Indian Benefits: Misnomer and Propaganda

Dwanna L. Robertson

Contrary to popular belief, especially among non-Natives, American Indians did not simply relinquish their rights to lands, waters, and other natural resources. Indeed, as a result of historic negotiations and treaties between the U.S. government and tribal nations, federal agencies are obligated to provide specific rights, services, and protections as payment for the basic wholesale exchange of the land mass of the United States.

Misnomer—the use of a wrong or unsuitable term to describe something.

The United States contractually owes tribal nations. “Indian benefits” is a misnomer for the debt owed to Native peoples. The federal government pledged through laws and treaties to compensate for land exchanges accomplished through the forced removal of tribal nations from their original homelands. Unfortunately, payment is commonly expressed as “benefits.” This term—benefits—implies giving assistance, subsidy, or even charity, rather than deserved reimbursement. The Department of Interior even describes the obligated recompense for American Indians as benefits on its webpage.

On the same website, Indian Affairs describes their programs as part of the “unique and continuing relationship with and responsibility to tribes and Indian people.” Words like “support,” “assist,” and “serve” are used in the description of the nature of the relationship between the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian people. That is, the purpose of Indian Affairs is to help us develop our “tribal governments, strong economies, and quality programs.” Within this context, the federal government and its Indian policies are benevolent—for the good of Indians and tribes.

Even the payment bartered keeps changing—and not for the good of Indians and tribes. In 2004, a U.S. Commission for Human Rights report found that the conditions in Indian country are at a crisis point due to chronic underfunding by the federal government. This same report contends that the mismanagement of funds by the BIA in 2000 resulted in a $7.4 billion dollar deficit in unmet needs for Indian country—a third of that in child welfare services. Not one of the six federal agencies responsible for the major expenditures in Indian country received a positive review from the Commission, i.e. the Department of Interior, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Justice, Department of Education, and Department of Agriculture.

In any other world, this would constitute default, or perhaps, breach of contract. Instead, the lack of payment by the federal government to the sovereign tribal nations translates into necessary budget cuts and decreased social welfare spending.

Propaganda—communication dispersed widely to influence personal and societal attitudes.

Even worse, tribal citizens endure the stigma that accompanies this discourse of Indian benefits. Whether receiving health care, picking up USDA commodities, or living in subsidized Indian housing, Native people experience shame from being treated as if they are receiving a hand-out, not deserved reimbursement. How do I know? Over the past three years, as part of my academic research about issues in Indian Country, I’ve spoken with hundreds of Native folks representing tribes from all over the country. No matter how the conversations begin, an unsolicited discussion about benefits always comes up.

Most of these Native folks express real anger when discussing the normality of non-Indian people thinking that Indians do not pay taxes and receive copious benefits, like free education, housing, healthcare, and profits from casinos. They believe that nonNative people, in general, misunderstand what services are offered and how often people receive them. Comments like “we’re all getting money from the casinos or handouts from the government” are so common. They speak of the humiliation of sitting in clinics or signing up for programs.

Lillie, an indigenous woman pursuing a master’s degree, summed it particularly well, vehemently stating, “I get sick of working with friends or people and they say, ‘Well, at least you get your school paid for.’ Uh, no, I don’t. Then they say, ‘But you get your healthcare free.’ Yeah well, you sit in the clinic all day. See how you like it. It’s a shoddy system. Also, people think we don’t pay taxes. Hey, nobody gave me that memo.”

Framing the obligatory and promised compensation by the U.S. government as merely "benefits" perpetuates the idea of Native dependency, rather than tribal sovereignty. On its most basic level, sovereignty is tribal self-rule. Sovereignty is the one thing that has been successful in breaking the historical socioeconomic dependency of tribes on the U.S. government.

However, the rhetoric of sovereignty itself becomes the stumbling block. After all, if tribes are sovereign nations with self-rule, why does the U.S. have to support and assist them? Why must the good people of the United States continue to support “Indian Benefits” with their hard-earned tax dollars? The American public must be educated that we’re not asking for any favors or charity—just what is owed to us. Nothing more, but certainly, nothing less.

Dwanna L. Robertson is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a public sociologist, and an invited speaker. Having grown up in Oklahoma, attending stomps and going to wild onion dinners, she can’t wait to get back west as soon as possible.

