I grew up a few miles north of the Shoshone-Bannock reservation in southern Idaho, and was exposed as a child to the very visceral bigotry against Native Americans that has been part of the landscape in the West for the past 150 years or more. I remember the bar downtown that had a sign in the window: "No Dogs or Drunk Indians Allowed." I heard them cursed and laughed at, watched them being abused, and watched them destroy themselves with alcohol too.
What was really entrenched, though, was the stereotype: Indians were crazy, unpredictable drunks who were lazy and always looking for a handout.
But over the course of my career as a newspaper reporter in the West, I was assigned coverage of tribal affairs on two different reservations (the Sho-Ban in Idaho and the Flatheads in Montana) and spent large sums of time on other reservations near where I worked and lived, including the Blackfeet res in Montana, the Nez Perce and Coeur d'Alenes in Idaho, and more recently, the Makah res in western Washington.
I learned a lot of things doing that work: I learned that treaty rights are irrevocable and supreme law, and whites can only mess with them at their own peril. I learned that no two tribes are alike: some are wealthy, some are not. I also learned that they all deal with powerful social issues arising from their status as the remnants of people who were the victims of a genocidal campaign of extermination, outrageous deceptions, and a ceaseless treatment by their conquerors as subhuman.
Most of all, I learned that the stereotype was a lie: The people who lived on reservations were often deeply impoverished and there was a high alcoholism rate, but they were very hard workers (though I will say they had their own unique work ethic), highly intelligent, with a great deal of pride. Many of them were capable of climbing out of the morass into which they had been thrown -- but not all. Given the conditions into which they have been born -- deep poverty, a forced inability to make a living as tribes did traditionally (through sustenance hunting and gathering), and the ongoing failure of the federal government to make good on its treaty promises to the tribes -- that shouldn't surprise anyone.
Yet this weekend, on John Stossel's Fox News show, there was Stossel, rehabilitating that lie and giving it fresh clothing: The show, titled "Freeloaders," was all about how those chiseling Indians are constantly on the lookout for bigger handouts, and it clearly implied they were lazy bums whose federal dole should be axed.
It was an expansive version of the remarks he made last weekend along these lines, once again claiming that "no group in America has been more helped by the government than the American Indians ... But 200 years later, no group does worse."
As Nicole noted at the time, it was really a profound display of ignorance, and it intensified this week: Stossel -- like his libertarian idol, Rand Paul -- seems to advocate simply tearing up and abrogating those treaties -- as though that were a legal option. (I also enjoyed how he called the people who are demanding the government live up to those treaties "socialists" -- as if "socialism" existed in the period, 1824-1870, that the vast majority of the these treaties, which promised to provide sustenance help from the federal government in perpetuity, were made.)
Stossel, moreover, seems utterly ignorant of the historical reality that European diseases, fueled by white Americans' malign neglect of Native Americans, in the centuries prior to 1800 wiped out over three-quarters of the indigenous population and thus cleared the way for white settlement of the continent. There were, of course, surviving tribes who resisted futilely -- but they were largely rubbed out and forced onto these reservations. They finally agreed to cease hostilities when the government promised to provide for them.
But those promises, especially in the early years after the treaties were signed, were mostly deceptions intended to "control" the Indians, and for decades the government failed to meet the terms of their treaties, often resulting in mass starvation on the reservations -- followed by uprisings that were always violently suppressed. One such incident resulted in the Wounded Knee Massacre at the very Pine Ridge reservation that Stossel holds up for ridicule:
How much "help from the federal government" can one tribe take?
Stossel's account was also riddled with falsehoods in the particulars of the case he held up as an example -- the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, who Stossel claims have actually prospered by virtue of the fact that they do not have full federal recognition.
Of course, Stossel doesn't explain that, in fact, the Lumbees became a federally recognized tribe in 1956 -- but the bill doing so contained language restricting them from having reservation land and other benefits of full federal recognition. Lumbee tribal members are in fact fully eligible for a number of federal assistance programs, and the majority of the tribe participates in these special benefits: federal housing assistance, school grants, health services, and the like. Indeed, since they are one of the largest tribes east of the Mississippi, with 50,000 members, the Lumbees rank among the largest recipients of federal tribal-aid dollars in the East.
The biggest lie, though, was the larger picture that Stossel was trying to present: His depiction of the Lumbee community as extraordinarily wealthy and well off focused on a few wildly successful individuals, while ignoring the harsh reality that is life in Lumbee country. For example, Robeson County, the center of Stossel's story, is in fact the poorest county in North Carolina, having a majority nonwhite populace.
You know the town of Pembroke, the community where Stossel shot much of this segment? There, the percentage of families who live below the poverty line is 40.7 percent.
Let's break it down for Stossel the conservative idiot. The Lumbee tribe has been seeking federal recognition for decades. This means that dozens of elected Lumbee tribal councils have sought federal recognition, which means the majority of Lumbee Indians must support recognition. Compared to that, who cares what somebody named Ben Chavis says?
Most of the nation's 565 recognized tribes could list businesses similar to the three Lumbee successes Stossel lists. Yet not one of them is demanding to be terminated and "set free." Not one of them wants to disband the BIA, sell its reservation, or eliminate its sovereignty. Not one of them is ready to abandon its treaty rights, which is the source of the government programs Stossel mislabels "freeloading."
Once in a while you do hear reactionary Indians who want to sell out their heritage, assimilate into the mainstream, and become just like the white man. I may have heard such calls a few times. Let's say five or so Indians want to do this...and five million or so don't. Stossel may be too stupid to realize it, but he's losing the debate 1,000,000 to one. For every Indian who agrees with him, roughly a million don't.
I've said it before and I'll say it again. What conservatives like Stossel, Bryan Fischer, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Michele Bachmann, Pat Buchanan, Rand Paul, et al. are doing is obvious--to me, at least. These Tea Party Republicans are launching hateful, racist attacks on Indians and other minorities to see what they can get away with. It's like launching a trial balloon for white supremacy.
That sounds on the money to me.