Reflections from the Ah­nish­i­nah­bæójib­way (We, the People)


September 14, 1988

"Colonialism" is a dirty word

“Colonialism” is a dirty word in the lexicon of our democracy.  It has always been so, as would be expected in a country that began as a former colony in revolution against colonialism.  The Declaration of Independence is the classic document of a colonial people’s desire for self-determination.

 [All of the grievances written in this “long time ago” Declaration are the very things that the U.S. Congress is doing to Indian people in 1988, right now.  Congress writes the laws/decides to keep old laws on the Statue books; Congress created the B.I.A. and continues to fund it.  The responsibility for the present-day oppression and even genocide of Indian people belongs to Congress, and to the people who elect Congress.]

“... Understandably, the country has recoiled from the thought and sight of colonies within its own borders.  It may be this that has rendered the Indian invisible to the conscience of the country.  The accusation of the new Indian leaders that the government had in fact subjected the American Indians to a policy of colonialism, and that it continued to do so, came as a shock without recognition.

“The government has always denied the existence of native colonialism.  So sensitive had it been to the mere hint that the Commissioner of Indian affairs, Robert Bennett, was moved to indignantly deny the charge—which appeared in a letter from Africa in the New York Times—that likened the government’s treatment of Indians to that country’s apartheid discrimination against its native people.

“Yet a tour of the Indian reservations and a study of the methods by which they have been governed ... reveals disturbing clues of a ‘hidden colonialism.’  ‘Hidden colonialism’ was precisely the term used by the Cherokee anthropologist Robert Thomas in his Colonialism: Classic and Internal (New University Thought, Winter 1966-7) to describe the labyrinth of legality that concealed ‘this kind of colonialism’ that has not been ‘obvious structurally to the observer.’  Thomas wrote: ‘You could see the British administrators in an African colony, or the agents of the Bureau of Indian Affairs on the Indian Reservation.’  The ‘hidden colonialism’ was ‘less observable’ but has to a large degree the same kind of effect.’  Classic colonialism was thereby ‘Americanized,’ Thomas wrote.  “In seeking to show how this ‘hidden colonialism’ works, Thomas spoke of a familiar reservation situation.

He wrote:

I’ll take an Indian reservation, partly because I am more familiar with them, and partly because it’s the most complete colonial system in the world that I know about.  One of the things you find on an Indian reservation is exploitation of natural resources.  Now, I don’t want to give the impression that the U.S. goes out with big imperialistic designs on Indian reservations.  Were it that simple, were there nice clean-cut villains, you could just shoot them or something.  But it isn’t that simple.

[If Congress quit playing games; honored the Treaties they made with Indian Nations; returned our property they have stolen from us; and stopped funding their colonial agencies, Indian people would have decent communities again.]

“Let’s say the U.S. Government is in charge of the resources on an Indian reservation and cuts the timber.  You have a ‘tribal sawmill,’ which is tribal only in the sense that it is located on the reservation, but the people in the government [White] actually run it.  They are legally told to do that [by Congress] and they have no choice.  They aren’t being ‘mean’ to the Indians, they’re just supposed to run the sawmill ...

“So the people who tend to get the jobs in the sawmill are the ‘responsible’ Indians.  Now you can imagine who the [so-called] responsible Indians are.  They are the people who are most like Whites in many ways, and hence, most ‘cooperative,’ that is, they keep their mouths shut and their noses clean.  This makes for bitter factionalism on many reservations and is another outcome of this classic colonial structure ...

“When the resources are sold and the returns go into the tribal treasury, the people who have control of it—insofar as anybody on the Indian reservation has control of anything—these are marginal people.  [These “marginal people” were packed onto the reservations to divide and control the Indian community.  Most of them are not descendants of the original Indians of the tribe whose reservation it is, and depend on the B.I.A. for their  position.  They do not socialize with the Indians who really own the reservation, and they cannot speak up to defend them.  This adds to the bitter factionalism that the B.I.A. uses—the old Feudal trick of divide and conquer.]  ... The raw materials from this reservation are, of course, sold outside the reservation area.  The U.S. Government deducts from the sales of these resources the costs of providing social services to the reservation ...

