by Tammy Tillotson

Native Americans were here first. We took their land while generously doling out reservations for their people who survived to live on. Considering a moral sense of fairness, perhaps we now owe them some other form of reparation in order to exemplify a more universal concept of reciprocity. After all, the Native Americans were the ones who did us a favor. Shouldn’t we feel morally obligated to return the favor?

Reparation and Reciprocity
Reparation is compensation payable by a defeated nation for damages or loss caused during war. Federally recognized Indian tribes have the legal status of “defeated nations,” and the Federal government has legal responsibility to protect and promote their welfare. Since the Indian tribes classify as “defeated nations,” the issue arises whether or not they should be financially compensated for the great losses their people have suffered as a result of colonization.

The idea of monetary reparation is not a new concept, yet it partially stems from the notion that America is divided and is in need of healing. In an attempt to turn suffering into healing, money is the solution, which yields the reciprocity of fairness. Money can buy anything these days, and the notion is beyond absurd and appalling. Justice is not served by silencing voices, and money cannot buy or return dignity and self-respect.

If Native Americans were to accept any form of monetary reparation from the Federal government, it would simply undermine what self-respect they have suffered to successfully maintain. Accepting compensation would yield the idea that the debt has been paid in full, when, in fact, there is no possible way to repay Native Americans. It will simply make the Federal government happy in knowing that the Native Americans have been pacified, and they should have nothing else to complain about, when indeed they do.

True Reciprocity
In truly understanding the concept of reciprocity, what goes around comes around, and the same holds true for both the Native Americans and the Federal government. In the government’s obligation to protect and promote the welfare of these “defeated nations,” Native Americans are finding ways to creatively use the government’s dictation against them for the benefit of their own people. Is there any other form of bittersweet reparation or justice more satisfying than outwitting the oppressor, and not having to accept consolation handouts?

Gambling and gaming have presented Native Americans with an ingenious loophole to obtain self-sufficiency, while simultaneously sending the Federal government into an uproar. Well, life’s not fair. Native Americans have learned that lesson all too well through the irony of the reparations they have received from a government that is only trying to protect and promote their welfare.

Irony of Reservations
In an attempt to make amends for taking over Native American land, the federal government provided these individuals with reservations. Reservations, though held in trust by the federal government, are not subject to state and local laws and authorities. The purpose of this was to allow Indian tribes to be recognized as sovereign entities responsible for their own affairs without the interference from other governments.

The nature of the reservation itself does not completely allow the Native Americans autonomy from the federal government, nor does it provide adequate means for citizens to be totally responsible for their own affairs. It merely yields the appearance of autonomy, and to some extent, the capability of the reservation to operate as a sovereign entity.

Since reservations are land held in trust, the land can only be leased to industries. Many companies and industries are unwilling to build on reservations as there are legal concerns over ownership of the structures. Banks are unwilling to lend money toward construction endeavors also as in case the loan is not paid in full, the bank cannot be guaranteed the ability to repossess the structure. The federal government has in essence, provided land that cannot yield a successful harvest.

As a result of the reluctance to industrialize, which would create a means of generating income, Native American reservations have historically had some of the highest poverty statistics. Characteristics of reservations have included high unemployment rates, school dropouts, welfare dependency, sanitation inadequacies, and alcoholism. This is not surprising, as the reservation is a window in which Native Americans can see what freedom epitomizes for those outside, while solemnly acknowledging the limitations of the reservation in failing to provide that same equity for the people inside.

Irony of Indian Gaming
In Article I of the Constitution it is stated that “Congress has the power to regulate commerce of Foreign Nations and with Indian Tribes.” Obviously, Native Americans still fall under federal government jurisdiction when commerce is considered, despite their sovereign entity status. Though Congress can regulate the flow of goods or trade, Native Americans found a gold-mine loophole in gambling which effectively utilizes the limitations and possibilities of the reservation.

The reservation does not fall under the jurisdiction of the local or state authorities, which also means they are exempt from all local, state, and federal taxes. As a result, gambling is one of the first real tools that Native Americans have discovered to gain back their economic self-sufficiency and self-respect without the aid of the federal government.

In 1983 the Cabazon tribe, on its Southern California reservation, opened the first high stakes Bingo. Other tribes followed suit, creating much controversy between the tribes and the federal government for somewhat obvious reasons. Gaming is a proven way to generate substantial tax-free income, and because this is carried out on a reservation Native Americans do not have to report comprehensive income. The figures of gaming income in public literature are only estimates that range from $10 million in profits to billions in profits, as there is no definite way of determining exact figures.

