Sunday, August 17, 2008

Real Native Myths and Legends #5 - Free money for Natives from Uncle Sam

I've heard this one again and again - tons of money from the U.S. government being thrown at Natives for "all their problems." But this kind of comment (from a comment thread) is what keeps cropping up:

"...if you fill out some forms, prove you are an indian to a certain degree,
each year you get a certain ammount of money from the government."

Really? Nobody told me about this program (and where can I sign up?)

I think this is a combination of confusion about land held in trust by the government, Native corporations and... well, not knowing what they're talking about. Unfortunately, most of the argument on the other side is, "The government treated them so bad, so don't they deserve it?" It's not about giving one group money because they were treated poorly. At all. There is little understanding of the complex issues here.

Some tribes in the Lower 48 do receive trust money from land agreements between the U.S. government and their individual tribe. This is not the government giving money to the poor, victimized Indians because of past misconduct on behalf of the U.S. It is NOT reparations. It is NOT welfare. I believe some groups in Alaska do as well, though in a different sort of set up.

I must be honest in saying that I do not have first-hand knowledge of land trust/trust fund agreements between the U.S. and tribal governments, simply because it is not at all a part of my life. As far as I can tell, it is not a part of most Alaska Native people's lives either. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act made things very different in Alaska. If the confusion is about Alaska Native corporation money, I responded to that here. In any case, the government is not just handing out money to Native people for no reason.

When it comes to land trust issues, there is still quite a bit wrong with the system. Okay, so that's an understatement. There has been a bit in the news recently about land trusts - mismanagement on the part of the U.S. Nearly 30 years ago, the Saginaw Chippewaw wanted to see about changing their investments, and brought in the president of the First Nations Institute, Rebecca Adamson, to look at it. A memorable quote from when she started looking at their land trust situation:
At a council meeting, she reported back to the tribe as follows: ''I have
good news and bad news. The good news is, you can do better than the BIA at
investing your trust funds. The bad news is, so could a chimpanzee.''

Now, the ruling 26 years later was that the U.S. government mismanaged the land (Gee, didn't see that one coming...) After various numbers were thrown around in the decades long court battle, a federal judge decided that 121 years of mismangement amounted to an award of $455.6 million. This is where, I think, people hear the numbers, and go, "Wow, they're getting a lot of money from the government!" - discounting that it's not the governments money in the first place.

But there were 500,000 plaintiffs. So 121 years of mismanagement means $455.6 million goes to 500,000 plaintiffs. You do the math on that.

The other assumption of that is that the Indians don't "deserve" the money. It's past - it's history. But pushing aside the fact that this is one of the few cases that the U.S. government is holding to (with fingernails) the treaties agreed upon (read - lawful contracts,) the length of time that has passed isn't (or shouldn't be) a factor in deciding whether it's "really still their land/money" to have a say in. It's not about deserving it or not - it is rightfully theirs. I don't think Paris Hilton "deserves" all her money just because she's a Hilton - but I won't dispute the fact that she lawfully has a right to it.

Using the logic that it's ancient history, can we discount the government's claim to the White House? I mean, they claimed that land hundreds of years ago, and the clearly nomadic lifestyle that the family that lives there every four to eight years means they can't sustain that area, right? Unless the residents can prove they have a right to live there, I'm all for going in and claiming it. Or at least the West Wing.

Yes, it's absurd. It's just as absurd to think that just because something is an historic agreement means it is less valid today. The times I've heard something like, "Just because my ancestor killed your ancestor doesn't mean you should get something better than me."

Well, I've never gotten anything out of that deal, and I would like one person to point out the time that the U.S. government has EVER awarded a profit to a Native person because of the acts of the U.S. government hundreds of years ago. The government hasn't even conceded anything wrong was done in the first place - it isn't ready to start handing out money to make everyone feel better.

The U.S. government did not pay for my car. Or my college education. Or my groceries. In fact, in the awkward relationship between the U.S. government and myself, I've given it a pretty good portion of the money I earn, every paycheck. In return, the government paved the roads and built some schools.

It's an ok deal - I do enjoy being able to drive places, and though public schools are demonized, I thought my experience was pretty good. All I ask is that the government remember the agreements made for the land those roads and schools were built on - and the people the agreements were made with. Then we'll get along just fine.


Anonymous said...

A related myth is that Indians (and Alaska Natives) don't pay taxes; this isn't true, of course. If I remember correctly (someone please check) there is one exception-- if people work for pay within the borders of their own enrolled tribe where they also live full-time, then they don't pay US taxes. I believe this only applies to "Indian Country", i.e., where tribes have legal jurisdiction over land within their boundaries [in Alaska, the land within boundaries is owned by the corporation]. Sort of like, Canadian citizens living in Canada who earn money in Canada don't pay US taxes.

This was certainly the case in New Mexico (which doesn't have reservations, with 4 exceptions. "Reservations" vs land grants vs allotments is another topic altogether. My head always hurts trying to keep these things straight)

Well, I've probably mashed up that explanation. Feel free to alter or delete. You do a much better job at explaining these things. It's a great service.

Writing Raven said...

Good point! I have been asked a few different times why we (Native people) don't have to pay taxes. My reaction was something like, "Wow - we don't? Wish someboday would have told me earlier..."
The National Congress of American Indians answered it pretty good on their site:

This is not something that affects me, so I think I'm a bit more like you - I get a headache just trying to sort it all.