“Hope for the American Indian?” Ensign, July 1971, 14
“The first Americans—the Indians—are the most deprived and most isolated minority group in our nation. On virtually every scale of measurement—employment, income, education, health—the condition of the Indian ranks at the bottom.”
This was the way Richard M. Nixon, president of the United States, described the condition of the Indian in an address to Congress in July 1970. His assertion was not without foundation and was followed by proposals for a self-determination policy that would upgrade the living conditions of the American Indian.
He continued, “From the time of their first contact with European settlers, the American Indians have been oppressed and brutalized, deprived of their ancestral lands, and denied the opportunity to control their own destiny. …
“It is long past time that the Indian policies of the federal government began to recognize and build upon the capacities and insights of the Indian people. Both as a matter of justice and as a matter of enlightened social policy, we must begin to act on the basis of what the Indians themselves have long been telling us.”
There is a very special responsibility for Latter-day Saints to be sensitive to the needs of the Lamanites (Indians) wherever they are in the world. The role of the Lamanite in the program of the restoration is significant, and his ability to play that role is in part related to his opportunity to be an intelligent contributor to society.
Just how the Indian is faring in the United States may depend on whose view is accepted, but there is one certainty: Indians are the focus of much discussion.
To lend credibility to his expression of concern, President Nixon chose Louis R. Bruce, an Onondago, as the new commissioner of Indian Affairs (BIA). A successful businessman from New York City, Mr. Bruce is viewed with some suspicion by many Indians who claim he is an apple—red outside and white inside—and that he thinks like a white.
Whether the criticism is valid or not is difficult to determine, but Mr. Bruce has certainly spoken on behalf of self-determination. He told an Indian audience last year: “I want to make it clear that the Bureau of Indian Affairs under my direction has no intention of laying out decisions for you. I want non-Indians to stop telling us what is wrong, what to do, and how it should be done.”
The ultimate aim is to turn the BIA into a service agency directed and controlled by Indians. Twenty key policy-making jobs have already been staffed by native Americans, and the three top positions are now held by Indians.
But regardless of the current posturing about “the Indian’s day,” the Indian’s reluctance to believe is prompted by the fact that his burden has hardly shifted weight down through the years, in spite of 389 treaties, 5,000 statutes, 2,000 court decisions, 500 Attorney General opinions, 2,000 regulations, and the 33-volume Indian affairs manual.
After the arrival of the Spaniards in America, hundreds of Indian men, women, and children were kidnapped and shipped to Europe, where those who didn’t die on the way were sold as slaves. The white man also brought other terrors—social diseases and other sickness foreign to the Indian population. Frequently entire tribes became extinct as a result of the moral decay of the interlopers.
Since that early colonial period, government treatment of the Indian has vacillated from a policy of cruelty and extermination to an enlightened self-determination policy, where the Indian himself will guide his destiny.
Sandwiched between these two policies was an extended period of neglect and a fitful and unsatisfactory policy of termination, whereby tribes would be broken up, lands would be retrieved by the government, and the Indians would be assimilated in the larger culture. This termination policy was tried in the 1880s under the Allotment Act and again in the 1950s during the Eisenhower administration. Both attempts at termination failed because the shattered culture and disorientation (or anomie) that such a policy caused among the Indians was intolerable.
Although the Indian has lived side by side with the European for four hundred years, he has never wanted to be absorbed and stranded in the white society without the strength and dignity of his own culture.
In 1819 the Bureau of Indian Affairs was organized by the United States government to provide services for the Indians “to prevent their extinction.” The stepchild of the War Department for a time, the bureau was later pulled into the Department of the Interior, where, according to some observers, it developed into a monolithic and paternalistic organization that failed to solve many of the practical problems of the Indians.
While the BIA has the greatest share of the responsibility for servicing the needs of the Indians on the reservations in the United States, other governmental agencies are playing an increasingly important role, including the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, the Economic Development Administration, the Small Business Administration, and the Public Health Service, which has been working closely with the BIA for some time.
Still, the perennial complaint of Indians against the BIA and other agencies is that there is a chronic shortage of knowledgeable and dedicated field personnel who will listen to the Indians and help them with immediate and critical problems that may be peculiar to their people and to their area.
Asked how the new self-determination policy for Indians was working out, Henry E. Harden, a Winnebago who is a housing specialist for the Community Action Project in four western states, replied, “It looks great on paper, but when you get out in the field and make a face-to-face contact with the Indians, little has changed as yet. The frustrations are still pretty much the same.”
The Indian is not the anachronism that might be deduced from television fantasies, where he comes through as an ignorant savage. He is very much alive and plagued with problems, in large part not of his making, although a geographical separation often hides these facts.
With a birthrate twice that of non-Indians in North America, the Indian population is rapidly increasing. The 1970 census figure for Indians living in the United States was 827,000, which includes the Aleuts and Eskimos.
