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Free the Indians

  • Jay Ambrose
  • By Jay Ambrose

    American Indians have agreed to take $3.4 billion of some $200 billion that tribes have said the federal government owes them for mismanagement of trust lands. Not as bad as it could have been when dealing with Washington bureaucrats.

    But there is much more to be done, such as liberating these people bound by endless, insufferable rules and allowing them to create a prosperous destiny emanating from their own decisions.

    It seems incredible at this stage of American history that the government should continue to control the lives of large numbers of them down to itsy bitsy details. That is nevertheless what is going on, owing to an untrustworthy trust system that was put in place out of decent motives and is still embraced by many Indians.

    This federal control came about after Indians had been cheated in just about every way conceivable on reservations established in the 19th century. Wily state politicians, along with money-seekers in many guises, busily wrested their land or mineral, timber or agricultural rights away from them.

    With a trust system in place, these outsiders had to deal with the federal government. But the government was now also managing this land, meaning that if you wanted to buy a house or start a small business, you had to go through all kinds of hoops, the process could take forever and at the end of the day, the government was still calling the shots.

    When it came to dividing land up when someone died, the government would give all descendants equal shares until finally, over time, no one really had title to much of anything. The government also was handling finances, which is to say, the wizards in Washington would pretend to know something about leasing land for varied uses and maybe some vastly diminished portion of what should have been earned or was earned would trickle back to the tribes. All of this nastiness was what led to the suit filed in 1996 by Elouise Cobell.

    There were, says The New York Times, two contempt orders against secretaries of the interior, one removed judge, seven trials, 22 opinions, and, finally, we have this new treaty of a kind, although it will still take an act of Congress and more court review before the money goes home, where it belongs. Cobell could maybe have gotten more, but she looked around, saw elders dying, and figured the suit should conclude.

    What should also conclude is trust system tyranny. It must bend more to a 1970s U.S. policy for Indians of self-determination, which means that as tribal governments become developmentally more competent and tell the Bureau of Indian Affairs to get out of the way, the agency gets out of the way. In some tribes, such things have been happening and small businesses have sprung up.

    One voice of wisdom on all of this is Terry Anderson, an economist with the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Mont., who long ago discovered that those occasional stretches of Indian-owned private property on reservations did much better than the property under trust control. Want to see the poorest minority group in the country fare much, much better? Then free the Indians.

    Jay Ambrose is a columnist living in Colorado and a PERC Media Fellow. E-mail:

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