Saturday, April 10, 2010


The latest group to be caught up in and split apart by the monetizing of suffering and injustice has been American Indians, all stirred up about the Eloise Cobell case that will (soon, we hope) bring them some money. The lawsuit has been an attempt at compensation and closure to the admitted government raid on reservation assets, the profits of which were supposed to have been held in trust for tribal members. Instead they were thrown into the general revenues without earmarks and with such lousy bookkeeping (in some cases literally “ratty” records in substandard warehouses) that no one really knew who was owed what. The Cobell lawsuit had two goals. One was to compensate for the losses already due to mismanagement and the other was to reform the future handling of all funds in trust. The computer software alone was so hack-able that the judge closed down the Department of the Interior system until it could be fixed.

This is NOT a general award to all Indians everywhere but only those who benefit from trust status. Money that will be sent to the plaintiffs at this time is the estimated loss of money by PEOPLE WHO HAD LAND IN TRUST STATUS. Not every Indian has lands in trust status. Those who do don’t have access to their ownership but must “trust” the government to manage them for the most profit and send the owners the proceeds. In the Sixties there was a movement to return private-Indian-owned land to trust status in order to avoid county and state tax jurisdiction. Whether they are subject to county and state law enforcement has never been questioned from that angle. I suspect that the ultimate outcome of the Cobell lawsuit will simply be the elimination of government trust for Indian-owned land, an outcome some have wanted for a long time. One of the abiding controversies among tribal peoples has always been between those who want to manage their own affairs and those who would rather the government managed things.

Trust lands are not the same thing as reservation lands. There are residential lots in Valier (which is off the reservation), which are in trust with the federal government for the benefit of the legal Indian owners rather than being privately owned and managed. Land is taken OUT of trust status through action by the owner, maybe by petitioning for reclassification from “incompetent” (like being too young, not speaking English, or not understanding fancy legal categories and rules) to competence. This is called “patenting.” Some people patented their land simply because they did NOT consider themselves incompetent and thought the legal term had something personal to do with their intelligence.

After the Dawes Act, which divvied the tribal land up Homestead style, assigning allotments to individuals, the land was always first put into trust. Then some people patented their land. The accusation is that some people who truly WERE incompetent for some reason were “helped” to patent their land, which meant that it could be sold by them -- maybe not at a fair price nor for a good reason -- or attached to pay bills owed to local merchants, which the owners had not expected to happen. Whatever it was that happened, that’s an entirely different matter that has not been consolidated into a class action, at least not as far as I know. There are diligent and dedicated people accumulating facts and it may be that in the future there will be such a lawsuit.

Another kind of claim that distracts and confuses people is compensation for lands seized or overrun in contradiction of treaty assurances; for example, both the Black Hills and the Sweetgrass Hills, both of which were assigned to the Indians and then grabbed back by non-Indians because of the discovery of gold. These violations were eventually compensated by a government pay-out of a major block of money. On the Native American side a big part of the argument was that these high refugia hills were spiritually valorized places of enormous significance to the autochthonous peoples in the same way as European cathedrals. (A lot of white people also feel they are sacred.) The payout did not come to individuals, but to tribes as a whole.

A third kind of payout is the dividends earned by the tribal corporation. The tribal council operates on the model of a corporation in which each member is entitled to a share. The council is the same as the board of a corporation. Thus, at the end of the year, the dividends might be distributed as per capita checks.

A strong reason for monetizing society the way we do today is that it keeps order, but some people have figured out that it is a system that can be used as emotional extortion, among other things. It is in the extortionists’ interest to remain angrily “afflicted.” Since the situation of NA’s is already so confused in most minds, this tendency is easily exploited, if for nothing more than political and emotional self-righteousness.

Gyasi Ross, a lawyer and blogger associated with “Indian Country Today,” recently tried to make some points about these matters. On "Thing About Skins and Other Curios" he brought into the equation his grandfather, Percy Bullchild, who wrote “The Sun Comes Down,” an authentic Blackfeet-written book legitimately published. Right way there was a firestorm of criticism: that Percy was selfish, that he had it wrong, that he should not have told what he did, that he was a “sell-out,” “opportunist,” “traitor.” Almost exactly the same accusations as of Eloise. If you’ve lived on a rez, you’ll know this is predictable. Under it is the same demand: “Where’s MY cut?”

Said Gyasi, “. . . frankly, it seemed somewhat cowardly for someone to criticize a person for doing a good thing that they were unwilling to do themselves. . .”

“In my estimation, this Native woman [Eloise] is a hero, a warrior.”

As soon as Gyasi posted this, he got another wave of flame, all of it anonymous, as well as some approval from people with real names, including me. As soon as my name appeared, the attacks turned from Eloise to me. That was predictable. I'm white. And I couldn’t help but note that the anonymous people were evidently hiding behind the door in English class. I don’t know how they managed to learn to keyboard.

So Eloise is a two-fold heroine, first for facing down the government and second for having to withstand illiterate attacks from her own people. The latter force is what makes so many people reluctant to stand up for what is right. Also, it reinforces the prejudices of people who have a bad opinion of Indians. And it makes heroes wonder what they were thinking.

I just don’t get why the critics comment anonymously. If they think they will get money out of their high dudgeon, how will anyone know where to send the check? Any anonymous person who sends an anonymous comment to this blog on this post will be deleted. I just hate to see them embarrass themselves.


Mary Strachan Scriver said...

To Feed Store Girl: Thank you for your literate and to-the-point comment. I can't post your comment because of the last line and because it is anonymous. If you want to call me up to discuss it, I'm in the book.

Prairie Mary

Art Durkee said...

I for one do feel that the Black HIlls are sacred. I feel that way about Devil's Tower, too. And many other places I've been to, where I can feel an energy, some power that lets you know it's there, and that it's a place of power. Those are sacred places, I've no doubt of it.