“The Bureau of Indian Affairs is like an umbilical cord,” says my elderly Comanche mother. “Indians have depended on it all our lives, but it keeps us from progress.”
Established by the United States government in 1824, under the War Department, the BIA is responsible for the “administration and management of 55.7 million acres of land held in trust by the United States for American Indians, Indian tribes, and Alaska Natives.” We all know how well that’s worked out. John Echohawk, chairman of the Native American Rights Fund, says, “The BIA has spent more than 100 years mismanaging, diverting and losing money that belongs to Indians.” The last estimate of missing Indian money is $173 billion. The Blackfeet Indians of Montana alone claim $10 billion is owed them.
The BIA is a financial black hole, and only corrupt attorneys and government bureaucrats have the magic formula to access the gargantuan resource.
And the BIA has power to expand. The BIA can grant “federal recognition” to any group of people claiming to be American Indian. Along with that recognition comes “sovereignty.” These days that means economic opportunity, or, tax exemption.
Enter the casino business.
The criteria for BIA’s recognition have become quite slippery in the hands of authorities, all anxious for a share in the latest casino deal. The standards for tribal recognition are conveniently absent from the official BIA website, but can be found on various Indian sites and non-Indian sites.
Many of the major Indian casinos have been built on Indian property after federal recognition was granted to questionable groups of people, through a dubious and unauthenticated process. In densely populated areas like Connecticut, and California, tribes pop up over night, and then the environment is peppered with Indian casinos. The main criterion for federal recognition, particularly in California, is simply the predetermined site for a casino. When a promising location is found, syndicated managers, politicians, and land developers will all make sure there is a federally recognized tribe there, even if there never was before, and even if they have to run ads in the paper to solicit members for their “create-a-tribe” scheme.
The BIA has sunken so deeply into fraud and insufferable defamation of Indian dignity that it is a serious question of whether it should be allowed to continue as an agency. Clearly, the need for a new management system is exigent.
An American Indian National Bank has been suggested, with Indian currency and serial numbers for each medium of exchange. Originally an idea for casino revenue management exclusively, the bank concept could be expanded to include other tribal revenues, like mineral rights, and land leasing. Not that each tribe would have its own currency, but that all “federally recognized” American Indian tribes would have a standard dollar.
“Dollars” is what it’s all about. If Indians would progress toward self-reliance and independence, it is a matter of proper financial management, not just revenue. With the current casino revenues, there is the distinct possibility that the BIA could in fact be replaced. The casino revenue is more than 17 times that of the BIA allotment for the tribes. The “replacement” theory finds its greatest validation in the Indian casino business.
Of course, the Indian Bank would still retain that Indian tradition “property sharing.” Different tribes have different needs, because their populations and geographic locations vary widely. The new bank would disperse money to all tribes accordingly. In this sense, some of the “communal” concepts behind the BIA may continue. There needn’t be radical severing of the umbilical cord; a healthy weaning could be arranged.
Indians do seem reluctant to cut the cord. Indians are the most traditional “romantic” folk in American society. We cling to the past, we find our strength in our past, and we will never part from it. Being a real Indian is not something than can be bought or sold, despite the BIA “sales” in Connecticut and California. The BIA is still an historical link for us, and that’s why most Indians tend to cherish it. It is a relic, like our bones, like our arrowheads, like our deer skins. It doesn’t matter that it retards our progress; it feeds our memory of our past. This is the main basis for Indian resistance to ending the BIA.
But now it’s time to be brave, and to strike out into a new era of American Indian history. We need to manage our own money. We can do it. We’ll be the more Indian for doing so.