The main problem with Indian reservations isn't, as some argue, that they were established on worthless tracts of grassland. Consider the case of Buffalo County, S.D., which Census data reveal to be America's poorest county. Some 2,000 people live there. More than 30% of the homes are headed by women without husbands. The median household income is less than $13,000. The unemployment rate is sky high.
Just to the east of Buffalo County lies Jerauld County, which is similar in size and population. Yet only 6% of its homes are headed by women without husbands, the median household income is more than $30,000, and the unemployment rate hovers around 3%. The fundamental difference between these two counties is that the Crow Creek Indian Reservation occupies much of Buffalo County. The place is a pocket of poverty in a land of plenty.
Maybe we should give land back to the rez-dwellers, so that they may own private property the way other Americans do. Currently, the inability to put up land as collateral for personal mortgages and loans is a major obstacle to economic development. This problem is complicated by the fact that not all reservations have adopted uniform commercial codes or created court systems that are independent branches of tribal government--the sorts of devices and institutions that give confidence to investors who might have the means to fund the small businesses that are the engines of rural economies.
The economic argument is certainly well-founded, but what about the cultural-protection idea, the notion that Native American cultures have to be protected? Miller answers this in three ways. One is by pointing out that great majority of Indians do not see cultural protection as dispositive:
Intermarriage between Indians and non-Indians is pervasive, especially off the rez. More than half of all Indians already marry outside their race, according the Census. For racial purists who believe that the men and women of today's tribes should be preserved like frozen displays in natural-history museums, this is a tragedy akin to ethnic cleansing (albeit one based on love rather than hate).
The next point, and a highly compelling one, is that the cultural-protection argument is not truly sympathetic toward the real people who must live out that sustained culture:
Yet the real tragedy is that reservations, as collectivist enclaves within a capitalist society, have beaten down their inhabitants with brute force rather than lifting them up with opportunity. As their economies have withered, other social pathologies have taken root: Indians are distressingly prone to crime, alcoholism and suicide. Families have suffered enormously. About 60% of Indian children are born out of wedlock. Although accurate statistics are hard to come by because so many arrangements are informal, Indian kids are perhaps five times as likely as white ones to live in some form of foster care. Their schools are depressingly bad.
Finally, Miller points out that the image of Native American societies which is being upheld by the reservation system is in fact an incomplete and distorted one, for Indians were as commercially inclined as anyone else before the U.S. government forced them to become a separate, isolated enclave within the continent they had come to share with a multitude of people of other ethnic backgrounds:
What's more, this modern-day entrepreneurship [the proliferation of Indian casinos] is part of a long tradition: Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis & Clark fame) described the Chinooks as "great hagglers in trade." I once visited Poverty Point, a 3,000-year-old set of earthen mounds in Louisiana; the museum there displayed ancient artifacts found at the site, including copper from the Great Lakes and obsidian from the Rockies. These prehistoric Americans were budding globalizers, and there's no reason why their descendants should remain walled off from the world economy.
As a classical liberal, I always seek policies that afford the greatest liberty with the greatest amount of social order. America's Indians today live under an oppressive order that ruins lives. Like Miller, I have long held the position that they should be freed to make their way like the rest of us. Given their proud history and fine background, I have no doubt that they would thrive if given true freedom. Allowing them to buy and sell their property would be a suitable first step. Once that was in place, other efforts to ameliorate social pathologies among the Indians would begin to have a chance of working.
It is high time that it were done.