Most American Indians live on the country’s 282 Indian reservations, where they identify with tribes, bands, villages, or pueblos. The BIA also serves approximately three hundred native Alaskan communities. An increasing number of Indians are relocating in urban areas. Recent estimates reveal that more than a third of all Indians living in the United States are living in or near metropolitan areas.
A positive and tangible result of Nixon’s Indian message last July is a government-sponsored pilot program to improve the living conditions for six thousand Zuni Indians living in New Mexico; it is now going into its second year. Over the next four years, the balance of a $55 million fund will be spent to boost the income and improve the health and educational services for the Zunis. Before the program the Zunis, with a one-thousand-year history of community life, had a total annual tribal income, after a uranium bust, of a scant $40,000.
Since last July the Zunis have taken complete charge of the government-funded self-determination program involving forty-three separate projects—paving dirt streets, sidewalks, and gutters; building storm drains and a senior citizens’ home; expanding hospital and cultural facilities. There will also be vocational training for twenty-six hundred Zunis and new schools with a pupil-teacher ratio of twenty to one instead of thirty-eight to one. There are other scattered illustrations of economic determinism that suggest the job can be done when Indians are given the opportunity.
Individual achievements among Indians could be cited by the score; for example, board chairman W. W. Keeler of the Phillips Petroleum Company, boxer Ernie “Indian Red” Lopez, Pulitzer Prize winner N. Scott Momaday, and singer Marvin Rainwater. And in Indian affairs, Vernon L. Ashley, a Sioux, serves as chairman of the Governors’ Interstate Indian Council, which represents twenty-five states. Mr. Ashley has often appeared before congressional committees to discuss Indian matters.
But what of the thousands of less fortunate Indians whose health is poor and who are benumbed by poverty?
The average Indian lives forty-four years. Culinary water on reservations, it is reported, is 80 to 100 percent contaminated, and more than 70 percent must be carried a mile or more. Health care “lags 20 to 25 years behind that of the general population,” according to President Nixon. Indians must often travel great distances over nearly impassable roads to get to Public Health Service hospitals or clinics. Infectious diseases, such as dysentery and trachoma, are still prevalent among Indians but now rare among other Americans.
James Sutteer, a Ute and director of institutional services for the Salt Lake County Detention Center in Utah, sees as necessary goals for improving the lives of his people an end to prejudice between whites and Indians; respect for a person’s worth and contributions, regardless of color; an increase in the amount and quality of education for Indians so they can compete for good jobs; and government service agencies that are more responsive to the needs of Indians.
Mr. Sutteer maintains that “the Indian wants to retain his cultural identity, but he must use the white man’s form of education to assure his own progress.”
Because of a severe job shortage on reservations, unemployment ranges from 60 to 90 percent. Many Indians have relocated in urban centers, hoping for better job opportunities. California has the third largest Indian population by state, and in the Los Angeles area alone there are over sixty thousand Indians. Their problems aren’t any fewer than those they left behind on the reservation, but they are of a different kind. To begin with, they have exchanged boredom for frustration. In an urban society Indians must compete against tremendous odds, and a spirit of competition is uncommon to the nature of most Indians. His native wisdom prevents him from understanding what the white man’s striving is all about.
While good schooling has been one of the fundamental features of most Indian treaties, the formal education the average Indian receives on the reservation is less than that of non-Indians. President Nixon reported in his speech of last year that “one of the saddest aspects of Indian life in the United States is the low quality of Indian education. Dropout rates for Indians are twice the national average and the average educational level for all Indians under Federal supervision is less than six years.”
Isolation, rejection by white society, and poor study conditions are only some of the contributing factors in the amount and quality of education that most Indians receive.
Realizing this educational deficiency in most Indians who relocate, the government does provide for their moving expenses to the city and some assistance after they arrive. But these government-sponsored programs are only of short duration so that many Indians are hardly oriented when they find themselves left on their own.
To make his way in a predominantly white world, an Indian must often forfeit his identity, which is a humiliating and frustrating experience for one whose roots go very deep. He must subdue a natural pride in his heritage, and he isn’t happy with his self-image.
When asked to respond to a comment by one Indian leader that self-determination wasn’t doing too well in the city, Commissioner Bruce’s executive assistant, Harry Rainbolt, a Pima, said: “The Indian is treated just the same as anybody else in the city—black, brown, yellow, or white. Self-determination is here and those with push are making it.”
Mr. Rainbolt, who has worked in Washington, D.C., for the last twenty-five years, says that it is difficult for some Indians who relocate to get used to paying taxes and arranging for those services which were provided for them on the reservation by the BIA.
According to David Lester, a Creek, who is a Latter-day Saint and who works for the Urban Development Association in Los Angeles, Indians are succeeding in a variety of businesses, but it has required tremendous effort on the part of the individual.
“Indians are operating barber-shops, restaurants, and even a driving school,” says Mr. Lester. “Others are acting as managers, construction and cleanup workers, salesmen, just about the gamut of work experience.”
