John Stossel

Don’t Know Much About History: Stossel Says American Indians Receive the Most Help

Gale Courey Toensing

Fox News contributor John Stossel was on Fox & Friends March 24 to discuss high-paying government jobs that recently appeared in The Daily Caller. Among several complaints involving government spending, the journalist criticized the Bureau of Indian Affairs, as well as the money the government spends supporting Indian programs.

“Why is there a Bureau of Indian Affairs?” Stossel asked with incredulity. “There is no Bureau of Puerto Rican Affairs or Black Affairs or Irish Affairs. And no group in America has been more helped by the government than the American Indians, because we have the treaties, we stole their land. But 200 years later, no group does worse.”

The BIA has for decades been no stranger to criticism, but Stossel’s framing of the matter as a racial issue sparked a uniform response from Indian country dismissing his comments as lacking in historical knowledge, “ignorant,” and “offensive.”

“Unfortunately, Mr. Stossel reveals a level of ignorance about Native Americans that is troubling but not uncommon,” said Mashpee Wampanoag Chairman Cedric Cromwell. The Wampanoag people were the first to greet the European settler colonists who arrived on the shores of what became Massachusetts in 1620 and helped them survive the harsh New England winter. “We as a nation have fought just to exist over the last 400 years because of our treatment at the hands of the U.S. Government. It even took over 30 years and protracted legal battles to be acknowledged as the tribe we have always been. So for someone who clearly has no grasp of even the most basic history between Native American tribes and the United States to so cavalierly say that we deserve no assistance, and that we deserve no recognition, is, quite frankly, offensive.”

Gabe Galanda, an enrolled member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes and an Indian law attorney said Stossel’s lumping together of Indians, Puerto Ricans, African Americans and Irish reveals a lack of knowledge about the sovereignty of Indian nations.

“Stossel, like many Americans, fails to fundamentally appreciate that tribes are governments, not ‘groups’ of individuals as he says,” he said, pointing that American Indians are the only Americans who are indigenous to the United States and the only peoples to whom the U.S. owes a trust responsibility.

“The United States has historically done a disservice to Native Americans, by and through genocidal and assimilationist federal policies. As a result of federal allotment, assimilation and termination policies, which remain in force to this day despite Congress’ repudiation of those policies, some tribal communities are in fact worse off socio-economically than most other American citizens,” Galanda said.

In mocking Indians’ assertions about broken treaties and stolen land, Stossel shifts from speaking in the Indian voice when he says “we have treaties,” to speaking in the settler colonist’s voice when he says “we stole their land,” but it isn’t evidence of an identity crisis on Stossel’s part, Galanda said. “He’s confused. On the one hand, he recognizes the existence of Indian Treaties, bilateral agreements between sovereign nations, namely the United States and tribal governments; yet on the other, he refers to Indians essentially as special interest citizen groups.”

Despite hundreds of years of trust obligation to Indian people, the federal government has failed in virtually every attempt to ‘help’ Indians, Galanda said. With the exception of the last forty years of federal self-determination policy, federal Indian gaming, and contract preference policies in particular, the U.S. has failed in every effort to economically enfranchise Indian country, he said.

Narragansett Indian Tribe Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas said Stossel’s comments are mostly incomprehensible. “I don't know if he means tribes would do better if the government left us alone or that after all these years he thinks we are all stuck in first gear. I'm not sure, but regardless of treaties or the U.S. constitution tribes have not been treated as well as certain other ‘races’ as he may believe. The fact that he acknowledged certain groups or races need help in this country is awful in itself. If we were all created equal why would we need civil rights?” Thomas said.

“People are entitled to their opinions and my opinion of him is that he is very ignorant, tribes are small and their needs do not get met as they should because the elected officials don't have to worry about their vote,” Thomas said.

Look at the context in which Stossel made his comments, Thomas said. “He’s sitting on a TV show set with all whites that is most likely owned by whites talking about the issue of 115k being paid to a BIA official. I would be willing to wager that show he was on has people that do the same thing to some extent but when others do it, it's bad. Too much,” Thomas said.

Seneca President Robert Odawi Porter said part of the problem with Stossel’s analysis is his limited understanding of both treaties and what the federal government has done throughout history to Native nations.

“Stossel fails to mention that the federal government has attempted to eliminate us, terminate us, remove us from our lands, cheat and steal from us and then created a paternalistic approach to civilize, and essentially convert and undo the Indian. Today federal programs do little to help tribes be more independent and self sufficient and current federal regulations and laws aren’t effective for enabling tribes to create sustainable economies and grow,” Porter said. “If anyone has been fleeced, it’s the Indians. Virtually every tribe has its own unique story in evidence of this.”

On March 25, Stossel hosted a one-hour special on Fox News Channel, during which he featured an entire segment devoted to bashing government funding for Native programs. Context was largely non-existent, which has outraged some Native Americans.

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derrico's picture
Submitted by derrico on
There's an important lesson here: namely, the importance of working from a perspective of sovereignty at every moment, never lapsing into the rhetoric of 'civil rights' or 'interest groups,' never engaging in the rhetoric of 'we're all Americans.' Every little slip of the tongue or the pen in those instances where Indian leaders don't speak from a sovereign perspective lets go of a piece of the actuality of sovereignty. There are major battles coming, as there have been for 200 years, and we must be precise in our language whenever we speak, whether to the press or to any other government. People forget history or never learn history or deny history, and they need to be reminded and challenged by the precision of Indian leaders who know history.

thechief's picture
Submitted by thechief on
he did the exact same story with abc news a few years ago. i found it on youtube. he actually stole some of the quotes from Russell Means and the point he was trying to make was the US govt sucks at helping Native Americans out. The more the US Gov't gets involved the worse tribes end up. He had Russell Means basically telling the audience that the US should just mind their business and tribes will fix themselves.

stevedragswolf's picture
Submitted by stevedragswolf on
As sovereign nations, wouldn't that necessitate that we live independently of the United States government? The article, and the opinions shared here, seem to heartily defend that we are sovereign while at the same time saying tribes are weak for lack of representation. Either we're sovereign or colonized, we can't be both. Stossel said nothing wrong here. If we are indeed sovereign nations within a nation, there should be no need for the BIA. Again, are we sovereign or are we dependent?

thechief's picture
Submitted by thechief on
Excellent point. I think tribal leaders like to talk about sovereignty alot but whine when their federal grants get cut off. I asked a business committee member(tribal council equivalent) what the tribes plan to becoming fully sovereign was and he just looked puzzled. Are we going to create our own tax code? Our own social programs? etc

nicoleg's picture
Submitted by nicoleg on
Tribal sovereignty is only "Quasi sovereignty" due to three important U.S. Supreme Court rulings. The first had to to with negotiations for Indian Land. The second (Cherokee Nation v. Georgia) established that Indian Nations are "domestic dependent nations" and that the relationship between the Federal Government and Tribes is that "of a ward to his guardian". The third decision (Worchester v. Georgia) established the plenar power of Congress over Tribal Nations. That is, the U.S. Congress has override power over Indian affairs. It also says that state laws do not apply in Indian Country. So, it isn't up to the Tribes to declare absolute sovereignty. They can't. The government, in my opinion, saw fit to make sure there wouldn't be any "Indian Uprisings" in any fasion. Especially when it comes to complete self-governance.

rezilla's picture
Submitted by rezilla on
There is no such thing as quasi sovereignty, and plenary power is questionable.