The Untrustworthy Feds Teach Natives About Trust

Steve Russell

As the United States government careens once more to gridlock over paying its bills—past, present, and future—it might be a good idea for Indians to pick themselves up off the floor and quit laughing. There’s work to do.

Tribal governments should have two budgets and the “shadow budget” should assume not a dime coming in from the feds. If a shadow budget is impossible, you need to STFU about sovereignty until it is possible. If a federal shutdown closes the money spigot for a while, maybe tribal politicians could parlay that setback into a teachable moment, the lesson being that the colonists suffered for their sovereignty and history is a hard enough taskmistress to make you suffer for yours.

The primary fiction that props up the legal house of cards that is federal Indian control law is that tribal governments are in “a state of tutelage.” We are supposed to be learning from the United States of America how to do economics and how to do politics and, until we do, the U.S. is justified in making decisions on our behalf with which we disagree.

One of the most horrendous of those decisions was when Ethan Hitchcock, Secretary of the Interior, followed the instructions of his government to allot the Kiowa Reservation, in violation of the treaty rights of the Kiowa Nation and over the objection of Lone Wolf, Kiowa Principal Chief.

Secretary Hitchcock has gotten a bad rap from history essentially because he did not resign. Lost in the flap over the Supreme Court case, Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock, is the fact that Ethan Hitchcock argued for the Kiowas as best he could within the government.

Hitchcock predicted, correctly, that allotment of the Kiowa Reservation would be economic disaster for the Kiowa. He argued that the land was not suitable for farming and the Kiowa were not being allowed to retain enough land to keep livestock.

Lone Wolf felt the same, but he had to sue Hitchcock to litigate the issue and so Hitchcock appears to be much more of a villain than he was in fact.

The SCOTUS allowed Congress to abrogate an Indian treaty for the good of the Indians, observing:

These Indian tribes are the wards of the nation. They are communities dependent on the United States. Dependent largely for their daily food. Dependent for their political rights. They owe no allegiance to the states, and receive from them no protection. Because of the local ill feeling, the people of the states where they are found are often their deadliest enemies. From their very weakness and helplessness, so largely due to the course of dealing of the Federal government with them and the treaties in which it has been promised, there arises the duty of protection, and with it the power.

The Kiowa, you see, had to trust Congress to do the right thing. Economics is a stubborn discipline, full of troublesome arithmetic, and that arithmetic tells us that Lone Wolf’s objections and Secretary Hitchcock’s warnings were correct. Congress had the power, but it lacked the moral fiber or the competence or both necessary to deal fairly with the Kiowa Nation.

The SCOTUS used Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock to lecture Indian nations about trust. The guardian lectured the wards about trust. We the wards should trust because we must trust our guardian to both understand our best economic interests and pursue them.

We all know how that turned out, and most of us took the debacle to be about a lack of moral fiber. More recently, we’ve been given cause to wonder whether it was a lack of competence, as the U.S. government bleeds public trust, apparently oblivious to the economic impact of that bleeding.

I’ve got more than one friend who does not feel safe in any investment but gold, unless you count a coffee can with a wad of Federal Reserve Notes buried in the backyard. Most of the disputes those friends and I get into contain "investable information." Their quaint ideas advise one set of allocations; my ideas result in a very different set.

Those who remain long gold still expect inflation to reach Weimar levels when it finally gets going. (Given where we've been, a reasonable amount of inflation would be a good thing.) Even if wrong, I don't think the gold bugs are going to take a bath in the long haul as long as they buy it on the downside as well as the upside. Dollar cost averaging can cover a modest error in judgment and gold will always hold a value some call intrinsic. I call it folklore; Black Elk called it “the yellow metal that makes the wasichus crazy.”

Gold or Federal Reserve Notes, economics answers to politics because trust remains key. Media of exchange represent promises we make to each other. In the Great Depression, faith in those promises broke down. I see a lot of that in current U.S. politics driven by pols who either can't resist the short term advantage or just don't understand what they are doing when they work to undermine a president they don't like in a manner that undermines the presidency.

It’s like—dare I say it?—U.S. politicians are emulating the most egregious errors of tribal politicians. Who is teaching whom?

I'm not saying the opposition should not work to screw the party in power. Those are the rules of the game. I'm saying that what we've seen since the Kenyan Muslim Traitor got elected is undermining not just him, not just the Democrats, but the country. That it's unprecedented in U.S. history, if not in our tribal histories.

Sabotage of sensitive negotiations has happened before; the most notorious being Richard Nixon derailing the Paris peace talks with Vietnam. Need I point out that Iran threatens to go nuclear but Vietnam did not?

Resistance to necessary spending has happened before, but it's not gone to the level of refusing to pay bills already incurred or resulted in a credit downgrade.

