Walter Rodgers

Uncle Sam’s shameful treatment of today's American Indians

One hundred and thirty four years after the Battle of Little Bighorn, the United States is still cruelly punishing the native Americans for their resistance to white encroachment in the lands west of the Mississippi. We treat Iraqis and Afghans better than native Americans.

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I have a friend, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general, who has a provocative theory. He says that when the United States goes to war in a foreign country, its armed forces – win, lose, or draw – leave behind a spirit of goodness and decency, which, despite the violence of war, leavens society, improving the lives of women and the poor.

The jury is still out on Iraq and Afghanistan. But wars in Vietnam, Germany, Japan, and Korea tend to confirm his theory. There remains, however, a glaring exception that should shame all Americans. One hundred and thirty-four years after the Battle of Little Bighorn, we still cruelly punish the native Americans for their resistance to white encroachment in the lands west of the Mississippi.

A few years ago I was fishing the Little Bighorn, a trout river flowing through the Crow Indian Reservation in south-central Montana. Lush, green, irrigated crops grew on either side. Well-heeled fishermen pumped cash into the area. A railroad ran into the reservation, giving the Crow additional income from leases to coal-mining companies.

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But I also wanted my wife to see by contrast what Uncle Sam gave the Northern Cheyenne for a reservation just to the east. There, poverty was appalling. Countless auto hulks rusted in fields that could support no crops. Along Route 212, small white crosses with plastic flowers were planted about every mile, tragic signs of Cheyenne killed, most probably in alcohol-related traffic accidents. The Cheyenne reservation was parched and brown, supporting only outcroppings of scrub pine.

Guess which of those tribes allied with the US Cavalry and scouted for the US Army against their fellow Indians? And then guess which tribe resisted white encroachment and participated in the massacre of General Custer’s Seventh Cavalry at the Little Bighorn a few miles away?

Jim Adams, a historian and former editor of the national weekly newspaper Indian Country Today, says the maltreatment of the Indians in the Trans-Mississippi West “is directly proportional to their resistance to migrating whites in the 19th century. Those who took arms and gave the US Cavalry its greatest thrashings have been treated most harshly from the 1876 Custer massacre until today.”

Americans fancy themselves a fair and forgiving people. Today, we are one of Vietnam’s largest trading partners. The US and Vietnamese navies recently conducted joint naval maneuvers. But our discrimination against the victorious tribes at Little Bighorn is unconscionable. We treat Iraqis and Afghans better than native Americans.

If you associate reservations with shiny casinos, go look up tribal health and poverty statistics. From unemployment to disease and suicide, they paint a picture of third-world conditions.

The Oglala Sioux who spearheaded resistance in the 1860s and ’70s may feel the punishment worst. Some still live in tar-paper shacks. The White Man’s vengeance is often subtle. We took proud, self-sufficient people and condemned them to a dependent reservation culture. Then we arrogantly ask “Why are they lazy? Why do they drink?”

A white woman who works at a Sioux school said, “There’s a part of me that asks, ‘How long is this going to go on?’ ”

But if you look more closely, says John Echohawk, executive director of the Native American Rights Fund, things are improving, incrementally if not dramatically. A big reason for renewed hope lies with the Obama administration. Like Mr. Adams, Mr. Echohawk calls President Obama the greatest US president for Indians since Richard Nixon.

In July, Mr. Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act, giving reservation police more arrest and prosecutorial authority. The Rehnquist Supreme Court did much to tie the hands of tribal police. “There were more than a few complaints [that] US attorneys and the FBI had been slack in prosecuting whites and Hispanics who committed crimes against Indians,” said Adams. When he signed the bill, Obama noted that crime rates in Indian country are more than twice the US average. “When 1 in 3 native American women will be raped in their lifetimes, that is an assault on our national conscience,” he said.

Until 2009, Uncle Sam’s penchant for short-changing Indians was unyielding. “The Bush White House regularly pared back medical benefits for Indians,” says Ernie Bulow, a New Mexico writer.

Curse health-care reform all you want, but it makes permanent the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, boosting services on reservations in dire need.

Less encouraging is the congressional deadlock over a $3.4 billion reimbursement for native American claims accumulated over decades. The federal government agreed to pay after a class action lawsuit brought in 1996 highlighted mismanagement, misappropriation, and theft of Indian trust funds. It’s a polite way of saying the Indians got swindled out of money due them for coal, oil, and gas leases; timber; and grazing rights on their land.

The Obama White House has promised to pay, but Senate Republicans, bent on blocking anything with Obama’s imprint, are refusing to pass it. Custer would have been proud of the GOP. But how do these senators tell their children and grandchildren they are party to swindling the Indians again?

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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