Reflections from the Ah­nish­i­nah­bæójib­way (We, the People)

September 9, 1995

Corruption in “Indian Country” are making the news, with the indictment of Chip Wadena and his cohorts.  But fraud, embezzlement, stealing has been business as usual on the U.S. Indian Reservations since the United States began.  The stage was set in the U.S. Constitution with the clause, “Indians not taxed,” meaning that those defined as Indians would have neither land nor political representation.

The pattern in “Indian Affairs” has been fraudulent dealings, investigations including Congressional hearings, hand-wringing in the media, and surface restructuring of the political administration of Indians, which set the stage for a new round of corruption.  The Indian Treaties were understood to be “shameful documents” even at the time that they were signed; the halfbreed scrip issued from the Treaties was the subject of years of Congressional investigations; the crookedness emanating from the General Allotment Act has not yet been fully put to rest (for example, the White Earth Land Settlement Act which contributed to Chip Wadena’s troubles); the Meriam Report’s documentation of abysmal living conditions on the Reservations which fueled the cries for “reform” which led to the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act; in 1977 the Senate American Indian Policy Review Commission reported that Indians’ position was “little better than that which he enjoyed in 1928 when the Meriam Report was issued.”

The most recent round of Indian corruption is leading once again to calls for “reform;” this time the focus is on re-writing the 1934 I.R.A. Constitutions.  This proposed solution will simply lead to more corruption, and yet another round of investigations twenty years from now; it will not break the pattern of restructuring corrupt Indian Affairs once each generation.  Rewriting the “Indian Constitutions” does not touch the foundations of the problems, and as long as the policy-makers deny their history, they cannot hope to escape from the vicious cycle of corruption, restructuring and corruption in which they are caught.

John Collier was Commissioner of Indian Affairs when the present Indian Reorganization Act constitutions were written and put in place on most of the reservations.  Although the I.R.A. was promoted as providing democracy for Indians, Collier wrote that “Over Indian matters ... Congress still holds plenary power.”  Indian Commissioner Ross Swimmer confirmed this in a Minneapolis press conference on July 12, 1988, telling a group of concerned Indians, “I’m telling you, you don’t have a government!”

As long as the phrase “Indians not taxed” remains in the U.S. Constitution, the people who are identified as Indians are caught in a powerless position: without representation in mainstream U.S. democracy, and subject to the administrative “sovereignty” ascribed to the U.S. Secretary of Interior in Indian Affairs.

The root of the problem is that “Indian” is an identity created and controlled by the European immigrants to this continent.  Indian is a European word, and the U.S. claims both the power to define Indians in a wide range of ad hoc circumstances, and the power to terminate Indians “with a stroke of the pen.”  The crux of the entire mess which Indian Affairs has always been, is that Indian is an artificial identity, and the vast majority of people who have been defined into the Euro-American Indian identity are not the aboriginal people who are autochthonous to this continent.

The United States policy-makers do not dare amend the U.S. Constitution to eliminate the “Indians not taxed” clause, nor to deal honestly with the history which has led them to the current round of corruption and cries for reform; not one man nor woman among them has the courage to confront the genocide and blood-soaked land upon which the U.S.A. is founded.  They do not want to acknowledge or deal with the realities of their national past, to see the linear-thinking structure which generates endless cycles of corruption, debate, reform and corruption.  It is far more politically expedient to focus their attention away from history and onto the present, patching together another quick fix in the same old pattern, and pretending it is “new.”

Writing and re-writing Indian Constitutions will not fix the problem, because what the media are portraying as an “Indian problem” is really a white man’s problem—inextricably connected to the violence in the streets, the decay of the social and environmental infrastructure, to the sham democracy presented to far more Americans than merely Indians with 1934 I.R.A. Constitutions.  I would like to see the white men in the power structure take responsibility for what they are doing, and where they have come from, and honestly speak to what their ancestors have done, and why those ancestors ran away from their plundered homelands.  Instead of barrelling into the next century like a runaway bulldozer, they need to turn around and take a look at where they came from; they need to take responsibility for the species that they have sent into extinction, and the peoples and languages they have destroyed.  Without a clear view of the past, corruption and fraud will continue.  A criminal will change his name to evade responsibility for the crimes he has committed in the past.  Western European man has also changed his identity—here, they call themselves Americans, and some even call themselves Indians.

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