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Apr 24, 2017
Presented by
Naomi Schaefer Riley

American Indians are the poorest of all of America's ethnic groups. Why? After all, the government has granted them massive reservations and created entire agencies to look after them. Well, maybe that's why. Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of "The New Trail of Tears," explains.

Read Naomi's book, The New Trail of Tears!

Poverty, alcoholism, abuse and suicide plague Indian reservations, where the federal government has made economic growth nearly impossible.

  • By nearly every measure, the conditions in Indian reservations are appalling. Rape report rates are 2.5 times higher than the U.S. average. Child abuse rates are twice as high. Native American youth suffer more from alcoholism than any other ethnic group in the country. Suicide among all Native Americans aged 10-34 is the second largest cause of death.View Source
  • The Native American unemployment rate is nearly double the U.S. average, and their labor force participation rate is 61.6% – the lowest of all U.S. racial/ethnicity groupsView Source
  • More than 25% of Native Americans live in poverty.View Source
  • Among the Cheyenne in Montana, the unemployment rate is 78%, while 87% percent live beneath the poverty line.View Source
  • Watch author Naomi Riley discuss the “New Trail of Tears.”View Source
  • Related reading: New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians – Naomi RileyView Source

Indian reservations contain massive amounts of coal, oil and uranium, but the federal government won’t let Native Americans use most of it.

  • American Indian land is held in “trust” by the government, meaning that the residents are denied basic property rights to the land. Without property rights, Native Americans cannot use their own land as a productive asset.View Source
  • Native American land contains 20 percent of known U.S. oil and gas reserves, 50 percent of U.S. uranium reserves, and 30 percent of U.S. coal deposits in territory west of the Mississippi. Yet the ability to access those resources are blocked or greatly slowed by the federal bureaucracy.View Source
  • Watch author Naomi Riley discuss the “New Trail of Tears.”View Source
  • Related reading: New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians – Naomi RileyView Source

Native Americans have the country’s lowest labor participation rate. One big reason: the government denies them their property rights.

  • The Native American unemployment rate is nearly double the U.S. average, and their labor force participation rate is 61.6% – the lowest of all U.S. racial/ethnicity groups.View Source
  • More than 25% of Native Americans live in poverty.View Source
  • The most significant factor creating this crushing economic situation is the federal government’s denial of property rights to those living on Indian reservations.View Source
  • Watch author Naomi Riley discuss the “New Trail of Tears.”View Source
  • Related reading: New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians – Naomi RileyView Source

Despite spending $20k per student each year, the government-run schools for Native Americans are abysmal. 

  • The Bureau of Indian Education is actually run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a federal agency focused on natural resource use and land management, rather than the Department of Education. By almost all measures, the government-run schools on Indian reservations are failing. High school graduation rates for Native Americans is just 69%.View Source
  • The government spends approximately $20,000 a year on each Native American student, compared to the national average of $12,400 per student.View Source
  • Watch author Naomi Riley discuss the “New Trail of Tears.”View Source
  • Related reading: New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians – Naomi RileyView Source

American Indian poverty rates are nearly double the U.S. average—in large part because of an economically stifling federal bureaucracy.  

  • The Native American unemployment rate is nearly double the U.S. average, and their labor force participation rate is 61.6% – the lowest of all U.S. racial/ethnicity groups.View Source
  • More than 25% of Native Americans live in poverty.View Source
  • The most significant factor creating this crushing economic situation is the federal government’s denial of property rights to those living on Indian reservations.View Source
  • Watch author Naomi Riley discuss the “New Trail of Tears.”View Source
  • Related reading: New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians – Naomi RileyView Source

How can the government best improve the lives of American Indians? It can let them do what they want with their own land.

  • American Indian land is held in “trust” by the government, meaning that the residents are denied basic property rights to the land. Without property rights, Native Americans cannot use their own land as a productive asset.View Source
  • Native American land contains 20 percent of known U.S. oil and gas reserves, 50 percent of U.S. uranium reserves, and 30 percent of U.S. coal deposits in territory west of the Mississippi. Yet the ability to access those resources are blocked or greatly slowed by the federal bureaucracy.View Source
  • Watch author Naomi Riley discuss the “New Trail of Tears.”View Source
  • Related reading: New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians – Naomi RileyView Source

We've all heard about how many bad things the U.S. government did to American Indians in the past. But what about today?

Like most people, the only time I hear about today's American Indians is when people are outraged about sports mascots or team names, like the Washington Redskins. But sports teams' names are the least of Indians' problems.

Did you know that Indians have the highest rate of poverty of any racial group in America? Did you know that alcoholism is more common among Indian youths than among youths in any other ethnic group? Did you know that the rate of child abuse among Indians is twice as high as the national average?

Until I visited Indian reservations for my book, The New Trail of Tears, I didn't know any of this. What was at the root of these terrible problems? I wondered. And the deeper I dug, the more I realized that, between the 19th century and today, nothing has changed: it's still the government.

The two main agencies that oversee the activities of Indians who live on reservations are the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or BIA, and the Bureau of Indian Education, or BIE. Education, economic development, tribal courts, road maintenance, agriculture and social services – the federal government basically funds and controls all of it. It's no wonder Indians say BIA stands for “Bossing Indians Around.”

Together, these two agencies have combined budgets of $3 billion per year, and have 9,000 employees. That's one employee for every 111 Indians on a reservation. Of that $3 billion per year, the BIE uses $850 million of it to educate 42,000 students. That's more than $20,000 per student, compared to a national average of $12,400 per student.

Plenty of other federal agencies also have programs for Indians. For instance, the Indian Health Service had a 2015 budget of over $4.6 billion. And yet, there are widespread and documented reports of nurses being unable to administer basic drugs, of broken resuscitation equipment, and of unsanitary medical facilities.

Obviously, inadequate funding isn't the problem.

The billions of dollars that the federal government spends on Indians every year hasn't made their lives better. In fact, by most measures of economic and social health, the lives of American Indians are only getting worse.

Aside from issues of culture, the only way out of this morass is economic growth, but the reservation system makes this almost impossible. Following a series of treaties and laws over many decades - some well intentioned, some not - the federal government decided to hold Indian land “in trust” in order to prevent non-Indians from ever buying that land. But other than Indians, the only people who have things held in trust for them are children and the mentally incompetent.

Can anything better illustrate the low regard the government has for American Indians?

The awful consequence of this land trust is that Indians can't sell their land, which means they can't use it the same way other Americans do – for example, as collateral to get a loan to start a business. What bank would lend to landowners who don't own their land?

The other effect of this absurdity is that Indians can't develop this land that they don't own. Indian reservations contain almost 30 percent of the nation's coal reserves west of the Mississippi, 50 percent of potential uranium reserves, and 20 percent of known oil and gas reserves. Those resources are estimated to be worth nearly $1.5 trillion. But the vast majority of Indian lands with natural resources remain undeveloped because of federal regulations.

For instance, for Indians to get permission to mine for coal on Indian land requires 49 steps spanning four federal agencies. Each of these 49 steps can take months or years to be approved. There are so many government regulations that just to apply for a permit to dig a hole costs $6,500.

Is it really any wonder that this community is mired in poverty?

So, what can be done?

For starters, end the trust system. Let Indians do what they want with the land they own. Get the massive federal bureaucracy out of the way. Give American Indians the opportunity to embrace the same thing that has lifted millions of other people out of poverty and into the middle class: free enterprise.

It won't happen overnight, and it won't be easy, but it will do a lot more for American Indians than changing the name of the Washington Redskins.

I'm Naomi Schaefer Riley for Prager University.

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