The New Trail of Tears
By Steven Martinovich
It is fashionable these days to describe American Indians as "forgotten" as the United States grapples with so many other ethnic, religious, political and societal issues. Most would probably be surprised to find out that there are multiple federal agencies, generally staffed by Indians themselves, spending tens of billions of dollars annually to provide basic services like education, job creation, law enforcement and other societal staples. And yet, as everyone will agree, the plight of the American Indians on reservations is probably worse now than it has ever been. The numbers, as brutally stark as any quick investigation would turn up, fail to properly communicate the horrific suffering taking place on reservations.
Naomi Schaefer Riley's The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians is an unpleasant but utterly necessary view into a world that most Americans never think of. Indeed, most Americans' interactions with Indians likely takes place off-reservation and the only time they visit those clusters of despair is to partake in the manicured pleasures of the casinos – conveniently located far away from the near Third World housing of reservation residents. Riley's investigation of the modern spiritual genocide of the American Indian should rightfully raise the alarm of the entire country and force change, though the cynic will understand that the usual suspects – government officials and tribal leaders alike – will only manage to make the situation worse.
As Riley relates, the list issues faced by American Indians is a depressing and seemingly overwhelming one. By nearly every societal, economic and demographic measure, she writes, Indians are worse off than almost every other ethnic and cultural group in the United States. The numbers are so stark that it's impossible to decide which set most accurately captures the issues involved. Reservations are collections of crumbling homes, collapsing infrastructure, entire generations that have given up, corruption, and featuring staggering rates of physical and sexual abuse, substance abuse and apathy.
One would assume that tribal elders, faced with a bewildering array of issues, would be active in seeking assistance or exploring new approaches but The New Trail of Tears makes it clear that at best many elders – not to mention tribe members themselves – are distrustful of anything that smacks of "white" interference. This is true even if their own approaches are failing. The reasons for tribe intransigence are multiple, reports Riley, covering everything to historical distrust of outsiders, rampant corruption and nepotism, apathy and sometimes refusing to see the reality of failed programs. The answer to any problem seems to be old liberal approach to demand more money from Washington, D.C. in the belief that any failure is simply because not enough money was spent previously.
The real villain of The New Trail of Tears, however, is the federal government itself. Riley paints a picture of politicians that lobby for more money to buy votes and afraid to criticize current political and Indian policies for fear of being accused of racism, today's highest crime. Cemented onto that are bureaucrats who seem to be more interested in expanding their power and perpetuating their jobs and agencies regardless of the blatantly obvious failure of their work.
Riley argues that federal stewardship of Indian land has prevented those living on reservations to leverage property to raise money for private enterprise. As few feel an ownership stake, housing on reservations have deteriorated. A lack of oversight on spending for priorities like education have resulted in unfathomably low competence in basic subjects like mathematics. And money simply handed to individuals, whether through federal aid or from their share of government permitted casinos, has had the disastrous effect of severing the connection between work and money, leading to a culture of entitlement and fueling further substance abuse. As she relates, federal government laws and policies have created centers where American Indians simultaneously been denied the full range of rights of American citizens and coddled them in a ham-fisted attempt to make up for the cultural and human atrocities of the past.
Even though Riley offers a number of prescriptions to help with the multitude of issues American Indians face, it's difficult to believe that any meaningful change will occur while entrenched interests – Indian and non-Indian alike – continue to profit from the status quo. Worse, the very people suffering labor under a victim mentality, though not undeserved as they have been sold a bill of goods by everyone involved, refuse to explore all avenues, are openly hostile to alternatives for whatever reasons, or are apathetic about solving them.
That said, The New Trail of Tears is an invaluable effort and Riley deserves much praise for undertaking the task. Although it is an exploration of the life of hopelessness on reservations, it could just as easily be a treatise of the consequences – unintended and otherwise – of any government involvement. Where government once attempted to strip the American Indian of their culture in order to assimilate them to society, today they simultaneously promote that culture while pursuing policies that have disemboweled it. As Ronald Reagan once quipped, "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'"
Steven Martinovich is the founder and editor of Enter Stage Right.
Buy The New Trail of Tears at Amazon.com for only $19.16