Just outside Tucson, Arizona, lies a foreign country. It is not Mexico, although that is close by, but Tohono O’odham Nation, an Indian reservation the size of Connecticut that is home to some 30,000 people. Larger than many countries, the Tohono O’odham Nation is a place of astonishing and austere beauty. Seldom visited, it harbors countless nearly pristine Sonoran Desert landscapes, giving visitors a glimpse of what the country around Tucson and Phoenix once look liked.
Lacking easily extracted resources, it is, like many other Indian centers, also stunningly poor. Its capital, Sells, lacks monuments apart from a water tower or two; its roads are lined with blowing trash and roadkills; its vernacular architecture of mesquite-branch and saguaro-rib huts has given way to doublewide trailers and government prefabs. For all its natural beauty, the nation is a grim place to spend time. “If they saw how we lived out here,” a Tohono O’odham man said to me on a recent visit, “those New Agers wouldn’t be so damn eager to join us Indians.”
The Tohono O’odham Nation was accorded federal recognition and protection in the early years of this century, joining a roster of a few hundred affiliated clans, tribes, and communities. Many of those polities date to the first days of the Republic, when nationhood was awarded to Indian groups that had fought against the British and French. The reward was half-hearted to begin with: the Jeffersonian ideal of an ethnic European homeland of freeholders did not admit the diversity of Indian cultures, and the nations were pressured from the first to abandon their territorial claims and assimilate into the dominant society. Those who did not do so were made to give up their holding and move west beyond the Mississippi; when the closing of the frontier made Western relocation impossible, then those who did not wish to become Americans would simply have to perish. From the outset, both Indians and Americans quickly realized, as Francis Paul Prucha notes in The Great Father, that the Indians did not have much bargaining position without being able to play one European power against another, as in colonial times. Indeed, one federal criterion for determining whether an Indian group indeed constitutes a nation is whether it has maintained “political influence over its members as an autonomous entity throughout history up to the present,” a definition that would exclude most peoples elsewhere in the world from national status—and that for a long while helped disenfranchise many Indian peoples, members of tribes, and groups that had been broken.
And so the Indians became citizens of the United States, but citizens with a few distinct privileges and many more distinct disadvantages. Their status, and that of their nations, seems always to be at issue; shifting federal policies assure that this confusion is systemic. Throughout federal history, one generation of Indians was seen as likely candidates for “termination,” in the unfortunate official parlance, without benefit of federal largess; the next was seen, paternalistically, as capable of being nothing more than wards of the state. This is not ancient history; it characterizes federal Indian policy from the end of World War II to the present.
In this definitional back-and-forth, no one is quite sure what the Indian nations are meant to be. Are they sovereign states? Federal protectorates? Ethnic homelands? Reserves of unique cultures, languages, value systems? Our confusion has yielded a sorry present state of affairs, in which the Indian nations arc held to be sovereign—but only somewhat. The federal government determines the nature of that sovereignty and its extent, which makes it a curious sovereignty indeed.
Wards of the state these nations truly are. Twelve executive departments of the federal government now have responsibility of one sort or another for administering Indian nations, reservations, and communities. Ever squabbling over jurisdiction, these departments are mostly successful only in making certain that Indian Country remains an overlooked province, afflicted by corruption, malfeasance, and despair. The Indian nations are grim and hopeless places to be, and a significant number of Indians do their best to stay away from them, living in urban centers far from their ancestral lands.
But things are quickly changing. Indian movements across the country are mounting to call for increased self-government. Thanks to the mixed curse-and-blessing of Indian gambling, which has swept the country in just the last decade, dozens of communities are for the first time becoming economically self-reliant, funded by the moron taxes paid by visitors to the slots and tables. And many Indian communities are closing themselves to outsiders, a cardinal sin in the age of culture as commodity, and one that has caused no end of complaints from the tourist industry.
Unfriendly though the gesture may be, the Indian communities opting for greater distance from the dominant culture are right to do so. Claude Levi-Strauss correctly remarked, in Tristes Tropiques, that the beginning of the end for many Native communities was the moment a foreigner first stepped in to study or administer them—or sell them liquor, drugs, religion. It is something of an anachronism in this wired world to pretend that the larger world does not exist, but many Indian communities have little choice. If they do not, the larger world—that is, the unhealthful society in which the rest of us arc caught—will likely eat them alive.
