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