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husbandofmoonlight's picture
Dr. Russel Since "rebus sic stantibus"----("at this point of affairs") and "Pacta sunt servanda" "agreements must be ovserved" ----(your references) can be taken in light of the very real fact that the "Seven Major Crimes act--of 1885" in reality "abbrogated"---all of the "treaties" with ALL of the tribes of North America prior and after its passage; it is a very clear fact that ALL of the tribes of North America---are STILL AT WAR with the USA-----*. Therefore 'at this point of affairs' and since all agreements have "not" been observed; a "state of war" remains in effect. Accordingly, by your own claims of Native American "DNA"/Tribal Membership; you like myself and all others born after 1885 (I of course "presume" that you were born after 1885)----are born "prisoners of war"----in our own "country of oirgin"; a status that very "peoples/nations"on this entire planet can claim. -------actually--Native Americans reveal a presence on ths continent as far back as 15K years ago----scientificly proven beyond ANY doubt--while the "Jews" do not even possess a distinctive DNA---much less can prove any antiquity prior to the "Helenistic Era"-with absolutely NO scientific evidence that could compare to that of Native America---) Taking this into consideration; we here at North American Intertribal Missions are seeking leaders in the very real "continued war of aggression and invasion by the USA"----and having "learned from the mistakes of our forebears"----seek a different "manifestation" of our war of "defense". We intend to take the matter to the Internatoinal Court sSystem for a decision that will be binding against the "criminal nation of the United States of America"-----and will seek "repatriation" "restoration" and complete and full compensation. Would you be willing to accept a position with this movement? *in reality to the fact that the USA, was and is the "head quarters" of the invasion forces of the "western USA or west of the Mississippi River" by the USA conducting wars of aggression against any tribe or "confederacy of tribes" who openly opposed their "claims of possession" which were most directly attributed to the "Louisiana Purchase" a faulty and defective argument since "France" only "made claim" and could not have held possession of that territory since most of our ancestors were in possession---in most cases after having fought each other for several thousand years before the Europeans "stubled upon the continent"---"; possesion being 9/10th ownership etc.-----the USA does not "legally own" the territory mentioned here---they only "illegally possess it"---and I must add, that while the USA still owes to Native America what could be conservatively estimated at 10X's the GDP of the USA----i.e. trillions of trillions of dollars; they are making 8 million dollars per day "donations"--or 3 billion dollars (US)anually to the illegal state of Israel---and "next year" will "up" that amount to 4 billion dollars for "national defense" to which every single member of Native America should be opposing with as much of their energy as possible----yet; there remains silence thus far. The USA if even examined casually; reveals the very fact that they are a crminal nation and have shown themselves to be very reluctant to make the needed changes to justify their continued existence in their present form. The "other irony" is that the "world" does not "need to invade the usa to assure their own safety; they simply need to "cut off the credit lines" and the USA will turn upon themselves. The "other irony" is that the USA will "borrow that money for Israel---from China" since they do not produce anything in the USA anymore---except hyperboli and deceptions, war crimes and crimes against humanity on an international level never before known to history. "If the USA were any other criminal nation the 'Americans' would invade the USA to keep the world safe; and they would be justified." Contact us at naim_679@hotmail.com. Thank you for your time. Husband of Moonlight Comanche,Kiowa,Mississippi Choctaw, and Scottish (of Clan McGregor, thank you)
swrussel's picture
Well, let's look at the implications of being "born a POW," which is on its face hogwash. I have a right and some would say a duty to attempt escape. This is my land. Where do you suggest I escape to? I should attempt to rejoin friendly forces. There are no friendly forces unless you count a few radical Indian poseurs who think it's cool to be photographed waving assault rifles. See, e.g., Ward Churchill. You fall into the trap of treating over 500 surviving peoples as if they were the same. SOME Indian peoples made treaties with the USA to end a war. To the extent those treaties are violated, the question becomes whether the violations destroy the purpose of the treaties--that is, making peace. Should the Navajos make war on the US because the US had not provided the education to young Navajos promised in the treaty? Or do we take the treaty to mean "education" as understood when the treaty was signed: the ability to read and write in English and do basic arithmetic. By that standard, the USA is not in violation, but that standard is not helpful in the 21st century. Should my people make war on the US because making the Cherokee Nation a part of the state of Oklahoma without our permission violated our peace treaty? Do we really want to chase all the Okies out of our casinos? This silliness could go on forever. My suggestion was and is to young people who want to argue policies favorable to their tribal nations based on treaties to: 1. Read the treaties and know them. 2. Understand rebus sic stantibus and pacta sunt servanda as two very much alive principles of treaty law that tend to pull in different directions in any particular case. Therefore, you need the skill of parsing your particular treaty in light of those two principles. Or you can sit in your POW camp complaining about the rations. Let me know how that works out for you.
swrussel's picture
Oh yeah, a big ^5 for this column. I've started several times to write a column on "The Mythical Indian Gravy Train." This train has never stopped at my house. But if I try to write it, I stumble over the number of times I've been run over by the mythical gravy train, so I've been reluctant to play on the tracks. On the other hand, not all tribes have treaties and, of those that do, most treaties do not contain perpetual obligations by the US government. It is not useful for persons who do not have such perpetual obligation treaties (many of which are annual items in the BIA budget) to rest their demands on treaties. In many, many cases, the treaties are as mythical as the Indian gravy train. But in specific cases--for example, the Navajo treaty promises education---it's a good idea to put Sam's feet in the fire. Note to young activists: first thing, read your tribe's treaties. Then familiarize yourself with the doctrine rebus sic stantibus. Contrast with pacta sunt servanda. Know this argument backwards and forwards. Then go get 'em. There'll be plenty of old folks behind you.
drummkr's picture
I would challenge anyone who thinks that life on the rez is pretty easy to try live on one for 2-3 years. Some have tried and I think they could tell you how difficult it really is. Living with chronic 80%-90% unemployment is extremely frustrating no matter what your qualifications are. Nepotism is rampant. Outsiders (contractors/management/administration)are treated a whole lot more differently (fairer) then our own people. On our reserve 65%-70% live off-reserve beause there is not enough employment on reserve. And it looks like the only jobs that are available to them off-reserve are on the lower end of the workforce. In my opinion the "reserve system" is a system that is designed not-to-succeed. Those that remain, like myself, are here simply because this is my home; this is where I belong. If I am going to make a change in this world it will be here in my home village; in my peoples territory.
makaduta's picture
Before my mother died, she told me where the important papers were hidden. The ones I would need after she died. Among the papers was a copy of her will leaving everything to me (her only child) and a handwritten list of her land-holdings. She told me she sent a copy of her will to our tribal executive offices. This was not some ominious fore-boding action on her part, she lived another 15 years and died at 87 years old. What I most remember of that day were these words which she spoke with a combination of anger, pride, and conviction. She said, "After I'm gone and, when you receive your first lease check, remember it is NOT welfare. This is money promised to your ancestors and some of them never saw a penny. This is your birthright and NOT A HANDOUT. Your ancestors suffered for this money and gave up a great deal of what was precious to them. They did this for the children, and their children, and their children." Now, when I receive the lease payments, I think of my ancestors and my mother and I say a prayer of thanks to them. Pidamayaye, Makaduta