Some separatists question whether Indians and whites can ever truly live together. Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Kootenai writer, says as much in his recent novel Indian Killer. Set in Seattle, after Los Angeles and New York the urban capital of Indian America, Alexie’s book centers on questions of identity, on who is and is not properly Indian. Its protagonist, John Smith, is a Navajo given up for adoption years earlier and raised by sympathetic and well-meaning, but in the end uncomprehending, white foster parents. Smith fits all the profiles: a hulking giant, he is a loner, shunning the company of his fellow high-steel construction workers, avoiding conversation and contact. He also hears voices, has violent dreams, and is haunted by ghosts. Alone on the streets, he has visions of nursing at hollow breasts, of tossing his foreman from Seattle’s tallest skyscraper. Indian by blood but deprived of his culture from birth, surrounded by happiness but with no way to attain it, he has but one way to redeem his identity. “John,” Alexie tells us, “needed to kill a white man.”
He has plenty of targets, straw men like a blustering talkshow host named Truck Schultz (read Rush Limbaugh), wannabe Indians, New Agers, academics, unreconstructed Indian haters and lovers alike. In the chain of violence that follows the advent of a serial murderer whom the police and press dub the Indian Killer, the sins of fathers are visited on their children everywhere. White vigilantes patrol the Seattle streets, fueled by Schultz’s exhortations. Indians hunt Anglos. All aim to beat history lessons into each other, to lay hold of the truth with pistol and baseball bat.
As a moral vision, Indian Killer is uncomplicated. Its white characters are either naive or vicious. Alexie’s Indians are better people in every way; one or two may be prone to violence, but, he suggests, always justifiably. Indeed, one of the recurring arguments in the book is whether the so-called Indian Killer can possibly be an Indian at all. One character reasons, “While black and brown men are at war with each other, their automatic gunfire filling the urban night, the white men were hunting their own mothers, lovers, daughters.” A serial killer must therefore by definition be white.
The real world, of course, is much slipperier than all that, and real racism operates much more subtly. It’s a game open to all comers, and Alexie does no one any favors by suggesting that “white” means “devil.” Nonetheless, in many corners of Indian Country that view is common. Because of it, and its Indian-hating counterpart, Indian-Anglo relations are still covered in blood.
Much of the new separatism derives from Indian Vietnam War veterans, the subject of Tom Holm’s Strong Hearts, Wounded Souls. Most Indians in Vietnam, he writes, were assigned to “nontechnical military occupations”—that is, frontline combat assignments—through the assumption that they were likely to be braver and better fighters than soldiers from other ethnic groups. Indians were thus put in the most dangerous positions in battle. They suffered disproportionate casualties as a result, and they came home angry.
When they returned from Vietnam, the warriors also found themselves ignored, both individually and as a group. They were troubled by their role in the conflict. “I heard story after story about Vietnamese saying to Indians, ‘You, me, samesame,'” Holm recalls. “The raids on villages, rounding up civilians to put them on reservations, the whole colonial thing—well, this unconnected a lot of guys. They began to wonder what they were fighting for.” The war thus radicalized many Indian veterans, and it was they who founded groups like the influential American Indian Movement, they who led the occupations of Alcatraz and Wounded Knee.
Their radicalism has lost much of its angry edge with time, if only. Holm writes, because American Indian veterans “are fast becoming elders themselves and perhaps better able to subordinate their egos to the continuity of their societies and cultures—exactly as the warriors did in the past.” With that maturation has come a more reflective militancy: a new insistence on educational and cultural improvement, new and reasonably put demands for independence and self-rule, and new recognition that, in the face of an alternatively indifferent and meddlesome government, Indians must take responsibility for their own fate.
The message is spreading, and with it is coming a resurgence in what can only be called self-esteem. One hopeful expression is an apparent decline in alcohol and drug abuse in Indian communities, at least the ones I have visited in the last few months. Another is in independent Indian actions to promote intertribal unity without government involvement. A notable instance of this grassroots work began last year, when 30 runners set out from the Athapaskan Indian village of Chickaloon, Alaska, and headed south, ending their journey in Mexico City five months later. There they joined 30 South American Indians who ran northward from Punta del Fuego, Argentina, in late April. Intended to be a quadrennial event to coincide with the Olympic Games, the run promoted “the unification of the peoples of the condor and the eagle”—that is, the indigenous peoples of South and North America.
