The Red Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota became infamous in March as site of the deadliest school shooting since the massacre at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999. The incident reinforced the perception that American Indians continue to face more than their share of social problems. Yet, while mainstream media coverage of Indian affairs might indicate otherwise, native America is in the midst of a dramatic resurgence.
No one knows this better than Charles Wilkinson, Professor of Law at the University of Colorado and author of the new book “Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations” (W.W. Norton). In the course of his legal and scholarly work, Wilkinson has visited more than a hundred reservations, giving him a broad-based perspective on the collective persistence and dedication that has allowed Indians to rebound from the threat of “termination.” Failure recently sat down with Wilkinson to discuss the revival, which he compares to the civil rights, environmental, and women’s rights movements.
In “Blood Struggle” you identify 1953 as the low point for American Indians. Why 1953?
In order to understand social and economic progress it is useful to set a baseline. In 1953, by any standard, Indians were the most dispossessed of any identifiable group in the country. Unemployment in Indian country was over fifty percent. By comparison, the highest unemployment during the Great Depression was twenty-five percent. But in Indian country there was that kind of economic depravation for a century or so. Infant mortality was high, adult life expectancy was low, and there were rudimentary health conditions on reservations.
In August of 1953 Congress announced the policy of “termination.” In part out of the fear of termination Indian people started to make their move.
Can you explain the policy of termination?
Termination was the ultimate forced assimilation policy. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) sent lists of tribes to Congress that were “ready” to be terminated. Their land would be sold off, their treaty rights ended, and the federal programs—that provided minimal support but were still lifelines—would be eliminated. [The idea was] in time, we would be rid of the “Indian problem,” as it was called.
What was the role of the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the time?
The BIA kept Indian people down. It manipulated them, it made all the decisions for them and it showed no respect for elders. It’s hard—even for those who lived through it—to recall fully the insidiousness of the political oppression by the BIA. Religious and cultural suppression was official government policy. Sundance was not permitted, which would be like prohibiting Mass in the Catholic Church. It was devastating, both morally and spiritually.
It may not be so much that the Bureau people were bad people. The BIA was carrying out orders from a country that had no understanding of Indians. The majority [of Americans] felt that Indian people couldn’t run their own affairs.
How did the tribes react to the announcement of the termination policy?
With fear. They saw the danger in it—the end of a way of life. After that initial fear they said, “Okay, we are going to do something about this.” They had never known how to relate to this literally foreign nation, but many of the tribal leaders were World War II veterans who had experience in this other world and began organizing.
What happened to the tribes that were terminated? How did they fare?
Terribly. They went into deeper poverty. Their sense of loss from losing their land was palpable. In several cases, tribes dispersed to the cities and their communities were lost. Some communities held together, but now they were even poorer. They lost control over their own affairs—what little control they had when the BIA was in charge.
Who is responsible for the Indian revival? Is there an Indian equivalent of Martin Luther King?
You can point to a lot of different tribal leaders, but one person you have to single out is Vine Deloria, Jr. During the 1960s he was head of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). He brought many new tribes into the NCAI so it became a more powerful and broadly representative agency. He was the author of “Custer Died For Your Sins,” a popular book that galvanized Indians but was also accepted by non-Indians. Through the book people could begin to understand Indian needs and desires and their positive qualities. Vine has been very active right up to the present. He’s gotten into some deep scholarship—history, political science, Indian religion—and also continues to put out popular books.
Was there a single turning point where it was clear that Indians were here to stay?
I don’t think there was a single turning point. It was a series of events between 1968 and 1976. The Self-Determination Act, which was passed in 1975, was a milestone that signaled it was time for the tribes to begin self-government. But if you had to pick a single dramatic moment it would be the treaty fishing cases in the Northwest [in the early 1970s] where Indians were out on the rivers fishing and exercising their treaty rights. In those civil rights days it had the feel of a demonstration. In 1974 Judge George Boldt ruled [in United States v. Washington] that their treaties were valid, they had a right to fish and that they had a right to manage the fisheries as sovereigns. That was a pivotal moment.
Most of the general public assumes that Indians are doing as poorly as ever because press coverage highlights diabetes, alcoholism, suicide, and reservation violence. Why isn’t the Indian revival being talked about?
