All Commentary
Saturday, June 1, 1963

Indians Under Control

Miss Shaker is a retired high school teacher and part-time lecturer living in Connecticut.

What government control and bureaucracy can do to a people is not a matter for guessing or spec­ulation. All around us we can see the stifling impact of the state. But nowhere in this country is there more of a laboratory case of government restriction and its del­eterious consequences than has been inflicted on the American In­dian.

A more regimented and minute grasp of peoples’ lives by the state probably does not exist outside the communist bloc.

There are now about 380,000 Indians on several dozen reserva­tions, primarily in the western states, which taken together amount to a land area greater than New England. The maze of legal directives, prescriptions, and specifications shackling their lives is truly staggering. Now on the books are 389 treaties, 5,000 stat­utes, 2,000 federal court decisions, more than 500 Attorney General opinions, hundreds of Interior De­partment and Solicitor rulings, and literally thousands of admin­istrative regulations and a mas­sive manual for Bureau of Indian Affairs operations.

The BIA is the principal gov­ernment overlord of the Indians. Its 15,000 employees work out of 10 area offices and 500 field instal­lations directed by the Washing­ton Central Office. This is not all. At least 7,000 other government workers spread among other De­partments, principally Health, Ed­ucation and Welfare, and Agricul­ture, are involved in Indian affairs. Thus the ratio of federal government personnel to Indians regulated is an incredible 1 to 18. The states also have employees dealing with Indian matters on a lesser scale.

Since 1900 over three billion dollars have been spent for servic­ing and regimenting these unfor­tunate de facto wards of the state. The annual amount has jumped in recent years so that for the com­ing fiscal year, a sum equal to $725 for every Indian man, woman, and child will be appropriated.

The Sad Results of Intervention

The 75-year result of all this bureaucratic domination and bil­lions of dollars stands as eloquent testimony of the futility and de­bility incurred by the “state way.” American Indians have been main­tained in a state of shocking pov­erty, ignorance, disease, and com­plete dependence. Average per capita yearly income runs around $200. Of 380,000 reservation In­dians, only 100,000 are considered employable; the rest are too young, too infirm, or too unskilled. But even after this drastic selec­tion process, 40 per cent of the 100,000 considered capable of working are unemployed. Compare these figures with the 4 to 6 per cent alleged to be unemployed for the labor force as a whole.

The educational level of Indians is abysmally low. Although the Bu­reau of Indian Affairs gives out glowing enrollment figures of 90 per cent of all Indians under eight­een years of age, the actual attend­ance figures are much lower. Why should poor parents send their children to below par Bureau schools to indoctrinate them into a way of life that one Indian war veteran described as “abide and ye shall receive your handout.” Many Indians, young and old alike, so fear and dislike BIA officials that they identify everything about “the white man’s ways” with these officials, including the learning of English. Many know no English at all.

The average Indian life span is about 45 years. Infant mortality rates are about three times as high as the average for all Ameri­cans. Death rates from such pre­ventable diseases as gastroenteri­tis, influenza, pneumonia, and tu­berculosis run up to eight times higher than in the general popu­lation. It is clear that the federal government has not even been able to do a minimum job of sustain­ing health.

Much reservation land is held by the government in so-called trust for individuals or tribes. This means that if a Crow or Blackfoot Indian wants to sell or lease or im­prove his land, permission must be granted through a labyrin­thine hierarchy involving delays, uncertainty, endless legal interpre­tations, and frustration. Just as intolerable is the assumption of incapacity or wardship which has indentured Indians to the state.

Millions of dollars of Indian money, received by income from leases, judgments, and other sources, are held by the U.S. Treasury instead of letting the In­dians invest their funds in their economic development. Statutes, regulations, and intricate proce­dures tell the Indians how and un­der what circumstances they can hire technicians and counselors and under what supervision by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.


The Secretary of the Interior maintains minute regulations of even minor actions by Indians and their tribal governments. The BIA, by its close control of bud­gets and expenditures on reserva­tions, insures that there will be little private initiative and deci­sion-making. The restraints on the efforts of Indians to improve themselves and to develop their own property are so vast and spe­cific as to be almost inconceivable. For many matters relating inti­mately to the lives and plans of Indians, they are neither consult­ed nor informed before the deci­sion is taken in Washington.

The regimentation, which for decades has cost taxpayers mil­lions and has kept the Indians de­pendent on government bureauc­racy while draining away even the hope of self-betterment, can be seen in one illustration out of many that could be cited. Suppose a group of Indians got together to hire an architect-engineer to build a lumber mill. The architect and any other technicians who con­tract to do the work must itemize the cost of each meal consumed and make sure to list the tips sep­arately. They must state the sub­ject and cost of every long-dis­tance telephone call. They then submit the voucher to the tribe, which is required to send it to the Area Office for approval, where, upon arrival, it goes on to a Field Solicitor who, if he concurs, pass­es it on to the Superintendent who, if he approves, returns it to the tribe for payment. All this elaborate paperwork and channel­ing must be undertaken even if only one telephone call is involved.

Supervised Stagnation

For years the attitude of the BIA was that the 57 million acres of Indian land offered little or no opportunity for economic develop­ment. It had never made any stud­ies to confirm this observation and an entrenched bureaucracy was not interested in possibly under­mining their comfortable status quo by probing for resources that would make the Indian self-reli­ant, self-productive, and free, as he so fervently wished to be.

It is now unequivocably certain that sufficient resources exist on Indian lands to afford Indians prosperity and independence in­stead of the state-imposed servil­ity which is now their bitter lot. The lands are rich in timber, for­age, minerals, agricultural prod­ucts, and fisheries. Many reserva­tions include attractive moun­tains, lakes, streams, forests, and even deserts, offering potential recreational and relaxational fa­cilities which could blossom into a vast tourist industry. But the In­dians never have been allowed the freedom to exploit these marvel­ous endowments for a progressive and distinct life of their own. In the rare instances where they have had an opportunity to be self-suf­ficient and their own masters, away from the reservations and BIA dominance, Indians have achieved success and self-fulfill­ment in all fields of human activ­ity.

BIA Knows Best

After nearly a century’s smoth­ering of the spirit of a proud, in­dependent people and preventing their rising out of degradation and poverty, who has benefited? Principally, job holders whose weekly salary from the BIA was guaranteed. This is not to say that BIA employees are incompe­tent or have any but the best of intentions; the system largely de­mands that they act as they do. But the premise is, as always, that BIA knows best. In most ad­dresses, statements, and discus­sions by the BIA or other officials about the “Indian problem,” as it is called, the base point is always what the government should do for the Indian. It is made quite clear that the federal government is to continue its domination of the Indians far into the future. The idea that Indians should be completely liberated to apply their intelligence and energy to the de­velopment of the vast resources available to them is not contem­plated.

Any enterprise in a free mar­ket which has losses for a few years running is almost sure to find itself bankrupt and out of business. Federal Indian policy and the BIA have been showing “losses” for more than a century. In maintaining Indians as wards, the government has done worse than nothing; it has struck at the very nerve center of human dig­nity by prohibiting responsibility, initiative, creativity — that indi­vidual self-determination which is the touchstone of the founding philosophy of this country. How many Indians, wasting their lives away on the reservations, might have been great writers, artists, scientists, entrepreneurs, and statesmen? The number will never be known, but the controls respon­sible for the situation are visible in all their pervasive cruelties.

What the BIA can do for the Indian is very simple. It can rec­ommend its own dissolution and terminate what one brave con­gressman recently described as “the world’s most vicious socialist system.”