Under the Reservation Sky

Daniel Garza

For a short time, soon after the first railroad tracks were laid down on the rich agricultural basin of central Washington State around the early 1900s, federal policy allowed government agents to break up the Indian reservations into allotments to be owned by individual Indians in an effort to encourage increased agricultural production.

By 1914, over 4,000 tribal members held about half a million allotted acres, while 780,000 acres would stay in the possession of the tribe.

White settlers seeking opportunity were quick to establish small townships on lands purchased away from Indian hands—setting up a checkerboard of private and tribal lands within the jurisdiction of the Yakama reservation. Soon, stick built homes and small businesses, wooden barns and tractor sheds made of corrugated steel dappled the fertile region resting in the eastern shadows of the Cascade Mountain range.

One of those small cobbles of dwellings and small businesses soon grew into the incorporated City of Toppenish, Wahington—known today as the capital city of the Yakama Indian Nation.

My family had moved to Toppenish in 1970, soon after I was born in California, seeking work contracts in the apple, cherry, and peach orchards that dominated the rich basin land. And while I spent time migrating with my parents to California, Nebraska and then to Mexico to pass the winter months, Toppenish was home to me, and I loved that I lived within an Indian Reservation.

The Yakama Nation covers an area of approximately 1.2 million acres, has about 10,000 enrolled members, and is overseen by the Bureau of Indian Affairs of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

There are 566 such Indian reservations across the United States whose members have endured years of broken promises and failed policies resulting from their treaty agreements with the United States government. You would think having the coffers of the U.S. government at one’s disposal would offer the joys of utopian life liberals dream of.

But a utopian life is not exactly what members in the reservation enjoy. Not even close.

Although it varies from reservation to reservation, Native Americans have the highest poverty rate in the nation at 26 percent. The Blackfoot Reservation in Montana last we checked, for example, has an unemployment rate of 69 percent. It doesn’t help when Indian people own private businesses at the lowest rate per capita for any ethnic or racial group in the United States.

What’s more, Indians have the lowest life expectancy of any group in America, and suddenly an astonishing 66 percent are born to single mothers, and in some tribes the rate of alcohol dependence is as high as 70 percent of the population. They are 40 percent more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic whites, and among American Indians age 25 to 34, the rate of violent crime victimizations was more than 2½ times the rate for all persons the same age.

And like many other Native Americans across the country, Yakama teens face few private sector job opportunities, chronic alcohol and drug abuse, and other significant obstacles to education. Statewide, only 13 percent of tribal members hold a bachelor's degree and only 6.5 percent of Yakamas do so, and a paltry 35 percent of adult Tribal members graduated high school.

Additionally, only 36 percent of males in high-poverty Native American communities have full-time, year-round employment. Worse yet, the community has a high school dropout rate twice the national average, spelling doom for the future of so many young Native Americans. As John F. Kennedy once put it, “our progress [in America] can be no swifter than our progress in education…," and by this measurement, we are failing the Native American communities miserably.

Then there is the lack of infrastructure that has not been sufficiently provided—i.e. streets, sewer, electricity, telephones or Internet connectivity—making conditions in the reservations very difficult. Of course, it doesn’t help when your infrastructure dollars are managed and guarded by thick layers of the world’s finest obstructionist agents—our federal bureaucracy.

To put it bluntly, the past 150 years of government’s broken promises of treaty obligations, subsidization and bureaucratization of America’s Indian Reservations has not, and will not diminish poverty in the least. Unemployment is high, access to healthcare service is subpar, and private property is practically non-existent because members do not own any of the reservation land they live on so there is little incentive to improve on it.

In fact, it is in government-managed Tribal reservations where we get a clear picture of how communal land ownership and federal trust restrictions on land ownership hinder an entire people from thriving.

Regrettably, life on the Yakama Indian Reservation is not much different than life on other reservations—a disproportionately high unemployment, poverty and futility—precisely because they are less free and more dependent on government than any other social group.

Convinced that dependency has become a ruinous proposition, more and more individual tribal members have chosen to be free of such subsistence living. In fact, it is estimated that more than 65 percent of American Indians now live outside Tribal reservations.

A majority of the families who thrived and flourished have done so outside the hooks of dependency because they recognized that a life that involved too much government hindered their ability to reach their full potential. And predictably, many who untethered themselves from the bonds of reliance and accessed the market experienced vast progress in their lives.

I grew up with scores of Indian friends who passed on receiving an education in the Tribal school system and enrolled in the public school system. I knew them to be full of life and talented. Many of them took positions of leadership outside the world of the reservation. It was as if their parents intuitively knew that in order for their children to have any chance at a prosperous life, they would have to strike out on their own and embrace the American model of achieving success, not the failed government model.

Yet those families, who transitioned outside the Reservation in pursuit of a more prosperous life, have maintained their close social and cultural ties to family and Tribe. In fact, those that have achieved success have returned to the Reservation and are showing others what self-reliance, access to the free markets, and a proper education can do to improve their lives.

Despite the facts, activists who presume to speak on behalf of Native Americans demand more public assistance dollars and more government intervention—which is exactly the wrong tonic. What they should be calling for is less government layers of bureaucracy, economic sovereignty that allows tribal leadership the ability to create an atmosphere that incentivizes businesses start-ups, entrepreneurship and innovation that creates jobs and economic opportunities on reservation lands.