The runners traveled from Indian nation to Indian nation, carrying the message of native pride and self-improvement to groups that normally have few outside visitors. Averaging ten hours a day on the road, covering as much as 80 miles in a single session, the runners had several reasons for undertaking their quest. “Most are on a spiritual search of some kind,” a runner named Horse told me last summer, when the group passed through a reservation south of Tucson. “Others are running to discover their roots, or to see some country, or to make a statement about civil rights. But as a group, I’d say we’re on a healing run meant to unify Indian nations throughout the Americas. It’s not a protest movement by any means, but one of cultural regeneration.”
That regeneration came at a cost to the runners, not only in sheer miles and buckets of sweat, but also in the simple economics of taking so many people from place to place. The runners had ample opportunities to lighten their financial burden and even profit from their unusual exercise: sports-equipment and outdoor-supplies manufacturers, Hollywood celebrities, politicians all came courting. But the runners were determined to keep their journey an event beholden to no one. “If we sought publicity, we’d get a lot of it, I think,” Horse told me. “What we’re doing is important, and people want to know about it. But we don’t want to be co-opted by some corporation looking for us to say good things about their products—or some political movement riding on our coattails.”
If Indian activists can in fact stay away from corporations and politicians, they will be doing better than most Americans. This is no guarantee, of course, that they can ever attain true sovereignty, the nationhood that so many of them desire. Almost certainly the federal government, mired in bureaucratic in-fighting and near-criminal negligence, will be of little help. Charged in 1973, after all, to correct what a congressional inquiry concluded was “the sorry state of Indian affairs,” the government has seemed content to consider those affairs pretty much an afterthought. The federal entities responsible for addressing those issues have essentially been left to their own devices, without adequate oversight; it came as no surprise to many observers when it was revealed last year that the Bureau of Indian Affairs could not account for $2.4 billion in funds earmarked for tribal uses through the sale or lease of timber, minerals, water, oil, and land. The money, the agency said, was not necessarily missing—it just could not be found.
There are no easy solutions to what has been given the uneasy handle “the Indian problem,” solutions that may help grant Indians the independence they desire and deserve, and that may help end federal dependency. I would propose one immediately, however: and that is to remove Indians from the purview of the Department of Interior, where they are ranked along with plants, animals, minerals, and other objects found in the historic American landscape. Interior is perhaps no worse than other departments of the federal government, full of individual men and women of good will but headed by careerist administrators whose principal activities are feathering their own nests; still, to reclassify Indians with other human beings would be a start. (In Thomas Jefferson’s day, Indian affairs were the charge of the War Department, which at least gave a clear view of where Indians stood.)
Throwing more dollars at cosmetic solutions is the last thing that is needed. It has been the stated policy of the government for many years to encourage economic self-sufficiency among the Indian nations. Yet, as former commissioner of Indian Affairs William Hallett remarked of a massive program of federal spending throughout the 1960’s and 70’s, “What dollars did not buy was substantive economic development. And if this trend continues, tribes may become overwhelmingly dependent upon direct and indirect federal subsidies. That would be a tragedy for both the Indian people and the nation.” That tragedy has come to pass.
It is time to unmake it. A truly radical, utterly controversial step might be for the government to make a massive one-time payment in reparation for war crimes, treaty violations, the whole host of official ills that has been visited through history on the Indian peoples. Something of this sort happened in 1977, when the government paid $81.5 million to the descendants of the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes of New England, dispossessed for generations but now, not surprisingly, self-sufficient. Multiplied by hundreds of enrolled Indian tribes and communities, a settlement of this kind would quickly add up to a staggering sum. It could bring an end to other federal spending, however, and in any event it would be a better economic deal than any conquered people in history has received.
A couple of months ago, while visiting a remote canyon in the Dine Bikeyah of the Navajo Nation, I fell into conversation with a fine young man, an artist and entrepreneur, who asked me whether I knew much about the Internet. I do much of my work in cyberspace, I told him, to which he replied, “Yeah, I want to put up a home page on the Web to advertise my silver jewelry. Lots of people have told me that my business could really grow.” If his home only had electricity, I thought, he would be well on his way to independence. If the federal government is to maintain its tenuous hold over the Indian nations, then it had better see to it that funds are invested in real development: in roads, bridges, decent housing, decent schools. Given an adequate economic infrastructure, Indians can, I am confident, flourish on their own. It will be costly for the larger society to make this possible—but less costly, in the end, than maintaining the present dependence of sovereign states that are not sovereign at all.