“... Mel Thom, in his testimony before the Senate hearings on urban poverty, offered some statistics on the discrepancy between monies spent and services supplied. 

[According to Thom, the amount that the U.S. Government spends on the so-called “Indian” (really White) bureaucracy—per Indian—is three times the total per-capita income of the average Indian] 

The portrait of ‘hidden colonialism’ was complete.  Where did the money go?  It hardly mattered.

“If the philosophy underlying the governing of the Indians is colonialism, whether hidden or open then paternalism is the method by which it is enforced ... it is not of benevolent design.  It is simply a tool that is peculiar to [the United States] for historical and geographical reasons.   That is, it works better ... With a candor that was marked, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs Robert Bennett pointed to this: ‘Under the circumstances, and by the relationship that exists between the federal government and the Indian people, it is very difficult to get away from complete paternalism.  This is a relationship based on a trustee and a ward.  So you get into this kind of situation, and it is very easy for the paternalistic attitudes to develop.’  ... The Bureau of Indian Affairs is, after all, the oldest, most deeply entrenched, continuous system of bureaucracy in the federal government—established in 1824.  In a historical sense the paternalism toward the Indians was the political laboratory for the philosophy and methods that were to typify the big brother concept of the twentieth century.  The Indians had been guinea pigs for methods of governing to be widely applied—albeit more subtly.  ... The fatherly tone of big brotherism was a mask for the ‘cultural genocide condoned by the Department of the Interior,’ said Bruce Wilike, of the Makah Tribe.

“In the very first Congress, of 1778, one of the very first pieces of legislation concerned the Indians.  Ever since that time the rulings have been piling high until there are now more than five thousand federal statutes and two thousand federal court decisions relating to the status, control, and welfare of the Indians. ... Colonialism is too ingrained n the minds and methods of those who govern the tribes to be changed by an administrative reshuffling.  It is not a matter of men, but of laws.  The legislation governing Indians has always been tied in one way or another to the phrase, ‘the Secretary of the Interior may authorize, at his discretion.’ ... Even the tribal elections have had to be governed by ‘the Secretary of Interior under such rules and regulations as he may prescribe ...’ So has gone, unto this day. ...  The Indian can easily see who is boss.  Everything he does must first have the approval of the Secretary of the Interior, or someone under him.  Granting of citizenship does not give the Indian the right of self-determination.  As a matter of practice, the Indian has been, and is, almost wholly governed by directives issued by the Secretary of the Interior under the broad discretionary powers granted to him by congress ... ‘To the Indian the Indian Bureau is the absolute dictator if Indian Affairs,’ Belindo [of the N.C.A.I.] said.

[The Bureau is blamed, but the responsibility goes right back to the United States Congress, which enacted the genocide legislation and funds the organizations they created year after year.]

“There is but one thing the Indian can do without anyone’s permission.  He can leave his reservation.  Going to the city to be integrated or assimilated requires no governmental approval.  If he forgets his tribal way of life, his religion, his Indianness, there is no law that stands in his way.  ... He may even sell, or mortgage, or foreclose his trust lands without the permission of ‘the Secretary at his discretion,’ according to the Omnibus Bill.

“... The legislation of paternalism has been aimed at the integration of the Indian into the melting pot so that he would be acculturated into the American way of non-Indian life.  For the anomaly of the tribal communities ...’this alien culture’ (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights)—has been a living reminder of the theft of a continent.

“... Cato Valandra [former Tribal Chairman, Rosebud Lakota] was reminded of a story, he said. ... Once there was an old Indian who went on a delegation to Washington to see his Congressman.  The old Indian told his Congressman he had a bill to propose that would solve ‘the Indian problem.’

‘What’s that?’ the Congressman asked.

‘It’s called,’ the old Indian said, ‘the Leave Us Alone Bill.’

Stan Steiner
    The New Indians, 1968

[comments in brackets by Sho-ne-ah-wub]

Note to the reader: This is an election year.  Ask the Senate and House candidates in your district about their specific Indian policies and detailed agenda.  (If possible, get it in writing!)  The citizens of Nazi Germany claimed that they “weren’t responsible for the Holocaust.”  Citizens of the United States elect the United States Congress.


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