The principles of freedom are universal, and no matter what the intentions, commitments or obligations from the government have been, we can do better than to offer people dependency and learned helplessness. Tribal governments and individual Indians must seek the freedom of economic sovereignty to create jobs and economic activity on their reservations and also for tribal citizens who live off reservations if they are to improve the economic prospects of future generations.

Our government must seek to unleash the entrepreneurial potential of American Indians by incentivizing more risk-taking, free enterprise and capital accumulation within reservations.

There is no substitute for free people earning success on their own merit, with their own creativity. Entrepreneurship is not antithetical to Indian cultures and history. With the hard work ethic passed on from one generation to another—more and more of the Yakama have already shown the way.

Daniel Garza was formerly associate director at the Office of Public Liaison for The White House. He is currently the executive director of the LIBRE Initiative. You can also like their Facebook page or follow them on twitter @libreinitiative.

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dwanna's picture
I take issue with several misguided, even misleading statements made by Mr. Garza in this column. I've number the quotes from him and my answer underneath each quote. 1. "You would think having the coffers of the U.S. government at one’s disposal would offer the joys of utopian life liberals dream of." Mr. Garza, no Indian Nation has ever had the coffers of the US government at its disposal. Those coffers have been enjoyed by Euro-American (white) people in power--like your former boss, George W. Bush. Instead of spending money on education or healthcare, President Bush started several wars and crippled the U.S. economy with borrowed, reckless spending on those wars that have disproportionately take Indian lives. Honestly, I'm not aware of any "liberals" or Indians or liberal Indians who dream of utopia. I am aware of some including myself who dream of adequate housing, fresh food, potable water, and access to excellent, universal healthcare. 2. "In fact, it is in government-managed Tribal reservations where we get a clear picture of how communal land ownership and federal trust restrictions on land ownership hinder an entire people from thriving." First, this is the neoliberal argument, aka Tea Party rhetoric. But the truth is that communal land ownership allowed communities to THRIVE for tens of thousands of years before a Euro-American ideology of individualism interrupted it. Second, federal trust restrictions have kept the small bit of Indian-owned land in Indian hands. Breaking up communal land into individual land ownership is otherwise known as allotment. We tried that. It didn't work. In fact, it served to destroy cultures, which are directly correlated to tribal ills you describe. It resulted in over two-thirds of all Indian land to be stolen in less than 30 years. Read the Meriam Report, Mr. Garza. The theft was only stopped with the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. I'll leave to the attorneys to explain the specifics of that to you, Mr. Garza. Third, you do great disservice to the Yakama people by suggesting their reservation is managed by the federal government. The Confederation Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation is governed by THEIR Yakama Tribal Council -- not the federal government. I don't presume to know what other Indian peoples believe, but I know that my people, the Muscogee, want to talk about what is happening within our world. We find it insulting when others come in and decide what is good and bad for us. We do appreciate and utilize our allies, but it's this general attitude of "we know better than you" that has "hindered" Indigenous Peoples for the last 500+ years. 3. "Our government must seek to unleash the entrepreneurial potential of American Indians by incentivizing more risk-taking, free enterprise and capital accumulation within reservations." In this instance, you position individual Indians, as dependent, and as the problem, and the government as the solution. Yet, you said before that the government was the problem. Also, you're basically saying that if only Indian people worked harder and took more risks, then we'd make more money and then we'd enjoy the ever-elusive "freedom" we so often hear about from the Tea Party and Republicans, alike. Actually, if we had the money that the federal government owes us, then we had more fiscal freedom. But that might mean you have to pay the Yakama Nation taxes for living on their land. So you see, fiscal freedom does not necessarily mean the freedom to reclaim our lands, languages, and spiritual beliefs. You're pushing assimilation, Mr. Garza. And you do it, sketchily. Now to your point about entrepreneurship. Actually, Native people, make less money than almost every other raced group whether in private business or wage employment. And 93% of all businesses owned by Native women have NO employees other than themselves compared to 83% of businesses nationwide. Small business ownership and entrepreneurship is NOT always the answer. In fact, most of the time, it's only a short-term solution to survival. Most businesses, no matter who owns them, are gone within three years. 4. "There is no substitute for free people earning success on their own merit, with their own creativity. Entrepreneurship is not antithetical to Indian cultures and history." Generally, most Indigenous groups do not believe that we earn our success on our own merit. We understand that we succeed only because of the sacrifice of our ancestors before us and the constant support of our community and family. You're right about one thing, what you call "entrepreneurship" and what I call trade does have a rich history in Indigenous cultures. The difference is that the sociohistorical trade of Indigenous Peoples was done for the good of ALL the people, not just individuals here and there. This column pushes a colonizing mindset. My job is to decolonize.
andre's picture
Mr Garza, hit on all the substantive points on America's failed Indian policy. It's touching to hear such insight as to the model failure of federal policy. In traveling the Mohawk Nation, Navajo Nation, Pine Ridge Reservation, they are all the same. Yes it's hard to believe that in the richest country on earth, where $2 billion a day is spent on defense, that this can and is occurring. In the end. It's a matter of priorities. Countries like America and Canada, founded by the Doctrine of Discovery will probably continue to suffer until the priorities are changed.
bootanner's picture
Bravo! I was thinking the same thing. Another colonial overseer telling us what is best for us. Nice rebuttal.
dwanna's picture