Friday, November 27, 2009

Native American Heritage Day

Here in the US, November is Native American Heritage Month, and, last year, the government proclaimed the day after Thanksgiving as Native American Heritage Day. Those of you who know me or have followed this blog from its beginnings are aware how strongly I feel about how little most US citizens know about the descendants of the first inhabitants of our continent. Among most of us American Indians are seen, at worst, as just another ethnic group trying to get an underserved leg up on the white population, and, at best, as a quaint relic of our nation's past. Native American issues receive scant (and usually no) coverage in the media except for local outrage when a nearby tribe has applied for federal recognition and/or expresses an interest in starting a new gaming operation.

Last November I recommended some fiction by Native American Writers. This year I'd like to recommend some nonfiction, but first a little quiz. These questions and answers are based on Journey to Understanding, An Introduction to North Dakota Tribes, compiled and distributed by the North Dakota Department of Human Services, a copy of which I received a couple years ago on a trip with the American Indian College Fund and which used to be available on the department website, but I can't find it there now, and The Rights of Indians and Indian Tribes by Stephen L. Pevar, New York University Press, 2004. See the bottom of this post for correct answers.


  1. Indian Reservations represent tracts of land that were given to tribes by the US Government. True or False
  2. Who holds the most power in regulating Indian affairs? a) The tribal government b) The governor of the state in which the tribe is located c) The president of the US d) The US Congress
  3. Most members of federally recognized tribes living on reservations require approval from the federal government before selling, leasing, or willing their land to another individual or company. True or False
  4. Are tribal powers limited by the US Constitution? Yes or No
  5. American Indians don't pay income tax. True or False
See answers at the end of the post.

Recommended Readings

This tells the story of the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), part of FDR's New Deal and also gives a good overview of where American Indian tribes stand viz a viz the US Government.

If you still labor under the misconception that American Indians were militarily defeated and that is how they lost most of their land, these two books may surprise you.

If what you know about AIM comes from books like In the Spirit of Crazy Horse or documentaries like Incident at Oglala, on this 40th anniversary of the occupation of Alcatraz you may be surprised at the student movement origins of the fight for American Indian rights.

If you think American Indian history is a history of victimhood or that Indians were just a bunch of primitive hunter/gatherers waiting for the superior European machine to roll over them, you need to read about the Pueblo Revolt in the 17th century when the Pueblo Indians overthrew Spanish rule and held them off for more than a decade.

If you think of American Indians as those austere and stately individuals staring out from old photographs I highly recommend this depiction of the everyday life of a plains warrior, including plenty of humor.

Again, this just scrapes the surface of my too-many-to-count library, but it's a start.

And now for the answers
  1. False, reservations were not "given" to Indians by the government, the land was theirs to begin with and reservations represent the only parts not ceded.
  2. The US Congress holds plenary power over Indian tribes including the right to terminate the tribe or all tribes as they attempted to do in the 1950s.
  3. This is true in that under the Dawes Act of 1887 that divided communal reservation land into individual allotments, and later under the Indian Reorganization Act, most reservation land as well as much of the property of individual Indians is held in trust for them by the Federal Government. One benefit is that the land cannot be lost for taxes as occurred quite frequently before the IRA was passed, partly to remedy that situation. However, unlike the rest of us, individual Indians must gain the approval of the US government as trustee for transfers of trust land, which, as you can imagine, can get pretty cumbersome. Also, the government, as trustee, holds lease income in trust, the accounting of which has been badly bungled, leading to the Cobell case.
  4. No. Indian tribes are sovereign nations and as such, for the most part, tribal powers are not limited by the Constitution, however they can and have been limited by Congress, which, as noted in #2, holds plenary power over Indian tribes.
  5. False. This is a common misconception. Tribal businesses, such as casinos, run for the benefit of the tribe, do not pay federal taxes, just as states do not pay federal taxes. Individual Indians are subject to income tax like anyone else. Individual American Indians do not pay state or local taxes because Indian tribes have a government-to-government relationship with the US Government, just as states do.
I hope these questions and their answers will whet your appetite to learn more. American Indians are not just another ethnic group. Tribes are sovereign nations within the US which puts them somewhere between a foreign nation and a state. If you don't quite grasp that, you are not alone. What exactly that means is constantly evolving, and not always to the benefit of Indian nations.

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