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Abolish the BIA

Zach Einterz | Tuesday, February 20, 2007

“Let me be a free man,

free to travel, free to stop,

free to work, free to trade where I choose,

free to choose my own teachers,

free to follow the religion of my fathers,

free to talk, think and act for myself

– and I will obey every law or submit to the penalty.”

-Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce

Thanksgiving is not unique to America. Traditional celebrations of the autumnal harvest are celebrated in many cultures and countries. However, in America, Thanksgiving takes on a special meaning as we remember some of the first celebrants of Thanksgiving in the New World, the Pilgrims. Facing religious persecution in their homeland, the Pilgrims fled England and a tyrannical King James for the promise of the New World. Thus, Thanksgiving is not just a celebration of the year’s harvest, but also a reminder of the promise of freedom in America.

At the same time that most Americans will be celebrating Thanksgiving, there will be a small group of citizens protesting at Plymouth Rock. Every year since 1970, American Indians and their supporters have been gathering at Plymouth Rock to observe their “National Day of Mourning.” These Indians are the other half of the Thanksgiving story. While the European colonizers prospered freely and built our great country, the Indians suffered and died, often at the hands of our own government. I should not need to give a detailed history of American Indian abuses perpetuated by the United States people and its government. We all know the story. However, as if past atrocities were not enough, the federal government continues today to persecute Native Americans under the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

The BIA was created (indeed all existing government bureaucracies were created) because politicians in Washington believed that they knew what was best for a group of individuals. Originally organized under the War Department, the BIA was responsible for removing Indians from their homelands and placing them on unproductive reservations. Then the BIA created government schools where they sent Indian children to be “civilized.” Civilized in this case means they were abused, forbidden to speak their native tongue, separated from family and purged of any native cultural education. Then the BIA overlooked traditional Indian views of communal property and divided reservation lands into individual plots. This was all purported to be in the Indians’ best interest, because it would allow them to assimilate faster into the European way of life. The BIA continues to this day to unlawfully meddle in the affairs of American Indians. It gives federal recognition and gaming rights to some tribes while spurning others. It intervenes in the affairs of tribal governance and dictates tribal policies. It administers health and education programs which are woefully inadequate.

As with any government agency, the BIA is prone to corruption and mismanagement. After the allotment of reservation lands to individual Indians, many Indians placed their lands in a trust. The BIA was in charge on managing this land trust, contracting out mineral and resource rights to private companies. Many of these contracts heavily favored the corporations at the expense of the American Indian landowners. Furthermore, the funds from the sale of these rights have been incredibly mismanaged. In 1996, American Indian rights groups sued the Department of the Interior and the BIA. The case, Cobell vs. Kempthorne, claims that the BIA owes more than 13 billion dollars to the Indian trusts funds. According to Judge Royce Lamberth, “The actions of Interior and Secretary Norton in this instance again demonstrate why the court continues to believe that Interior sets the gold standard for mismanagement of a government agency.” The BIA is also a breeding ground for corruption. It was the competition for lucrative Indian gaming contracts that started Jack Abramoff on his road to infamy.

So what has the American Indian gained from the corruption, mismanagement and “in-your-best-interest” government programs? American Indian suicide rates are 1.5 times the national average. Rates of poverty and unemployment are more than twice the national average. It is just a coincidence that poorest people in our nation are also subjected to the most government oversight? Certainly not. Freedom breeds prosperity. Rather than lifting American Indians out of poverty, the BIA has fostered it through years of corruption, mismanagement, and patronization.

As we commemorate Native American History Month next November, let us remember that the struggle for American Indian sovereignty is not over. Critics of the BIA are not few and far between, and many American Indians have called for the abolishment of the BIA. As long as there exists a Bureau of Indian Affairs, American Indians will remain poor, broken and without freedom. It is time to let American Indians rule themselves. Restore their property, their rights, and their sovereignty. Let them decide for themselves what is best for their people, their culture and their prosperity.

Zach Einterz is a junior majoring in economics and environmental sciences. He has turned to politics after giving up on an unsuccessful sports career. Contact Zach at zeinterz@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.