Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Tierney's Last Stand

John Tierney continues with his half-baked analysis of the history of the American West. Today he tries to understand why American Indians live in such poverty. The reason, of course, is federal bureaucrats.


Here's the real point of Tierney's argument. The expansive federal government has squeezed the economic life out of Native Americans and they are trying to do the same to the rest of us with their regulations, bureaucracy, and anti-growth policies. And maybe you can make this argument if you base your entire understanding of Indian history on a couple of right-wing economists and you don't read ANY of the massive amounts of history, anthropology, sociology, and Native American oral traditions that have been written about this problem.

Instead we can just simplify the problem down to that meddlesome federal government.

Tierney argues that the decline of Indians came at the same time that the federal bureaucracy began to grow, in the mid-19th century. He goes on to say that the rise of two particular bureaucracies, the army and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, is what destroying Indian economic and political life.

This argument is extremely simplistic. Tierney states that between 1790 and 1840, far more treaties were signed with Indians than battles for land and that this changed after 1840. The one problem with this argument--history. There's actually a pretty simple reason for this change. Before 1840, there was huge areas of the North American continent that whites had no interest in settling. After 1840, we began to want control over the entire continent. It's far easier to sign treaties when you can send the Indians somewhere. When there's nowhere else to send them and the land they have been sent to is wanted by whites, battles were inevitable.

It's also a poorly thought out argument to claim that the BIA is the most important reason that today's Indians have economic problems. The BIA certainly plays a part in it. But Tierney seems to separate the BIA and the will of the American people at the time of its creation. The BIA was just a part the general feeling of the American people that Indians were at best a nuisance to be isolated and at worst savages to be killed like wolves. Today, it reflects the general benign neglect that whites feel toward Indians. They might want to get in touch with their Indian heritage--if all the people who claim to be related to a Cherokee princess actually were, the Cherokees would have nothing but royalty--but they're not going to vote for a tax increase to do what is necessary to revitalize the economy of the Indian reservations.

Moreover, isn't the real reason for the many problems of Indian reservations the nearly complete destruction of Indian cultures that all of American civilization is responsible for? The history of white-Indian relations is replete with attempts to transform Indians, from the introduction of alcohol to far-fetched schemes about Indians taking up white-style farming on their terrible land to Indian schools like Carlisle meant to Americanize the Indians to the attempts of the 1950s to end recognition of Indian tribes entirely. The BIA is merely a tool of this nation and its half-cocked and destructive plans toward Indians.

I'm not apologizing for the BIA here. It has been a terrible and corrupt agency for over 100 years. It played a major role in our most destructive policies toward native peoples. But again, the BIA reflects the general opinion of American society toward Indians. When we criticize the BIA we need to be aware that we are also criticizing ourselves and our history. And rightfully so.

Finally--a message to John Tierney. The field of western history is huge and diverse with many different viewpoints. Please become at least marginally acquainted with it before making overarching statements about the history of the American West and what we should do in the West today.