However, because of an insufficient follow-up and support program, some critics claim that the journey’s end for more than half the Indians who relocate to the city is skid row.
Four things that Mr. Lester says are urgently needed in the Los Angeles area, or in any other urban area where Indians relocate, are: (1) education for an extended period or until the Indian can make a good adjustment to city living; (2) adequate and effective health services: while the Public Health Service provides services on the reservation, Indians in the city are often sent from agency to agency because no one will accept the responsibility for their health care while they are away from the reservation; (3) vocational schooling and advanced training for those desiring professional careers; (4) a resource center for Indians that would provide for counseling, recreation, and health care. Infant mortality among Indians is extremely high.
There is today, particularly among urban Indians, a rising bitterness that has been called “red power,” and its spokesmen, such as Lehman Brightman and Dennis Banks, are vehement in their demands. As with any movement that thrives on emotionalism, there are extremists.
Many Indians who feel that a new nationalism among the tribes is the best way for them to achieve self-determination are disturbed by militant Indian demonstrators. The nationalists feel that their strength will come by developing an Indian professional corps to serve their own people—doctors, teachers, lawyers, and businessmen. There are at present less than three dozen Indians who are doctors.
But the unrest and frustration of the urban Indians are not without cause. Weary of having the white man call all the shots, they want what they feel is theirs by right, and they want it now. Much of the resentment stems from the fact that reservation Indians receive government aid and benefits that are unavailable to Indians who have chosen to live in the cities.
The frustration of a poor self-image, depression, and ennui aren’t restricted to the Indian who is living in the city. At the Fort Hall reservation in Idaho, the suicide rate among teenagers is nearly one hundred times the national average.
Unlike other minority groups, the Indians have a land base to cling to. Before the white man arrived, they were the trustees for the entire continent, and they would have delighted the ecologists of today because they didn’t defile the waterways and uglify the landscape. They were natural conservationists, hunting game and using other resources only as needed and allowing nature to restructure the balance after their harvest.
Over the years much of the rancor between Indians and whites has been the result of disputes over the ownership of land. With the exception of several dozen Indian communities on the eastern coast of the United States—remnants of bands with whom colonial ancestors bargained for lands and forests and whose property is unrestricted—all other lands were expropriated by the federal government until the Indians were gradually boxed into reservations on approximately 2 percent of the country’s total land area.
Paying Indians cash when ruling in favor of Indian claims has always been the procedure followed by the Indian Claims Commission. But recently the Taos Indians in New Mexico had returned to them 48,000 forested acres of land high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The area, which includes Blue Lake, had served as a wilderness cathedral for the Taos for more than seven centuries. This landmark decision, unique in the history of Indian claims settlements, was viewed by Indians everywhere with great satisfaction as one wrong that had been righted.
The need for the right kind of education for Indian children always looms as a major topic when discussing Indian problems. Indian parents habitually complain that they have little control over what their children are taught, and their efforts for some accountability are ignored or resented. There is a good indication, however, that greater Indian involvement is coming under the self-determination policy.
According to George Lee, a Navajo and former LDS missionary who works for the United States Office of Education, Indians at Rocky Boy, Montana, are running their school district on their own now, including the hiring and firing of teachers and the planning of curriculum, with the blessings of the government. At Raymond, New Mexico, other Indians will shortly follow suit.
Peter MacDonald, a college-educated Indian who returned to the reservation and was elected tribal chairman of the Navajo Nation recently, is an example of growing leadership. He stresses the importance of an economic base for his people.
In his inaugural address, Chairman MacDonald identified three goals as being necessary for effective self-determination:
“First, what is rightfully ours, we must protect; what is rightfully due us we must claim.
“Second, what we depend on from others, we must replace with the labor of our own hands and the skills of our own people.
“Third, what we do not have, we must bring into being. We must create for ourselves.”
He concluded that it was vital to keep “our finest young people on the reservation. … We must move from a wage and welfare economy to an ownership economy!”
Although Indian-owned businesses on the reservation pay no federal income tax, receive preferential treatment on government contracts, and may apply for low-interest development loans, the Indian’s general lack of business training doesn’t allow him to benefit from his favored position. Also, because of the isolation of most reservations from established transportation routes, industrialization and marketing problems for the Indians are particularly acute.
The problems of the Indian in the United States are far easier to identify than are the solutions. Awareness, however, has to be the beginning to any solution. And with awareness will come some kind of positive action, at least from those who would classify themselves as believers in Christian principles.
For the Latter-day Saint the direction is clear.
“The spirit of brotherhood prompts service, not conquest; cooperation, not exploitation; it involves fair dealing, not fraud and chicanery. It increases in man a greater appreciation of Christ’s value of the individual soul. In short, it makes for a better world.” (President David O. McKay, CBS Church of the Air, December 12, 1945.)