The Climate for Economic Opportunity has Never Been Better for Native America – Part 1 of 4

The Climate for Economic Opportunity has Never Been Better for Native America – Part 1 of 4
August 18, 2016 Darren Maxfield
founding fathers

The influence of the Federal government’s policies on a broad range of areas of Native American life on reservations cannot be overstated. This applies to economic development and opportunity, just as much to areas such as health care, education, self-determination, and land-ownership. Given the history of Federal policy regarding Native America, I would argue that there is no better time for economic opportunity on Native American reservations than now.

A combination of the opening up of Federal policies towards Native America and current advances in technology make this a unique time for business development and economic opportunity on reservations.

There are several distinct periods of changing government policy towards Native America. Each period was as a result of changing policies that were either more or less favorable towards life on reservations.

Over the next four posts, I’d like to briefly review these several different periods of government policy. It will help frame the current environment and difficulties of reservation life. Without understanding the changing Federal policies towards Native America it is nearly impossible to understand how complicated the economic development landscape is for tribes like the Yakama Nation.

At times it is very difficult to tell the reasoning behind a shift in policy. By looking at results and consequences of policies it is often assumed the intention of the policy was to harm Native America for the benefit of the United States. There is contemporaneous commentary at certain periods which make it clear the intent was to harm Native America. At other periods it isn’t always so clear. The intent by some was well-intentioned and many times paternalistic.

First Era: Pre-formation of the United States under the Constitution, 1492 – 1787

The first period of time in our analysis, and maybe the most obvious, is the period from 1492 (Christopher Columbus coming to America) and 1787 (the formation of the new United States government.)

Prior to, and after the arrival of Columbus, the hundreds of tribes in North America had functioning and sustaining economies. The Native cultures valued individual property rights (distinct from land ownership rights) and entrepreneurship, as demonstrated by their trade networks, trading markets, and trading routes.3 They welcomed Europeans, traded with them and opened up themselves and their lands to the new settlers. The British monarchy treated the Indian tribes as sovereign nations.2

During this time, relations between Native Americans and the European settlers became increasingly difficult and violent. The Native American tribes retained much of the power until several things began to shift power to the various European settlers: disease began to take its toll on the tribes; huge numbers of Europeans began arriving in North America; and various European wars occurred with tribes on various sides of these conflicts.1

It is believed that various tribes lost 50-60% of their population through small pox and other diseases. The spread of disease was looked on as providential and a sign from God that the Europeans were supposed to control this new land.3 In 1620, King James I of England wrote, “by God’s Visitation rained a wonderfull Plague . . . amoungst the Savages and brutish People” and in 1634 Massachusetts Bay governor John Winthrop stated that by bringing smallpox  to the Natives “God hathe hereby cleared our title to this place” and “as an opportunity for claiming new land.”3

The population of the colonies doubled every twenty-five years and increased 400% between 1700 and 1750.1 Various wars between the British and Dutch and French drew tribes into these conflicts and then the Natives more well-known involvement in the Revolutionary War on mainly the British side of the conflict.

During all this time, the colonists continued their expansion into Native American lands.

After the formation of the new United States the relationship was characterized as by interactions between sovereign nations.

Second Era: Agreements Between Equals, 1787-1828

By the time the new government of the United States of America was formed, the predominate interaction between this government and Native American tribes was one of sovereign nations. The method of interaction was one of making treaties as sovereign nations do with each other.

Congress passed a number of laws which effectively separated Natives and non-Natives and consolidated control over interaction with the various tribes with the Federal government.2 Many of these laws were passed to protect Native Americans and their land.1 However, this protection was often in word only.

The Supreme Court decided in very momentous ways during this period. One such case, was Johnson vs. McIntosh, 21 US (8 Wheat) 543 (1823). The Court determined that discovery of lands in the Americas provided the European sovereign that discovered the land title against other Europeans and the “sole right of acquiring the soil from the natives.”2 The Native Americans retained a right that was at all times subject to the whim of the Federal government which could revoke their right at any time.2

During this time, government leaders at top levels were devising policies meant to expand the new nation ever further into Native lands. Thomas Jefferson wrote to William Henry Harrison, governor of Indiana Territory: “To promote this disposition to exchange lands, which they have to spare and we want, for necessaries, which we have to spare and they want, we shall push our trading houses, and be glad to see the good and influential individuals among them run in debt, because we observe that when these debts get beyond what the individuals can pay, they become willing to lop them off by a cession of lands. . . . Should any tribe be foolhardy enough to take up the hatchet at any time, the seizing the whole country of that tribe, and driving them across the Mississippi, as the only condition of peace, would be an example to others, and a furtherance of our final consolidation. . . .”4

With the Presidency of Andrew Jackson we will see the continuation of policies set about to increase US control over native lands.

Later posts will discuss the following periods of government policy:

  • Relocation/Removal: 1828-1887
  • Allotment and Assimilation: 1887-1934
  • Reorganization: 1934-1953
  • Termination: 1953-1968
  • Self-determination: 1968-present1

For simplicity’s sake, I have just referred to sources for this blog post by number. The sources used for these blog posts include:

  1. The Rights of Indians and Tribes, fourth edition, chapter 1. Stephen L Pevar, ©2012
  2. American Indian Law in a Nutshell, sixth edition, chapter 2. William C Canby, Jr, ©2015
  3. Reservation Capitalism: Economic Development in Indian County, Robert J Miller © 2012
  4. Documents of United States Indian Policy, second edition, chapter 19, Francis Paul Prucha, editor ©1975, 1990

Comment (1)

  1. Jenny 1 year ago

    Thank you for taking the time to research and present this review of the US government’s dealings with Native American tribes relating to economic issues. I appreciate the opportunity to learn more.

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