Skip to content

About PERC

All Areas of Focus

All Research

Letters to the Editor

Different Constraints

The various articles in your special issue (“American Indians and Property Rights,” June 2006) together illustrate a series of fundamentally important points.

First, American Indians are just like anyone else, except that they face different structures of costs and rewards, to which they respond, like anyone else. Above all, they face different governmental constraints. Those differences in rewards, costs, and constraints are what make Indians unusual in this country. They are not different because they were somehow created with different values.

What we know about property rights applies just as much to Indians as to anybody else. The ability to own (and thus to profit from) property is a powerful incentive to maintain assets so as to maximize their value, on or off the reservation. Users of rental cars don’t wash them; only the owners do. That is true regardless of where the car is located. Ownership spurs stewardship.

Indians have lived through two distinct phases in their dealings with whites. During the first, more celebrated phase, they lost military battles over who would own large blocks of land. Since then, they have lost political battles over who would own what the American government did not take militarily.

Indians have been repeatedly unsuccessful in getting the government to recognize the sorts of property rights accorded other Americans. A century or so ago, the political battles concerned ownership of land on Indian reservations. Today, the battles concern Indians’ ability to profit from their land (including their right to use the land for gambling) and who will own the revenues generated by the assets (be they from timber or from slot machines).

The solutions to Indians’ ongoing problems should seem obvious to most non-Indians, but somehow they do not—yet. Articles such as those in June’s PERC Reports can only help to make clearer the true nature of the problems and their solutions.

-Fred S. McChesney
Class of 1967 James B. Haddad Professor of Law and Professor of Management and Strategy
Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois


I have lived on or near reservations for over 50 years. My wife is proud of her Ojibway ancestry—her great-great-great grandmother split before reservations were invented.

We frequently drive from our present home to visit our children in Alberta, crossing the Montana Blackfeet Reservation and associated Blood and Peigan Reserves in Canada. The people of this so-called Blackfoot Confederacy have long been known as a handsome, stately bunch, equal in every way to their European neighbors. But what a difference in economic opportunity, though the land they inhabit is some of the choicest rangeland on the continent! Entering a western Indian reservation is like crossing into Eastern Europe in Cold War days: unimproved farm yards, scattered junk, cluttered fence lines, and a pitiful standard of living compared with “outside” neighbors. Those independent neighbors (of any ethnicity) have prospered on similar land for generations.

The problem is precisely “frozen capital,” as described in the June PERC Reports. How can any Indian farmer, rancher, or entrepreneur borrow for improvement against assets fixed to unclear land and therefore unavailable as collateral? The special sovereignty accorded Indian tribes turns them into “sovereign” Third-World nations.

-Sherm Ewing
Great Falls, Montana

Related Content