Speak Your Piece: Indian Country’s Opportunity

There is going to be less government. That’s the age we’re in. Journalist Mark Trahant warns the National Congress of American Indians what living in this new age will mean.

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[imgcontainer left] [img:Begich.jpg] Sen. Mark Begich, the junior Senator from Alaska, addressed the National Congress of American Indians last week in Portland, Oregon.

Editor’s Note: The following is a slightly condensed version of the speech journalist Mark Trahant gave last week at the National Congress of American Indians, meeting in Portland, Oregon.

We know, from our history, that the relationship between tribes and the United States has gone through dramatic swings. All of us have only lived through two such eras, termination and self-determination. I believe we have already entered a new period, one I call, the Era of Contraction.

At the beginning of the Removal Era, Elias Boudinot, the editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, wrote that it was his duty — as he saw it — to “reflect upon the dangers with which we are surrounded; to view the darkness which seems to lie before our people – our prospects, and the evils with which we are threatened; to talk over all these matters, and, if possible, come to some definite and satisfactory conclusion.”

The evils with which we are threatened. Tough words for tough times. I’ve been thinking lately about the “why?” of that message. What would compel policy makers in that century to be so incredibly inhumane? One answer, one that’s relevant today, is that when the economy is lousy, people in general are less generous, they are angry and they do unspeakable things. 

Living Through Eras

The beginning of the Removal Era, it turns out, was one of those times. Economic recessions in 1825, 1828, and 1833 were marked by stock market crashes, trade wars and credit contraction.

The Allotment Era, the attempt to break up and steal Indian homelands, was during the “long depression,” a severe contraction that lasted from 1873 to 1896 (longer than the Great Depression).

The era of the Indian Reorganization Act is more complicated. The reforms were proposed in the 1920s before the Great Depression. But as the depression spread, under President Hoover, federal spending on Indian-related programs dropped to $26 million in 1932 — a 15 percent cut — and then a year later was cut again to $19 million. President Roosevelt increased funding for Indian programs throughout the Great Depression. This is the one historical exception. Remember, in 1937 the economy contracted even more sharply than it did after the stock market crash. 

The Termination Era, too, has an economic component. The period after World War II was not technically a recession, but government spending was sharply curtailed because of debt and the cost of the war.

But any new era doesn’t begin or end on a certain date. Even after termination was rejected, Congress never went back and undid the damage, thus acts such as Public Law 280 remain on the books.

Something New?

How do you know when you are in a new era?

Congress enacted House Resolution 108 on August 1, 1953, officially beginning the era of tribal termination. This dreadful policy was supposed to abolish federal supervision over American Indian tribes and to subject tribal members to state and county authority.

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