US Paternalism Still Presumes Power Over Native Lands and Lives
May 18, 2017
By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker
Earlier this month, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition made a request on behalf of five tribes to preserve Utah’s Bear Ears National Monument for traditional and spiritual purposes. They met with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who understood their request to safeguard the land as a monument. Utah state leaders, however, contended that the coalition was being exploited by special interest groups. Senator Orrin Hatch agreed and went on to say the following: “The Indians, they don’t fully understand that a lot of the things they take for granted on those lands, they won’t be able to do if it’s made clearly into a monument or wilderness.” First Nation leaders have demanded an apology from Hatch.
Journalist and researcher Dina Gilio-Whitaker, who co-wrote “All the Real Indians Died Off”: And 20 Other Myths about Native Americans with historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, had this to say about his remark:
“Orrin Hatch’s comment, while absurd, is unfortunately a perfect example of the dynamic that often plays out in Congress relative to Native American issues. It demonstrates the kind of paternalism that initially formed and continues in Congress’s relationship with Native nations, especially anti-Indian Members of Congress (usually Republican) like Hatch. Lip service is paid to self-determination and sovereignty, but really what guides them is their adherence to the plenary power doctrine, in which they presume the ultimate power over Native lands and lives. And because Native people don’t know what’s best for them, Congress is empowered to make decisions for them—decisions which of course inevitably benefit settler society more than they do Native communities.”
Hatch’s statement also feeds into the myth that most Native Americans enjoy free benefits just for being Indigenous. Contrary to this assumption, Native Americans have had to fight for land and rights the US government has taken away from them. The battle goes on today. The following excerpt from “All the Real Indians Died Off” illustrates the little return First Nations receive after settlements over colonial land grabs.
Indigenous nations have for many decades negotiated with and litigated against the United States for its unfair and many times illegal dealings with them, dealings that have resulted in the massive loss of land and resources. Beginning with the Indian Claims Commission in the 1940s, the United States has paid out billions of dollars in settlements in acknowledgment of its depredations, with Native nations sometimes extinguishing their right to aboriginal title or status as federally recognized tribes in exchange.
The largest settlements have occurred in recent years, the most significant of them being the Claims Resolution Act of 2010, signed into law by President Obama after more than fifteen years of litigation in the Cobell case. The Cobell lawsuit contended that the federal government as the trustee over Indian lands had for over a century mismanaged the accounts of individual Indians (called IIM accounts) for lands that were leased out for various income-producing activities like timber harvesting, cattle grazing, or mining. The court acknowledged that the accounting was so bad (practically nonexistent) that it would never be possible to accurately account for how much money had not been paid to individual Indians under those leases. After years of negotiations, a $3.4 billion settlement amount was reached, nearly arbitrarily. The settlement was divided into three segments that allocated money to tribal governments to consolidate fractionated interests on reservation lands, payments to individual Indians, and to fund higher education scholarships.
In a separate but related lawsuit referred to as the “Settlement Proposal to the Obama Administration” (SPOA) in 2012, forty-one tribal governments settled with the federal government after twenty-two months of negotiations for alleged mismanagement of trust assets. The $1 billion settlement was said to “fairly and honorably resolve historical grievances over the accounting and management of tribal trust funds, trust lands and other non-monetary trust resources that, for far too long, have been a source of conflict between Indian tribes and the United States,” according to Attorney General Eric Holder.
Another large settlement—$940 million—was reached in 2015 after Supreme Court justices ruled in favor of hundreds of Native nation governments. The court affirmed that the Interior Department had failed to cover contract costs for services it was obligated to provide under federal law, such as health care and housing. Under the settlement some tribes would receive as little as eight thousand dollars while others would be entitled to much larger amounts, as is the case with the Navajo Nation, which could receive as much as $58 million.
The legal settlements are the result of centuries of US dishonor and misdeeds and Native nations pursuing justice in courts of law, not because of a sense of benevolence originating from the federal government. Despite the settlements and other services provided under the federal government’s trust responsibility, Indigenous people as a group consistently top the lists of socioeconomic indicators for poverty, ahead of other non-Native ethnic groups and whites. In 2014 the Pew Research Organization published an article claiming that one in four Native Americans still lives in poverty and that Native Americans are plagued by extremely high levels of unemployment and lower levels of educational attainment than non-Natives.
About the Authors
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz grew up in rural Oklahoma, the daughter of a tenant farmer and part-Indian mother. She has been active in the international Indigenous movement for more than four decades and is known for her lifelong commitment to national and international social justice issues. After receiving her PhD in history at the University of California at Los Angeles, she taught in the newly established Native American Studies Program at California State University, Hayward, and helped found the Departments of Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies. Her 1977 book The Great Sioux Nation was the fundamental document at the first international conference on Indigenous peoples of the Americas, held at the United Nations’ headquarters in Geneva. Dunbar-Ortiz is the author or editor of seven other books, including Roots of Resistance: A History of Land Tenure in New Mexico. She lives in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter at @rdunbaro.
Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes) is an award-winning journalist and columnist at Indian Country Today Media Network. A writer and researcher in Indigenous studies, she is currently a research associate and associate scholar at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She lives in San Clemente, CA. She is the co-author (with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz) of “All the Real Indians Died Off” And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans. Follow her on Twitter at @DinaGWhit and visit her website.