The owner of the Washington Redskins, Dan Snyder, has launched the Original Americans Foundation to “provide resources that offer genuine opportunities for tribal communities.” Snyder and his staff have recently visited a couple dozen Indian reservations, and they are determined to “work as partners to tackle the troubling realities facing so many tribes across our country.”
This sounds like a very worthwhile initiative. However, Snyder’s efforts so far seem to be focused on providing hand-outs, such as coats, shoes, and a backhoe. Such aid may provide short-term relief, but it will not change the long-term prospects of the many reservations that have deep-seated problems of poverty and economic stagnation.
If Snyder wants to drive fundamental change, I’d suggest that his new foundation focus on the need for institutional reforms in tribal governments and in the relationship between tribes and the federal government. Indian reservations are often lacking individual property rights to land, dependable security of contract, efficient administration, and impartial legal proceedings. As a result, they can be starved of commercial business lending, real estate development, entrepreneurship, and capital investment.
In this essay, I note that American Indians and the federal government have a long, complex, and often sordid relationship. The government has taken many actions depriving Indians of their lands, resources, and freedom. The aims of federal policies have gyrated wildly over two centuries, and most policies have failed, as is evident from the continued high poverty rates on many reservations.
These days, Congress often ignores the serious problems on Indian reservations that it played a large part in creating. Congress hands out subsidies, and it gives special preferences to those tribes that are good at lobbying, but it puts little effort into pursuing fundamental reforms that would benefit all reservations. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has long been one of the most dysfunctional agencies in government.
In sum, good for Dan Snyder in engaging on these issues. But I hope he uses his funding and influence to draw attention to the need for fundamental policy reforms.