June 22, 2018

How NOT to Talk About Reservations

Eliza Racine

As midterm elections inch closer by the day, all eyes are on potential candidates and what they can do for the country or communities they would represent. Many promises seem too good to be true, and one must be wary of any underlying, corrupt intentions with potential to do more harm for the people than good.

At the end of last month, On May 31, South Dakota State Senator and Republican house candidate Neal Tapio called for an end to the Native American reservation system. In a phone interview with the Argus Leader, Tapio said most Native Americans in reservations are victims of “incest and molestation,” which contributes to high rates of poverty, suicide, depression, and numerous other problems. He has not yet spoken to tribal leaders about his proposal, but he hopes to start a conversation on re-negotiating treaties which “are holding down a once proud people.”

“Right now, what's holding people on reservations are federal dollars that are given to people and whenever you give money to people it causes problems,” Tapio stated. He also said in a debate with two other candidates in KELOLAND studio on May 30 that reservations cause “an entitlement mentality.”

“Tribal leadership is corrupt,” Tapio’s campaign website also claims. “And anyone opposing reform and supporting the current system is racist.”

While there are systemic problems with the reservation system, Tapio’s statements are not only inaccurate and purposefully misleading, but they rest on an ideological foundation of anti-Native racism. He provides no evidence to back up his inane claims of incest or corrupt tribal leadership taking place on South Dakota’s reservations.

Similarly, such gross exaggerations show how little he actually knows of problems in the reservations and who or what is really to blame.

Steve Emery, a Rosebud Sioux tribal member and secretary of the South Dakota Department of Tribal Relations, commented that Tapio’s proposal would be unpopular among Natives. Ending the reservation system entirely would involve breaking treaties between tribes and the federal government — in violation of the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution. If elected, Tapio says he would call a state of emergency on tribal reservations.

Reservation abolition is not a new idea, and history shows such a proposal would be met with backlash.

Back in 1982, then South Dakota Congressman Clint Roberts called for abolishing reservations, also blaming their existence for the increased poverty in Native American communities. The plan called for tribal leaders to decide for themselves and still retain land ownership, but the proposal was still ultimately rejected. Then-Standing Rock Sioux Chairperson, Pat McLaughlin (1975-79, 1981-1983), criticized Roberts’ policies as a practice of “racist politics… attempting to excite the prejudice of non-Indian voters against the Indian people.”

What politicians like Tapio and Roberts often miss in these attempts to be white saviors is the cold, hard fact that the reservation system was innately corrupted by a federal government that has constantly failed to follow through on its promises. Above all else, Native Americans should not be blamed for settlers purposefully putting them at a disadvantage and using them as a scapegoat for social ills.

A brief look into the long history of harmful federal intervention in Native communities should be enough to warrant suspicion for Tapio’s ideas.

In 1860, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) initiated the Boarding School Era, taking thousands of Native American children away from their families to forcibly convert them to Christianity and attempt to assimilate them into settler society. Clergy and school officials would punish children for partaking in any tribal practices, like speaking their language or eating Native American foods. The motive behind this, too, was the notion that Natives could not — and should not — govern themselves or even raise their own children.

In 1887, U.S. Congress passed the Dawes Act which also aimed to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream American ideas of individual instead of collective ownership (i.e a Native person over 18 years old could only own an eighth of a section of land). The legislation, as history shows, would only assist in aiding settler land grabs and the slow chipping away of sacred tribal lands.

In 1934, the Indian Reorganization Act officially introduced blood quantum laws to define tribal membership and eligibility for federal financial assistance. Blood quantum requirement varies from tribe to tribe, and as Native Americans are further displaced from their ancestral homelands, and integrate into urban America, tracing back and reuniting with one’s roots becomes increasingly more difficult.

Displacement and cultural disconnection continued in the 1950s, when the BIA created the Urban Relocation Program to “free” Native Americans from the reservations. The BIA accopmplished this through cutting services, coercing Natives to sell their land, and incentivizing them to migrate to large cities when unemployment on the reservation became too high. Despite promises for job training, Native Americans received little to no resources from BIA once they moved to the city. Many Native American families across the country are still affected today by this exodus from the reservation.

Though the 1970s saw attempts at change to re-establish tribal sovereignty and reunite children with the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (1975) and the Indian Child Welfare Act (1978), the promises were short-lived. In South Dakota alone, an average of 741 children per year are still removed from their homes — with a less than 50 percent chance of reuniting with their families. And now, fossil fuel companies like TransCanada and Energy Transfer Partners continue to grab sacred tribal lands wherever they can and bypass regulations to build hazardous pipelines.

It is not tribal leadership or “cases” of incest failing reservations; it is, and always has been, the federal government — the very same which has consistently failed to honor more than 500 treaties with Native peoples throughout its short and ignominious history

It is the federal government that turns the other cheek when laws are broken and people are asking for help to maintain their lands, health, and education. It is an administration that continues a violent, anti-Native legacy by placing blame on the victims of historical genocide instead of re-evaluating history and why Native Americans were set at such a disadvantage in the first place.

Tapio may think he’s helping Native Americans, but he still found a way to blame them and perpetuate a stereotype that they are lazy, reliant on government welfare, and satisfied with the systemic issues that exist on reservations.

Not only is he far off from the truth, he is also racist. That’s the last thing Congress needs in these trying times.

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Spread the word! And check out our “HONOR THE TREATIES” shirt at the Lakota People’s Law Project store. Art by Ernesto Yerena.