The federal government initially had no say so in how the Indian Gaming was regulated, and this created havoc and panic for the government as well as private owners of casinos that were subject to taxes and federal regulations. Suddenly there was competition where there hadn’t been competition before, the Native Americans had cleverly discovered a way to better themselves, and it didn’t seem fair to the federal government and to certain Americans!

The success of the Native Americans was received with resentment. Employment rates near casinos dropped, and many tribes had electricity and water thanks to the additional income. The Native Americans had learned to use the stipulations of their resources to their own advantage, and were promoting and protecting their own self-interest. Instead of the government welcoming and applauding their ingenuity, the government saw fit to intervene once again.

Indian Gaming Regulatory Act
In 1988 Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act which recognized the right of Indian Tribes to establish gaming facilities on reservations. The Act gave Indians the chance to better themselves through their own efforts. It also provided a regulatory base to protect Indians from becoming involved with organized crime, and it established the National Indian Gaming Commission to oversee the implementation of certain policies and regulations. The Act also defined three classes of Gaming and detailed who has regulatory jurisdiction among which classes.

Irony of Successful Reparation
Despite the disadvantages and limitations of reservations and functioning as sovereign entities, Native Americans successfully implemented a form of self-sufficiency that the government had otherwise overlooked or not considered. Reparations are often a means of beginning the healing process, yet how can Native Americans heal if when they make a valiant and successful attempt at self-sufficiency the federal government sees fit to intervene? Is this really promoting and protecting the best interest of the sovereign entity, or promoting and protecting the best interest of the federal government? Gambling with wits and intelligence is a hard pill for the federal government to stand by and swallow without asserting some powerful efforts of their own. For this reason, Native Americans will continue to be oppressed to the extent that the federal government deems fitting for them to achieve autonomy, as they technically are still classified as “defeated nations.”

True Reparation
True reparation is exemplified by the tax-free revenues generated by the casinos, and this is a liberation that Native Americans should relish and take advantage of while they still can.

Native Americans have leveled the odds in learning to behave like any other special interest group through putting themselves first and not depending on the federal government to always act in their best interest. The same federal government that would promote and protect them, also took their land, generously gave them reservations, and would also intervene as soon as they demonstrated intelligence of self-sufficiency that surpassed control of their regulations.

Native Americans are no strangers to gambling. They have faced incredible odds and overcome many harsh realities. Gambling introduces concepts of immorality to their culture and threatens losing traditional values to corruption and organized crime, yet Native Americans diligently strive to use the money to provide a better life for their people. It is ironic that the federal government would even dare step in and try to take away that fair and well overdue reparation.

The satisfaction of true reparation comes from being able to overcome incredible odds through determination and will power, while remembering the roots from which the branches of self-sufficiency and self-respect grew. Achieving that through one’s own clever means is payment in full.

Accepting a mere handout to be silent makes the suffering of our ancestors meaningless, yet more importantly demonstrates to future generations that it is okay for there to be a set price to compensate for wrongful actions and deeds. It will also create a chain reaction for every individual in the world that feels society has in some way wronged him to demand some form of reparation. The notion will proliferate that the world owes living humans something that the echoes of the deceased where unable to claim for themselves.

History is simply a record of past events. It should not be used as a scorecard of rights, wrongs, and accountabilities, but as a base of knowledge to learn from past choices and decisions.

A new Trail of Tears flows from the laughter of Native Americans, as they have in some ways successfully outwitted the federal government and brought justice and reparation to some of their people through their own efforts, even if the attainment is short-lived.

Another Trail of Tears certainly will flow when a consumerism society believes it is okay to consume humans as long as some predecessor receives monetary compensation.

1 Comment

  1. Hi Tammy,
    As a part of my assignment for a Composition class, I am required to post to a blog concerning a topic of choice (in this case concerning Native American reparations) and I came across your post and this blog with some of your well researched opinions. As a part of my assignment, I would like to share some of mine as well.

    In my research I have found that the majority of reservations face some serious problems with housing, education, and substance abuse. Only 1 in 5 Natives still live on reservations according to census statistics, and the primary employer of people on them tend to be local and tribal governments. It is therefore interesting to note that many leave these reservations with prospects to find opportunity elsewhere where it is lacking on the reservations. I have concluded based on my research that the best reparation for Natives can perhaps stem from allowing opportunities both on and off the reservations to allow some degree of prosperity.

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