One particular reason is economics. Indians have made progress, having brought unemployment down from fifty, sixty or seventy percent down to 22 percent in the most recent census. That’s still way too high but an impressive drop over a couple of generations. But it’s still among the highest unemployment in the nation. So when people go out into Indian country they can see the poverty and it doesn’t look like progress. But if you took a snapshot of that same place in 1965 and laid it beside a snapshot in 2005 you'd see a profound difference.
As for alcoholism, the rates are still high but they are definitely coming down because every tribe has an alcoholism program. Also, there is increasingly a greater sense of confidence and community on the reservations and that helps bring it down. But alcohol is a foreign substance to them and it’s a terribly hard thing to defeat. A couple of years back I wrote a book about the Colorado Plateau [“Fire On The Plateau”], of which Utah is a part. I realized over a period of three or four years that the only times I was going to events that were alcohol free were either Indian or Mormon receptions [laughs]. We just take it for granted there is going to be alcohol but most Indian receptions don’t have it.
Are there any tribes that are strong examples of the turnaround?
One I use extensively in the book is the Warm Springs tribe of Oregon because I wanted to take one tribe and show the institutions it had built. But Navajo nation has a population of a quarter-million and is larger than seven states geographically. And the Tohono O’odham in southern Arizona—a tribe that has always been very poor—just opened up a new judicial complex and new tribal complex, and they have developed very extensive programs for juveniles. They are also running casinos and that’s been the best source of tribal income. The casinos have played a role and helped institution building in Indian country.
Where does gaming fit into this picture? What are the positives and negatives?
The biggest negative is that a lot of Americans equate Indians with gaming. That can’t be good for Indian tribes in terms of their public perception. It creates a lack of sympathy and understanding. Tribes need to do a better job of explaining why they have casinos and where the money goes.
The positives are all the things that the proceeds are put to. In most cases the money goes to college scholarships, natural resource management, health plans, libraries, schools, museums, tribal courts, police—all the things that a government does.
How do the tribes want to be perceived by the general public?
They want to be seen as peoples who are dignified, who have deep concerns and attachments to their culture, families and to the natural world. They also want to be seen as self-governing entities that determine their own destinies. In spite of the stereotypes that come out of gaming both of those perceptions are gradually growing. We still don’t have a nation that fully understands that we have three sources of sovereignty under the Constitution—the United States, states and tribes. But that is the case and there’s a growing realization, particularly in governmental circles. The general public less so, but it’s growing.
Where does the American Indian go from here?
That’s a complicated matter; certainly more self-government and more self-determination. Continuing that trend is at the heart of it. The manifestation of the Indian movement is felt in Indian country through the hard work of Indian people—teaching classes, running businesses, serving as tribal judges and working in tribal offices. But the legal framework is critical to that. Congress has remained true to self-determination but the Supreme Court is holding them back and has the potential to do that. Not completely, but it’s a factor. It’s sad because the Court is traditionally supposed to be a place where dispossessed peoples and minority groups are given a fair shake and that's not happening in many cases. We have three justices on the Supreme Court, who as far as I can tell, couldn’t care less about tribal sovereignty.
But the tribes are not passive. They are very active and when a Supreme Court case goes against them they try to find another way to reach their objective. They are very flexible, nimble and wise in their determination to hold onto their homelands and make them the places they want them to be. My belief is that Indian people are keenly aware of the threats to their sovereignty, to their land and to their special rights. As far as the future is concerned, the Supreme Court is an issue, continuing to work well with Congress is an issue, but continuing with institution building in Indian country is most important. My premise is that Indians will continue with the kind of energy and creativity and determination they’ve shown in recent times.
Are there any other factors holding the tribes back from making further strides?
Financial capital is one. But you are starting to see infrastructure emerge on reservations. It used to be you couldn’t get a motel room, or a bite to eat or a tank of gas, but that is gradually changing.
Another thing that holds them back is the very different worldview in Indian country. It’s a much more measured pace that doesn’t fit very well in the go-go, alarm clock, capitalist world. Yet it has its beauty and it’s something they want to preserve.
Can you summarize what Indian people have accomplished in the past fifty years?
Looking at the record, Indian people have established one of the most important social and economic movements in America since World War II. It is comparable in many ways to the civil rights movement, the environmental movement and the women's movement. All movements are incomplete, and the proponents—because they care so much—grieve at the work that still has to be done. But I believe what has been done needs to be honored and celebrated, recognized for what it is and built upon in the future.