The Federal Government and American Indians

As research for this essay on the Bureau of Indian Affairs, I visited the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). I found virtually no information useful for my project.

I stopped by the museum information desk on the way out and said something to the effect, “There is very little here about the relationship between Indians and the federal government, yet that relationship is central to the story of American Indians over the last two centuries.” A few months ago, I emailed a similar complaint to the head of the NMAI, and he did kindly respond to me.

The museum has now taken a big step toward fixing the problem with its new exhibit about the history of treaties between tribes and the federal government. It’s a good exhibit, telling some of the stories about how the government deceived and cheated the Indians again and again, depriving them of their lands, resources, and freedom.

The general topic is interesting to me because it illustrates numerous libertarian themes, including the arrogance and dishonesty of federal officials, the eagerness of officials to substitute their own goals for individual freedom, government corruption, the failure of top-down planning from Washington, and the inability of hand-outs to create lasting prosperity.

As I discuss in my essay, there has been good news on Indian reservations in recent decades. But the federal government continues to fail in creating the legal structure needed so that people on reservations can prosper. One long-standing problem is the very poor functioning of law enforcement. In a story today about Indian tribes in North Dakota, the Washington Post says:

Investigating crime on Fort Berthold is more difficult than most places because the reservation sits in six different counties each with its own sheriff — some of whom do not have a good relationship with the tribe, according to tribal members. If the victim and suspect are both Native American, the tribal police or the FBI handles the arrest. But if the suspect is not Native American, in most cases the tribal police can detain the suspect but then have to call the sheriff in the county where the crime occurred. Sometimes they have to wait several hours before a deputy arrives to make the arrest. In a murder case, the state or the FBI might be involved, depending on the race of the victim and the suspect.

“There are volumes of treatises on Indian law that are written about this stuff,” Purdon said. “It’s very complicated. And we’re asking guys with guns and badges in uniforms at 3:30 in the morning with people yelling at each other to make these decisions — to understand the law and be able to apply it.”

I don’t know what the best solution to these particular problems is. I do know that the U.S. Constitution empowered the federal government to engage with the tribes, and that Congress should spend more time tackling such fundamental issues. Unfortunately, most members of Congress focus most of their efforts on hundreds of programs not authorized by the Constitution.

Anyway, kudos to the Washington Post for doing a series on justice issues in Native American communities. And kudos to the NMAI for informing the public about the government’s often appalling behavior over two centuries of dealing with the first Americans.