Matter of Opinion 3/1997

"It's A Matter Of Opinion"

A Commentary by Elmer M. Savilla
March 1, 1997

If all else fails, blame the Indians.

If all else fails, blame the Indians. On Sunday, February 23 the Washington Post Magazine ran a story called " the Unfashionable" written by Peter Carlson. The story was about how a few years ago everybody wanted t be a Native American. It was a cool thing to do, and now, lo, the poor Indian is forgotten. Unfortunately, Carlson also perpetuated the mistaken notion that all Native Americans are Indians and that all such Indians belong to tribes, not nations. Native Americans have not been forgotten so much as having been ignored for 200 years.

In the first part of the story the writer focused on the Pine Ridge Oglala Sioux and the poverty of the place, and one has to wonder if the writer meant to help or hurt the people. He described streets lined with rusted-out cars and tiny weather-beaten homes made of Army surplus wooden boxes. Granted, they are poor, but why they are poor is a greater story. They are not asking for charity. What they would like is for the U.S. to provide them with the development assistance which was promised to them way back in 1853, 1863 and 1868 when they ceded most of their precious hunting grounds and homeland so white settlers could have a place to call their own - and that's what they want also, a nice place of their own. That same U.S. now preached benevolence and assistance to the rest of the world, and not to the people who made its greatness possible.

Today they feel like victims of government oppression, after being lied to, cheated and robbed by the U.S. government several times between 1853 and 1888. They kept the Black Hills for their own use, in the treaty of 1868. The Sioux considered the Hills as their own sacred place, just as a white man worships in his own stucco and varnished wood church. During the past few months the burning of black churches stirred up a storm of concern, yet there is no concern for the Sioux. The sacredness of the Black Hills lay in the fundamental belief that here they could commune with their creator and cleanse themselves of human frailties. Does that sound familiar to other religions?

But in 1874, the perpetrator of the Washita massacre, George Armstrong Custer, found gold in the Black Hills and the U.S. quickly reneged on the treaty and took the Hills away from the Sioux. Gold-crazed miners flooded in and the army protected them instead of keeping them out, as required by the treaty. Since then, billions of dollars in gold has been removed without a penny of royalty to the Sioux.

A U.S. treaty commission sent to secure the Black Hills in late 1876 told the Sioux that unless they signed the treaty the U.S. Army would do bad things to them, including military action and then moving them Oklahoma. Under these threats the Sioux were forced to sign the treaty. If that isn't outright government banditry I'll stand on my head on the White House lawn.

Yes, they are poor and it's the U.S. government's fault are that they are poor. In 1980 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court's ruling that the Sioux had indeed been robbed of the Black Hills, and that "A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability be found in our history." If that was a bet, they would lose. There are, in fact, many more examples or ripe and rank cases. Yet the U.S. is not willing to give back the Black Hills honorably. They want the Sioux to accept money instead and the Sioux don't want to sell even though they could use the money. And why should they, when the U.S. promised in writing to do certain things for them. Is there such a thing as honor in the American vocabulary? The great Sioux Nation has said repeatedly, "The Black Hills are not for sale." They are serious about this.

Overall, the story was well-written, but a fault is that those without real knowledge of the problems spoiled what could have been a very positive story. I speak now of statements made by Republican Senators John McCain and Ben Nighthorse Campbell. McCain can be excused for not knowing better but when he said, "The Indians hate it (the B.I.A.), but it just goes on and on. One of the reasons for it is - I'm going to be very blunt-most of the employees are Indians," he displayed a shocking attitude which had not been apparent when he chaired the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. Then he blamed the BIA's continued existence on relatives of those Indian employees. This is garbage! My own sister was the first female BIA Agency Superintendent. She worked hard for the betterment of her people and did as much as she was allowed to do by the policy makers. What the Indians hated were the hard-nosed, hard-ball political appointees like James Watt who used the BIA for their own political purposes.

Progressive and helpful programs were never allowed to continue for more than four years at a time. A good example of that is the BIA's so-called Self-Governance Program which was supposed to help make Native American governments autonomous and self-sufficient. It has been in existence for almost nine years now and there are only less that 32 (out of 554) governments in that program.

I know the BIA very well and I am not among their admirers, but I know the Indian people even better. Those BIA employees should be outraged at McCain's statement. The Native American people - the relatives - do not vote to continue the BIA or for policy changes, the Congress does. The records of congressional budget and appropriation hearings for decades show complaints by tribal representatives to both the House and Senate. To their credit, at the time, Congress responded accordingly. Then beginning in 1981, the Reagan administration undid the progress of twenty years while the BIA got bigger and stronger. The reservation relative had nothing to do with this. Republicans did this.

Most policy-making department heads within the BIA have always been white folks. The position of an assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs in the Department of Interior was the result of Native American leadership's insistence, thinking that this would give Native Americans an advocate and input into the Secretary's decision making process. It never happened. Instead, being politically appointed they have had to either march to the cadence of the administration, or leave. Although Interior is the lead federal Agency for government trust responsibility, they abdicated that trust long ago and Native Americans are left without an advocate there. Even the Commissioner of Indian Affairs position, which was legislatively established, has been watered down administratively to a powerless "has been."

But the most senseless comments (because he is Native American) were those of Senator Nighthorse Campbell who criticized the Indian Preference hiring policy. It is apparent he knows nothing (like Sen. McCain) of the origin of the policy and what it really was meant to do. But he's not alone. His statements that the BIA hires "Indians above anybody else whether they're qualified or not".....and "it's not very smart to hire somebody just because they're red"...and "there's dead wood that's been around too long under Indian preference," is not the talk f a knowledgeable Indian person and such talk plays into the hands of Montana redneck Indian haters. It shows a tremendous amount of ignorance, even perhaps stupidity. It would have been well had he studied the subject first. The phrase "...just because they're red," offends me personally. Native Americans are not reds or redskins.

The legislation. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (Sect.12), enabled Indian preference and recognized a responsibility to assist Native Americans in employment and training. Indian preference was supposed to do both. Congress created Indian preference as a remedy for perceived (government) failure to hire Indians in the Indian Office of Interior (BIA). The goal was to create eventually "an Indian Service predominantly in the hands of educated and competent Indians. " The Secretary of Interior was directed to "establish standards of health, age, character, experience, knowledge, and ability for Indians who may be appointed the various positions now or hereafter by the Indian Office. Such qualified Indians shall hereafter have the preference to appointment to vacancies in any such positions." This responsibility was later broadened to include the Indian Health Service. Nowhere does the law say that "unqualified Indians" would have a preference over a qualified other person.

The law specifically required that the agency practice Indian preference and to provide a training program for those so hired. This "upward mobility" training program never materialized. In 1982 there were complaints from Indians hired under the preference and I inquired of the BIA to see their Upward Mobility Program. There was none. Today, there is none, in spite of prodding in 1975 and in 1982. This failure of the BIA dictatorship to ignore the law for over 60 years in this and many other matters is in a great part the fault of a lack of oversight by responsible congressional committees, and not that of relatives of BIA employees.

Ignoring the congressional mandate to practice Indian preference and to provide a training program, the Secretary of Interior, in 1978, directed the Interior Solicitor to issue a memorandum to deny Indian preference in positions of management. This was an unconscionable dereliction of the Secretary's duty which was condoned by Congress. So please, Senators McCain and Campbell, speak no more of incompetent and unqualified Indians who ruined the BIA. Is it possible that some of the same incompetence and lack of qualification could exist on the hill? The two Republican Senators owe the Indian people an apology.

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