Are Tribes Ready for Termination, Again?
In the past few weeks a number of federal administration officials have made statements which suggest that a concerted effort is underway to again terminate tribes in the United States.
In April, the Health and Human Services department suggested that tribes should not have an exemption under Medicare and not have a requirement that their members have a job to receive the health care. If this decision is allowed to stand this could begin to unravel Tribal sovereignty in the United States. The administration assertion that tribes are a race, not sovereign tribal people suggests that the administration does not want to any longer uphold its longstanding fiduciary responsibility guaranteed to tribes under hundreds of tribal treaties, thousands of Indian case laws, and the U.S. Constitution, that collectively create laws and institute policies regarding how tribes are to be treated by the federal government, what rights tribes have, and assures some measure of sovereignty and rights to pass their own laws, and to exist .
Then, as reported on Indianz.com (May 30, 2018) Interior Secretary Zinke is suggesting that the Ft. Peck children would be better off in a boarding school than on the reservation. Zinke’s suggestion brings back the idea that Indian children must be taken off the reservation to get an education. This was actually tried in the 19th and 20th centuries in the formation of the Indian Boarding schools, beginning in the 1870s. Indian Boarding schools became centers of assimilation of Native children into white American culture. The boarding schools have been well criticized now by generations of scholars, most notably Tsianina Lomawaima and Linda Child, who helped many scholars come to understandings of how corrosive the boarding schools were to native culture. In fact, one of the last remaining boarding schools, Chemawa Indian School, in Salem, Oregon, recently has weathered criticism of their level of educational preparation of their students. Boarding schools were places where children were abused, native women were sterilized, children died, and native culture was heavily suppressed. Most tribal people would not want to return to that system operated by the federal government.
Then on May 31, The Argus Leader reported that Neal Tapio, a South Dakota Republican State Senator, is suggesting that the United States should eliminate reservations altogether, because “the majority of people living on reservations are victims of “incest and molestation” leading to welfare dependence, despair and high suicide rates.” For this to become a wedge issue in South Dakota, suggests a lot about the politicians of South Dakota. They clearly are working on behalf of their native constituents.
The tenor of these statements, by a number of politicians and administration officials suggests that something is going on with this administration. Whether there is a backlash against Standing Rock, or tribes are seen as now wealthy because of casinos, and therefore not needing further federal protection and funding, is not yet clear. What is clear is that the administration is being led by the president who has made disparaging statements about tribes and their special rights to have casinos for years. Trump in his 1990s statement in a Congressional hearing, suggested that Indians no longer looked Indian, implying that Native people had to look “Indian” to have an Indian Casino. Its more likely that Trump’s statement was from his personal jealousy over the special rights of tribes to have casinos, something which he has aspired to develop, but has been unsuccessful. Trump’s Atlantic City ventures, the Taj Mahal and all other casino operations all went bankrupt, several times, after only a few years.
Native nations of the United States now are in the cross-hairs of an administration led by a president who appears to be trying to settle a few personal scores from his past. The administration’s desire to change tribal sovereign rights, suggestion to once again place native children in boarding schools, and the recent decisions to severely reduce National parks In Utah, California, and Oregon, which strive to preserve and protect Native American cultural sites, suggests that something much bigger is at play with this new regime. It very well may be that a new attempt to terminate the tribes is on the horizon.
Termination in the 1940s began with attempts to slowly apply termination plans across tribal reservations. Arguments used to sell termination to the public and politicians were about freeing Indians from any further impoverishment (by the federal government). Eventually 109 tribes were terminated nationally, most of whom were restored by the 1990s. Many struggle today to restore their political and economic presence in their homelands. If this administration was to pursue plans for termination, I have no confidence that tribal sovereignty or rights would be honored, much less, basic rights for Native people within the United States. Too many areas of the US are still racially charged for tribal people who interact with American communities. Reservations protect the rights of tribal people to live and practice their culture in relative freedom.
The reality is, it is unlikely that the present administration will be unable to unravel Indian policies and laws in the United States. There is too much case law, and tribes now are good advocates for their own sovereignty, they understand better how to manipulate the American politicians, and many tribes are quite wealthy, with billions of dollars in resources to hire as many lawyers as necessary to defend and stop any significant changes to Indian Policy in the United States. Tribes have huge organizations like the National Congress of American Indians, that can help tribes confederate their efforts to fight changes they do not like. And, as the ace in the hole, tribes have spent billions creating jobs in gaming across the country, and investing in their local communities through grants and agreements with the states to share the wealth of the casinos and help the economies of the states. Tribes are now in most regions the most productive businesses, and are the largest employers in their county. Billions in this manner flow back into the states’ economies across the nation. With all of this collective wealth and the resulting power, it will be highly unlikely that the present administration can make a serious dent in the position of tribes in the Unites States.
All tribes, Native people, and allies must stand together against the next attempt of tribal termination. Tribes have been here for tens of thousands of years and we deserve a place within our homelands.
Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD
PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher.
I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.