Don’t Be Played the Fool; It’s about Sovereignty

Jefferson Keel
An Old Joke Being Played on Indian Country, Again

A misinformed member of the media is once again playing a joke on Indian country: ignore the federal trust responsibility and tribal people will be better off. Don’t be fooled, it’s not a new joke. Indian country heard this same argument during the termination era. John Stossel’s piece "Freeloaders" is conveniently making its way across the internet just as Congress considers budget cuts in excess of $30 billion, putting Indian country and the federal trust responsibility in the crosshairs. The objective is simple: Distract the public and distract Indian country from holding Congress accountable to meet one of its most basic constitutional responsibilities.

John Stossel called for the elimination of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, saying the government has “helped Indians the most … and no group does worse” while also saying those who receive government funding are “freeloaders.” Not only did Mr. Stossel recycle a myth from the termination era, he simply repackaged a story that ABC aired over a decade ago while Stossel was reporter for ABC’s 20/20. That piece starts off, “Often the more the government helps, the worse things get; look at what they did to the first Americans.” Sound familiar?

The National Congress of American Indians was formed in 1944 to fight against termination, and every day since, members of our organization have successfully protected tribal sovereignty. Grandstanders like Mr. Stossel are not only trying to grab headlines and boost ratings by calling for the elimination of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, they are attempting to eliminate tribal sovereignty completely.

There is no debate to be had. The federal trust responsibility is simply that, a responsibility, and a legal one. Many members of Congress understand that responsibility clearly, whether Republican, Democrat, or Independent. The federal government acquired the entire landmass of the United States through treaties with the Indian tribes, and in return made treaty promises to protect and fund tribal self-government on reservation lands. This is a sacred trust responsibility that originates from the United States’ most sacred document.

The federal responsibilities in Indian Country were written into the Constitution by the founders. The Indian Commerce Clause, the Treaty Clause and the Property Clause are the sources of these federal responsibilities to fund Indian affairs. The First Federal Congress, which was essentially an extension of the Constitutional Convention, spent over 5 percent of its initial budget on Indian affairs.

Misguided calls to "eliminate the Bureau of Indian Affairs" and other federal programs that benefit Indian tribes and Indian people are based on a misunderstanding of the nature and use of these federal funds. The Indian budget is the basic funding for police, schools, courts, jails, health care for a land mass area larger than seven New England states, or the size of Nebraska. Just like our military bases, these lands are a federal responsibility.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs has a long history—much of it tainted with dishonor—but in recent decades it has been engaged in a process of transformation that is focused on empowering tribal governments and removing the barriers to economic development. This push toward tribal self-government has been the most successful policy toward Indian tribes in the history of our Nation.

The process is incomplete, and tribal citizens and tribal leaders can be as frustrated as anyone at the slow progress that the BIA is making in certain areas. But we should not confuse this frustration with a desire to eliminate the BIA. We’ll continue to urge Congress to hold the BIA accountable and make the system work better. There is enormous potential for energy development and other economic growth on tribal lands that will benefit our entire nation. At the same time we urge Congress to protect and honor the Constitution and the treaties, and continue its strong support for funding Indian programs.

This April Fools’ day, let’s be sure we’re not played the fool once again by the sensational media accounts about Native people. John Stossel is just another outsider painting a misinformed picture of Indian Country. Let’s not get distracted from the true picture. Our people are strong in the face of adversity, our cultures are thriving, and we will always honor our sacred responsibility to the land and our people.

Jefferson Keel, the current President of NCAI is the Lt. Governor of the Chickasaw Nation. Founded in 1944, the National Congress of American Indinas is the oldest, largest and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native organization serving the broad interests of tribal governments and communities. Learn more at NCAI.org

