Trusting the Government: The Case of the Indians

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One of the sorriest political episodes of the present time is unfolding in Washington, DC. It offers lessons of wide-ranging importance.

American Indians, once in sole possession of the continent, have not been treated kindly by the United States. Even prior to the existence of the United States, they were not always treated so kindly by European colonists. Most are familiar with Massasoit and the story of the first Thanksgiving. Less are familiar with what the colonists did to his son, Wamsutta. They murdered him.

The killing is part of a sorry saga known as King Philip’s War, which lasted from 1675-76 (Philip was the colonists’ name for Metacom, the brother of Wamsutta), in which the colonists exterminated the native populations near their colonies. After Metacom (sometimes rendered as Metacomet or Pometacom) was killed and the Wampanoag were defeated, the pilgrims — yes, those pilgrims — paraded in Plymouth with his head. They also sold his son into slavery. (For more information, have a look at King Philip’s War by Eric Schultz and Michael Tougias).

The grandson of Massasoit, who helped the pilgrims to survive, was sold as a slave. There’s gratitude for you. As an aside, since the early Yankees could not tolerate Indian independence, is it any surprise that they later were so intolerant of Southern independence? Oh, the burden of knowing what’s best for everyone, even if they have to be killed to understand what’s for their own good.

As treaty after treaty was signed — we promise! — by the federal government, treaty after treaty was broken. The fact that several Indian nations allied themselves with the Confederacy during the Civil War did not help their fate. The Indians knew who their enemy was. After the CSA was defeated — with Cherokee general Stand Watie being the last Confederate general to surrender — the US Army did not exactly soften its stand on the Indians.

Fast forward 135 years, to the present. A federal judge, after citing Clinton Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt for “the worst case of contempt of court” he had ever seen performed by a government officer, ordered the Bureau of Indian Affairs (part of the Interior Department) to give an accounting of what had happened to millions of dollars in Indian trust accounts.

These trust accounts are “administered” by the federal government.

Guess what? The government’s course of conduct continues — even under Gale Norton and the Bush administration, as the Washington Times has reported.

Regarding the 1999 contempt citation of Mr Babbitt, the Times notes that

Beginning in 1999, Judge [Royce C.] Lamberth ordered Interior Department officials on two occasions to account for funds they held in trust for more than 300,000 Indians, saying records provided to the court showed that the money was so badly mishandled that the government had no idea how much was missing or where it could be found.

Judge Lamberth…held Mr. Babbitt and Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin in contempt for failing to turn over records in a lawsuit filed by the Indians and ruled that the government had to pay $625,000 for their inaction.

First, notice that the government had no idea — at all — what had become of the money which it held in trust for the Indians. No idea. Second, you can bet that Babbitt and Rubin did not dip into their own pockets or hand over their credit card numbers. No, for their bad conduct — they spent your money, also known as “tax dollars.” As the Times continues,

The judge issued the contempt citations after Mr. Babbitt and Mr. Rubin refused to produce trust-fund records, canceled checks and other documents demanded by the court.

The Interior Department, which manages trust-fund accounts involving settlements, royalties and payments to about 300,000 Indians and 2,000 tribal accounts, has given several reasons why the trust accounts are unavailable — including that some have been so tainted with rodent droppings that handling them would be hazardous.

Now, I have worked for a college newspaper, a city newspaper (the South Bend Tribune), several law firms, several universities, and so on — and I have never seen any records stored in rodent droppings. Certainly not rodent droppings so numerous that handling any records would be “hazardous.”

This is the government that politicians want to control our lives? This is the government with the magic wand to solve every problem that can be imagined?

Yes. Yes it is.

That is the reality of the government: glitzy promises, backed up by piles of rodent droppings. And don’t you dare ask to see a copy of your file — it’s hazardous to handle.

Say, has the Interior Department been following OSHA and EPA workplace safety regulations? Where do piles of rodent droppings fit in with OSHA’s requirements?

Sadly, the Indian tribes are the “poster children” for the welfare state. Despite promises that the government can “manage” our lives, and “take care” of us, better than we can ourselves, the reality of welfare-statism is a giant, uncaring mess.

As Russell Means, an Indian activist and former Libertarian party candidate — you may have seen him in Last of the Mohicans; if not, have a look at his autobiography, Where White Men Fear to Tread — stated on a John Stossel investigative report, the government still uses Soviet-style five-year plans to run the Indians’ lives. Unsurprisingly, Indian reservations resemble the old Soviet union in their poverty and desolation.

Which brings us to an additional lesson of the Indian affair: the limits of the law. Now that Judge Lamberth has ordered the Interior Department to perform an accounting, and his order has been ignored, what is left for the judge to do? Send the federal marshals to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to force the accounting? The law, it seems, may have reached the limits of its power.

As for where the saga will go from here, that may be anybody’s guess. But one thing seems certain: the government is giving the Indians a raw deal.

Mr. Dieteman [send him mail] is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.

© 2001 David Dieteman

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