Congress has offered a forum to presidential critics in the past--Douglas MacArthur comes to mind--but never foreign heads of state who literally were filming campaign ads with the U.S. Congress as set decoration. Israel has a parliamentary democracy, which means governments come and go at unpredictable intervals and Benjamin Netanyahu is always one snap election away from retirement.

When the U.S. meddles in foreign elections, it's usually the CIA doing it, because doing it publicly makes it hard to do business with other nations.

When the U.S. tries to derail negotiations, it acts on the down low, because of the extremely useful fiction that "politics stops at the water's edge."

When the U.S. disputes spending, it normally does not publicly advocate stiffing creditors.

These things have not been done before and they all weaken the nation vis-à-vis other nations. They also encourage other nations not to trust the U.S. and citizens of the U.S. not to trust each other. That trust is the value underneath any medium of exchange, paper or gold.

Let’s put aside the disaster imposed upon the Kiowa Nation by ignoring the wishes of Lone Wolf and the opinion of the Secretary of the Interior.

Let’s even put aside the treachery that created the state of Oklahoma in spite of treaties that promised the Five Tribes their reservations would never be part of a state without their consent.

Forget what the government has done to Indians and look what they are doing and not doing with their core responsibilities. We are in “tutelage”

When the U.S. government has destroyed the trust of foreign nations, of states, of ordinary citizens, how can it expect American Indians to trust decisions made against our will but ostensibly on our behalf? The Indian Reorganization Act said we are still “under Federal tutelage” and if that’s so we should be watching our masters at work.

It’s all right to laugh at the colonial government’s incompetence to keep from crying, but when the laugh is over the lesson is we are not going to be properly schooled in economics and politics by these clowns. That does not mean we don’t need to be schooled in economics and politics. That shadow budget would be a good place to start unless you think it’s possible to make sovereign decisions from a condition of dependence.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.

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azpark's picture
Steve I usually have to read your articles 2 or 3 times to figure out what you are saying; I guess I am just a little slow. In any event the best I can figure is this: Since you are well aware that 95% of tribes fall into your STFU category, you are telling the tribes to STFU about sovereignty and get your own acts together but in order to make them feel better (and deflect any criticism) you spend most of your article pointing out the screw ups of the colonial government. Is that about right?
swrussel's picture
I would very much like to dispute your number because my knee jerks that it's not only wrong but not even close. But I know of no place to gather the information. I take it you do, so could you help me out? Assuming that you are right, what is it you are right about? I would suggest that if and only if you assume that everything the tribal government is now doing stays in place you could be right, but you miss the point of the exercise, which is to settle the difference between necessary and optional. There is why I think you have the number pretty much bassackwards. A secondary point of the exercise is to pay attention to what nearly all sovereign governments in the history of humankind have done: taxation. So many tribal taxes right now are palatable only because they are carefully calibrated to only hit tourists or extractive industries--both of which need to be taxed, but do you have a figure how many complete tribal budgets those kinds of taxes would cover? You accuse me of rhetorical flourish and/or deception but I don't know of any clearer way to make my point that the last sentence in my op-ed above. If you know of any polity that has ever in all of human history asserted sovereignty from a condition of dependence, enlighten me and enlighten tribal governments. Pointing out the truth of how the condition of dependence came to be is necessary because I think it was done on purpose but whether you buy that or not it was imposed from the outside. If we had done it to ourselves, then the colonial state would be correct that we need to learn better. I don't think the colonial state is correct but your mileage may vary. Lots of Indians do think we did it to ourselves. Reading though this answer and having learned it will not do paragraph breaks, I realize most of what I'm doing is bouncing on the springboard I tried to set up with the one simple statement that it is not possible to make sovereign decisions from a condition of dependence. That's not complicated, but the implications can quickly get complicated. I'm not trying to deflect criticism. Go for it. The only part of "feel better" that fits is that I do not want Indians generally or people in tribal governments to buy the narrative that they are incompetent. No hidden agenda there, either: I think the narrative is in fact wrong.
azpark's picture
Steve-You caught me. I certainly have no solid basis for the 95% anymore than you do for the bassackwards version however according to DOI the government spent about $20B in FY 2015 on Indians. Included in this is 1.7 B food aid, 5.5B education, and 6.7B in Health care most of which I would put in the necessary category and you are saying that tribes can pick up that tab, (DOI 2015 crosscut report) Maybe if the casino tribes shared their profit but we know that isn't going to happen. I am in 100% agreement with you about sovereignty and dependence. If you read me differently I probably need work on my wordsmithing. Still don't get your point about the history lesson as I believe most tribal leaders know it quite well. I will say this about Lone Wolf: There are usually at least two sides to any story (CIA 1903 annual report pg 260 the report of the Kiowa agent, also an Army officer). I will also point out In John Collier's Congress at Andarko Mar 20,1934 the Kiowa went on record as being opposed to his ideas. They liked their allotments. Finally, I have no truck at all with you about the incompetence thing.