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gamma's picture
On Stossel's video, Fox used Lumbee Indian Ben Chavis to lead their attack (shame on the Lumbees and shame on Ben Chavis). When America attacks, they will use Indians to lead the attack. I am willing to bet that Charles Trimble will be one of the people who will lead a mainstream American attack on Indian nations but I hope I am wrong.
zelbe1's picture
Natives should be the wealthiest people in America, but the creation of a federal agency to overlook Indian monies and land royalties is only one example of using people as statistics to embezzle and siphon funds to third parties. Only today, it is happening to all Americans, natives and non-natives alike via taxation and many non-natives racially buy into the myth that somehow native peoples are freeloaders. Trust responsibility is a minimal cost for taxpayers compared to the billions reaped through the ongoing "inside job" corporate and governmental policies pull over Americans daily without so much of a sigh from Tea Party likes and so-called anti-Obama spenders. Where was all this concern when George W. and Cheney funneled taxpayer monies by war and deregulation for big business for what basically what small business owners and tribal employees get prison time in embezzlement? Its the oldest game in America. In the old days, Indian (or today, congressmen) agents got rich and greedy by getting in bed with industrialist and corporate heads. Instead of casting blame on an entire race of people that for the most part never asked for a BIA or federal annuities, but were forced by gunpoint, Stossel should examine where and whom today this cycle of corruption still exists, beginning with the same people and industrialists from over a hundred years ago running things today. A poor man goes to prison for stealing food to feed his family while a corporate executive goes to congress to steal from the nation. This is capitalism folks. Natives will be the first to tell you they only want a job or an opportunity like everyone else, but they would also be the first to offer a helping hand or take up arms to defend this land of hateful people. Stossel needs to look at who the real moochers are, probably his bosses, instead of laying blame at the most unemployed and overlooked people on the continent.
countryboy's picture
Stossel is another person trying to fool anyone stupid enough to believe him and he believes his own lies as well. The BIA is alive and assisting many Tribes in green energy and special trades training. A friend of mine did tell me about a year ago that while working with the US Supreme Court as an intern that she was told by one of the members on that Court that the termination of Native sovereignty is a goal of that Court and others. Yes, the rich get richer and the poor support them believing the rich people's lies like promising candy to a child for something much bigger in return. Only by Native Nations coming together in a peaceful and wise manner will we be able to uphold our rights as Turtle Island's First People with support from other First Nations of other countries.
piqua's picture
Hello Countryboy: Your friend's experience with the s.c. sounds very interesting. I would be very interested in communicting further with you generally on the disturbing trend of the Supreme Court, and other U.S. courts when it comes to Indian issues and Indian sovereignty. If you care to have a further dialogue please contact me at stv4newcomb@yahoo.com
metis's picture
If Jefferson's brother Franklin would protect the will of the People instead of elected officials and their non-Native attorneys, he and others at the helm in BIA would be far more credible. A case in point is the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, who haven't had a legal election in over 6 years, and their By-laws state that elections should be every two years. Now the Tribe is being run by a Canadian woman who was temporarily appointed to fill in for Chief Billy Phillips, who had failing health, and she has stayed on since. Every time nomination/election season rolls around she finds yet another excuse to either declare them "illegal," or "out of compliance" or not "conforming to Robert's Rules,"...what rubbish. Come on Keel boys, step up, man up and do the right thing, and send those poor folks some help, or this "chief" is going to stay in "forever like Chief Blue." (Her quote).
georgenenelson's picture
John Stossel is the poster child to the incompetency or cover up by the American education system. He is the pure illustration of how Americans are clueless to the true history of how America was developed. This so called professional reporter did the poorest job of journalism, verging on idiocy, and should be sent back to whatever college he graduated from to give back his diploma. He is basically on the air and lying to the public's face, the sad thing is most American people do not know the facts enough to tell the difference. The Tribe's and the U.S. relationship is never fully explained to the American public, which is why Tribal governments perpetually have to regurgitate their history to rookie Senators and House Representatives, because they are ill prepared to deal with the trust responsibility they are ladled with when voted into office. The United States ill prepares students with its white washed version of history. The courses are propaganda at best. The U.S. is no different than other communist countries which give its approval for what will be taught to young students. The facts portrayed are minimal and almost speak of Indians as if already extinct, and we are also not Indians, just ask any person from India! The U.S. has not defined the indigenous societies as original land occupants, but almost painted us into the category of buffalo and deer. We are to be thought of as folklore, like the Disney movie Pocahontas. Fox News likes to use the uneducated like John Stossel to prove their fictitious right wing view points. We need to put a discrimination suit against them for their racist remarks in my opinion. Thank you for this forum to give my opinion on the continued racist attitudes of America toward the indigenous people of this continent. GW Nelson member of the Klamath Tribes in Oregon
shobunny's picture
I'm a native college student, and it irritates and confuses me to why people like Stossel are turning on his own. I understand why he would want to be independent from the BIA and Government, but who got us in there in the first place? We didnt decide hey let's be poor and broke and live in reservations so we can have the gov take care of us like a parent and child. No. We need to protect our nation to nation relationship, and we must have the United States honor our treaties and obligations. I never understood what that meant till I got to college level, and we need it! No, we don't need to be completely dependent, in fact I'm all for economic development in our communities, and revitalizing our languages! But we can't do it if were dropped from the budget and no longer have our status. Can we eventually? I think so... right now we aren't in that place where we wanna be. Come on my natives! And Stossel, you suck for what your doing.