councils that eschew politics as usual, reliable rule of law and business initiatives. Talk to Terry Anderson of the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Mont., and you get to a fundamental truth on the question by way of anecdote. Friends from out of the country wanted to visit a reservation. He warned them they would encounter poverty, but instead they encountered an Indian rancher who was plainly prosperous and distinct from many in his tribe in another way. He owned his property.

While some land on reservations is privately held, most is held in either individual or tribal trust by the BIA with the rationale that Indians need protection from the depredations of outsiders. As Anderson discovered after the incident some years back, the privately held land is far more productive than the trust land. When I asked this economist who heads PERC why private property produces enriching results, he had a short answer.

“Incentives matter,” he replied, clearly meaning that the trust system wipes out initiative by wiping out almost any chance for profitable consequence. Indians, he said in an interview while I was a PERC media fellow, have traditions of private property, as in color-coding arrows to show who had rights to a slain buffalo.

The problems with the regulation-ridden, barrier-erecting trust system, which evolved out of a series of often well-meaning but sometimes unfortunate “reforms” after reservations were established in the late 1800s, can be partly understood by a trial and also by reading a story in a University of Montana student newspaper.

The trial is about Indians trying to recover as much as $200 billion that the BIA somehow lost while administering trust assets. Sorting things out is made preposterously difficult, among other things, by a lack of records.

The story is about a family at the Northern Cheyenne Reservation and its efforts to buy a house. After finding an appropriate, affordable property, it took the family a year to wade through BIA’s red tape to actual ownership. Think of that, then think of what the BIA’s controls mean to the more complicated issue of starting a business.

There obviously is a lot more behind Indian poverty than the trust system, such as tribal governments that often function erratically. One mistake is telling investors – with federal court backing – that they cannot collect what the Indians owe them. The consequence? No more investment.

Ah, but aren’t casinos the answer, some ask. No. Casinos have only succeeded on a small number of reservations near urban populations.

William Yellowtail, a Crow who is now a professor and has been prominent in politics and government, thinks Indians themselves have not infrequently

damaged their own prospects. He worried in an interview that too many are “frozen in regret” about the “historical catastrophes” their people have suffered instead of looking to the future with the will to be in charge of their own destinies.

The exciting information from studies by two Harvard scholars, Stephen Cornell and Joseph Kalt, is that the Mississippi Band of Choctaws, the White Mountain Apaches and other tribes are in fact following through on what a 1970s federal policy promised – self-determination – by disciplining their own institutions and telling the BIA that its most bothersome infringements can go hang. They are sending poverty packing while providing a lesson on what might work for other tribes.

The quickest glance at statistics on such matters as Indian health and education discloses there is a long, long way to go, but there is genuine reason to think that a sad, even tragic saga of lies, punishing defeat and inhumane abuse could be taking a happy turn in the 21st century.

Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.