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Quiet Crisis: Unmet Needs in Indian Country

This morning, PERC’s William A. Dunn Distinguished Senior Fellow, Terry Anderson testified before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.  The poverty gap between Native Americans and other Americans, says Anderson, is an institutional gap.

In the case of indigenous peoples, such institutions are a combination of rules and compliance procedures that evolved over a long period prior to western contact and of rules and compliance procedures that were imposed by the westerners with whom indigenous people came in contact.

The institutional gap for Native Americans includes both a lack of property rights for Indians to most reservation land and a lack of a rule of law on most reservations, and it is that institutional infrastructure that is as crucial as physical and educational infrastructure to “unlocking the wealth of Indian Nations.”

Without well-defined and enforced property rights to their resources, human and natural, there will be little hope for self-determination or economic development.

As Crow tribal member Bill Yellowtails writes:

Dependency has become the reality of our daily existence. Worst of all, generation by generation it becomes what sociologists term learned helplessness—an internalized sense of no personal possibility, transmitted hereditarily and reinforced by recurring circumstances of hopelessness. The manifestations are epidemic: substance abuse, violence, depression, crime, trash.

Indian sovereignty—the autonomy of the Indian person— means re-equipping Indian people with the dignity of self-sufficiency, the right not to depend upon the white man, the government, or even the tribe. This is not a new notion. It is only a circling back to the ancient and most crucial of Indian values— an understanding that the power of the tribal community is founded upon the collective energy of strong, self-sufficient, self-initiating, entrepreneurial, independent, healthful, and therefore powerful, individual persons. Human beings. Indians.

What should the federal government do?

Task 1: Assist Indian Nations in breaking the bond of trusteeship if a nation wishes to do so. Breaking that bond ultimately means the federal government must stop treating Native Americans as incompetent wards of the state and give them the full rights of every U.S. citizen including the right to own property individually and collectively free of bureaucratic constraints.

Task 2: Assist tribes in developing an institutional infrastructure conducive to the necessary ingredients for entrepreneurship and business development. That infrastructure varies from tribe to tribe because it must be built on the cultural heritage of each tribe, but it ultimately must include i) a stable judiciary system; ii) separation of powers within tribal governments; iii) taxation authority enabling tribal governments to provide their own public goods; and iv) administrative procedures (e.g. adoption of Uniform Commercial Codes) under which tribal economies interface with other business, financial institutions, and state and local governments. 

Following the path back to independent, healthful, individual persons, Anderson concludes, requires sovereignty.

Sovereignty means having the authority to make decisions and the willingness to accept the consequences of those decisions. In the short-term, the federal government has a trust responsibility, including funding for reservation infrastructure, which it must live up to. But in the long-term, it should focus on providing the institutions that promote self-sufficiency both for tribes and individual Indians.

You can read Anderson’s full testimony here.

More information about the briefing (including others’ testimonies) can be found here.

Anderson’s testimony is based on a forthcoming book, Unlocking the Wealth of Indian Nations. The chapters in this book document the involvement of indigenous people in market economies long before European contact, provide evidence on how the wealth of Indian Nations has been held hostage to bureaucratic red tape, and explain how their wealth can be unlocked through self-determination and sovereignty. 

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