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Op-Ed: What We Owe Native Americans

Estimated reading time ~ 2 min
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Close to half the children in Robeson County, North Carolina live below the poverty line. Forty-four percent of households with dependent children are headed by single mothers. Ronald Hammonds, a Lumbee Indian, grew up there, attending segregated schools in the 1940s, when there was one school for Blacks, one for Whites, and one for Indians.

Hammonds is one of many Native Americans I interviewed for my book, The New Trail of Tears. Despite his rough start, Hammonds is now a successful cattle farmer who recently started to raise buffalo because, he tells me, there’s a “niche market” for it.

His family has also found success: Hammond’s six children all have college degrees from places like Notre Dame and UNC Chapel Hill. One’s a lawyer. One’s in the Coast Guard. Another is a CPA. His niece owns a local hair salon.

While Hammonds’ success is not unique for Lumbee Indians, it is out of the ordinary for Native Americans who, generally speaking, have the highest rates of poverty of any racial group in the country.

What accounts for the difference? Why are so many Lumbee Indians college educated while barely half of Native Americans have finished high school? Why do they own businesses and work in the professions in such high numbers? Primarily because they have never lived on a reservation.

In doing research for my book, I found that the root of the problem begins here. Reservation land is held “in trust” by the federal government, which means that Natives don’t have the right to buy it or sell it, except among themselves. Even then it has to be with the approval of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). They cannot borrow against it because no bank can give them a mortgage (since a bank could never own the land).

The result is that many reservations have almost no private sector economy. The only jobs to be had are those working for the tribal government or the federal government. Unemployment on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana, for instance, is at 78 percent.

“The only solution I see,” Hammonds tells me of the poverty on reservations, “Is this: Divide everything up and give it to the Native American family. Let them disburse it, spend it, keep it, whatever. I don’t need no government taking care of me.”

Indeed, the Natives in Canada have been pushing for legislation called the First Nations Property Ownership Act, which would give Indians title over their own land. Though individuals could buy and sell it, the underlying property would be governed by the tribe.

trail of tears

Most of the Indians I spoke with believe that the current role of the BIA is hurting their economy. They want more freedom to launch businesses, to be able to develop natural resources on their land and to live their lives without so much interference from distant bureaucrats who have no idea what they need.

Like many Natives, Hammonds is an entrepreneur. But in its current state, the micromanagement of the BIA is suppressing the entrepreneurial spirit of Native Americans living on reservations. They deserve the same rights, opportunities, and freedom as everyone else — and when we can’t give them that, we can hardly be surprised at the depressing outcomes.

Images courtesy of Naomi Riley

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