Monday, July 27, 2009


Because of Vicki Santana’s funeral, where I heard interesting remarks during the service and afterwards, I did a little googling and came upon a whole new category of thought about reservations. This is not “how to enforce the treaties,” or “who is entitled,” or “how it came to be.” Rather it is a body of thought I’d call “philosophy of reservations,” though someone else might call it “how stuff gets so gummed up.” Actually, the principles apply to almost any category of government, but the examples and consequences given are in terms of reservations. The single most helpful article I’ve found so far is by Robert L. Bee, an emeritus professor at the University of Connecticut with a lifetime of work with reservations.

This series of statements which may have been for a class, are described on one website this way:

Structure, Ideology and Tribal Governments by Robert L. Bee

The "sovereign"-cum-trusteeship status of Native American groups is under increasingly strident attack by federal, state, and local non-native interests. Huge revenues of several native-operated casinos have fueled the move even as they have increased the political leverage of some native groups. To counter this threat, tribal governments need both stability and effectiveness. Stability might well come from reform of native governance structures to better reflect prevailing grassroots governance ideology. While not challenging the need for such reform, this essay describes the difficulties of accomplishing it and suggests that working within the imposed governance structure and strengthening tribal judicial systems may be a more immediate means of meeting the non-native challenge.

Bee has many books out, but this is the article I found:;col1

is ten years old. I suspect this body of thought is the drum some people on and off the rez can’t hear, while a few are taking it very seriously. Maybe if a napi-yaki (white woman) like me pays a little attention, it will help. I hope it won’t prompt some people to exclude the thoughts, but I fear it will. On the other hand, non-Indians in abutting communities should ponder these ideas.

Anyway, Bee starts right off with the four “ideal objectives in the context of reservation politics:

1. Effectiveness
2. Broad representativeness
3. Stability
4. Fair and effective distribution of tribal assets.

These are not the sort of objectives that are usually discussed, let alone the motivations that actually power action.

So here are some obvious problems:

1. Lack of congruence between “traditional” or “tribal” ideals of leadership provides exploitable issues for constant challenges.
2. Economic assets being distributed unequally provokes endless resentment and distrust of leaders.
3. Stagnation comes from leadership that doesn’t do much of anything for the sake of “keeping the peace.”
4. Constant pressure from the outside context: state, federal, and so on.

Bee sees two aspects to a successful reservation government: one is maintaining a strong “palisade” around the rez so as to protect the tribe from meddlers and looters. The other is to use that protection to shelter the ongoing vital struggle for a consensus inside that “palisade.” Most analysts I’ve read in the past have chosen one or the other as an issue, rather than the reconciliation of the two considerations into a harmonious system.

The issue in the newspapers at the moment is about keeping law and order on the reservation. Statistics will reveal a roller coaster of times when violence, theft and disorder go up and other times when they come down. Many remedies have been tried, like bringing in federal police from other reservations or the town of Browning creating its own island of jurisdiction with its own officers and judge. But outside forces -- waves of drug peddling, illegal immigration of people who can pass for Indian (indeed, might BE Indian!), religious movements, changing law enforcement practices, and jurisdiction decisions in the high courts -- all mess with the status quo. Mysteriously, something always restores the lawless frontier on the broad distances and tiny communities. The palisade fails to keep predators out and also fails to reconcile the community. Nasty alliances form as though no palisade were there. Some use it as a reason to eliminate the palisade by eliminating the reservation.

Is there no law and order because Indians are bad, either genetically or because of the way they are raised? Is it because they are post-colonial, no longer supervised by white officials? Is it because they are too poor and good law enforcement is costly? Is it because the tribal council is incompetent? Is it because of Original Sin and pagan practices? Is it because those who sell enormous amounts of drugs and alcohol don’t want their market disturbed? All of these get suggested.

I think that Bee would be more open than most to my on-going question, which I ask over and over: “Who benefits from this disorder?” Clearly it is not the women, the children, the elderly and the disabled, which any Blackfeet would tell you ought to be protected and supported. My answer would be that the beneficiary is that lumbering monster called “The Status Quo.” The people who don’t want change.

Bee’s philosophy is a way of starting to answer the question: Who inside the “palisade” doesn’t want change? Who outside the “palisade” doesn’t want change? Who is invested in The Status Quo?

My opinion may surprise some folks. For instance, I would finger those who want to preserve the 19th century, all that picturesque suffering, violence and poverty that fuels art and romantic admirers. As Bee points out, when tribal people enter the ground of traditional practices, they do not agree on which tradition they are observing or even are conscious that there are differences among them. I do not think that many want to live in a cabin with no electricity or plumbing like Adolf Hungry Wolf. I do not think that (STILL!!) enough people know their own history.

The post-colonial thought -- that I see many whites are totally oblivious to, a revolution that never crossed their horizon -- that has empowered today’s ceremonialists by privileging people with educations who have been exposed to this body of very subtle but incendiary thought without realizing the Marxist context. There are problems with it that have not been solved: the vengeful aspect, the discarding of families with a history of traditional practices, the broken connection with the original life on the land that shaped it, and the simple fact that all scholarly theories have a shelf-date, which may be approaching.

Bee spends a lot of time on “casino politics” which reveal that the question of “who gets what” is only aggravated when there is more “what” unless careful and transparent distribution is part of the deal.

Evidently Bee’s sort of thinking is the context within which Vicki Santana and others explore ideas. It is so different that the uninitiated might have trouble deciphering it, which leads to the remark I’ve often heard about them: “I can’t tell where they’re coming from!” This is where. It’s not that complicated. Bee is good at principles in groups of three or four that anyone would digest, even those who are used to responding only to greed or ideology. It’s a beginning rather than a goal, a means rather than an end. In the U of Chicago context I would call it a “method.”

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