Uncle Sam's Shameful Treatment of American Indians
One hundred and thirty four years after the Battle of Little
Bighorn, the United States is still cruelly punishing the native Americans for
their resistance to white encroachment in the lands west of the Mississippi. We
treat Iraqis and Afghans better than native Americans.
have a friend, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general, who has a provocative
theory. He says that when the United States goes to war in a foreign country,
its armed forces -- win, lose, or draw -- leave behind a spirit of goodness and
decency, which, despite the violence of war, leavens society, improving the
lives of women and the poor.
The jury is still out on Iraq and Afghanistan. But wars in Vietnam, Germany,
Japan, and Korea tend to confirm his theory. There remains, however, a glaring
exception that should shame all Americans. One hundred and thirty-four years
after the Battle of Little Bighorn, we still cruelly punish the native Americans
for their resistance to white encroachment in the lands west of the Mississippi.
A few years ago I was fishing the Little Bighorn, a trout river flowing through
the Crow Indian Reservation in south-central Montana. Lush, green, irrigated
crops grew on either side. Well-heeled fishermen pumped cash into the area. A
railroad ran into the reservation, giving the Crow additional income from leases
to coal-mining companies.
But I also wanted my wife to see by contrast what Uncle Sam gave the Northern
Cheyenne for a reservation just to the east. There, poverty was appalling.
Countless auto hulks rusted in fields that could support no crops. Along Route
212, small white crosses with plastic flowers were planted about every mile,
tragic signs of Cheyenne killed, most probably in alcohol-related traffic
accidents. The Cheyenne reservation was parched and brown, supporting only
outcroppings of scrub pine.
Guess which of those tribes allied with the US Cavalry and scouted for the US
Army against their fellow Indians? And then guess which tribe resisted white
encroachment and participated in the massacre of General Custerâs Seventh
Cavalry at the Little Bighorn a few miles away?
Jim Adams, a historian and former editor of the national weekly newspaper Indian
Country Today, says the maltreatment of the Indians in the Trans-Mississippi
West is "...directly proportional to their resistance to migrating whites in
the 19th century. Those who took arms and gave the US Cavalry its greatest
thrashings have been treated most harshly from the 1876 Custer massacre until
Americans fancy themselves a fair and forgiving people. Today, we are one of
Vietnam's largest trading partners. The US and Vietnamese navies recently
conducted joint naval maneuvers. But our discrimination against the victorious
tribes at Little Bighorn is unconscionable. We treat Iraqis and Afghans better
than native Americans.
you associate reservations with shiny casinos, go look up tribal health and
From unemployment to disease and suicide, they
paint a picture of third-world conditions.
The Oglala Sioux who spearheaded resistance in the 1860s and 1970s may feel the
punishment worst. Some still live in tar-paper shacks. The White Man's vengeance
is often subtle. We took proud, self-sufficient people and condemned them to a
dependent reservation culture. Then we arrogantly ask "Why are they lazy? Why do
A white woman who works at a Sioux school said, "There's a part of me that asks,
How long is this going to go on?"
But if you look more closely, says John Echohawk, executive director of the
Native American Rights Fund, things are improving, incrementally if not
dramatically. A big reason for renewed hope lies with the Obama administration.
Like Mr. Adams, Mr. Echohawk calls President Obama the greatest US president for
Indians since Richard Nixon.
In July, Mr. Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act, giving reservation
police more arrest and prosecutorial authority. The Rehnquist Supreme Court did
much to tie the hands of tribal police. There were more than a few
complaints [that] US attorneys and the FBI had been slack in prosecuting whites
and Hispanics who committed crimes against Indians, said Adams. When he signed
the bill, Obama noted that crime rates in Indian country are more than twice the
US average. When 1 in 3 native American women will be raped in their lifetimes,
that is an assault on our national conscience, he said.
Until 2009, Uncle Sam's penchant for short-changing Indians was unyielding. "The
Bush White House regularly pared back medical benefits for Indians," says
Ernie Bulow, a New Mexico writer.
Curse health-care reform all you want, but it makes permanent the Indian Health
Care Improvement Act, boosting services on reservations in dire need.
Less encouraging is the congressional deadlock over a
reimbursement for native American claims accumulated over decades.
The federal government agreed to pay after a class action lawsuit brought in
1996 highlighted mismanagement, misappropriation, and theft of Indian trust
funds. It's a polite way of saying the Indians got swindled out of money due
them for coal, oil, and gas leases; timber; and grazing rights on
The Obama White House has promised to pay, but Senate Republicans, bent on
blocking anything with Obama's imprint, are refusing to pass it. Custer would
have been proud of the GOP.
But how do these senators tell their children and grandchildren they are party
to swindling the Indians again?
Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a
biweekly column for the Christian Science Monitor.