The storm of adverse reaction from Indians concerning Interior Secretary James Watt's views on Indian reservations was both predictable and justified. His reference to reservations as a prime example of socialistic failure from which he hoped to "liberate" and "free" Indians--if only the liberal Democrats in Congress would leave him alone--was insensitive, historically inaccurate, and woefully simplistic.
From the Indian perspective it also succeeded, unfortunately, in shifting much-needed attention from many of the harder questions concerning this administration's impact on Indian country.
Watt's comments mis-characterize the history of federal-Indian relations and at the same time ignore its teachings. Contrary to the way Watt apparently views them, Indian reservations are not mere tracts of land or territory where tribal chairmen keep people assembled in a desert environment. They are homelands guaranteed by federal treaty or statute--the remnants of far wider domains that were a 19th century casualty of Manifest Destiny. Despite all their poverty and deprivation, reservations are still "home" to Indians largely because they provide the only environment where that which is Indian can be protected in an otherwise non-Indian world.
Nor in most cases do the services and expenditures that flow from the national goverment to Indian reservations result from some gratuitous experiment in "socialism." Many are required by the special fiduciary relationship that exists between Indian tribes and the national government. This relationship has its origins in the Constitution and the numerous treaties and agreements which were entered into between the United States and Indian tribes during the 19th century. The Supreme Court has held repeatedly that this special relationship imposes on the United States the obligations of a trustee in its oversight and administration of Indian lands and other assets.
Apart from the trust relationship between Indian tribes and the national government, other federal services and expenditures were authorized under various treaties and formal agreements, as confirmed and ratified by Congress, in exchange for the millions of acres of territory relinquished by tribes on an almost uniformly involuntary basis during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Furthermore, in light of the fact that Indian reservations virtually without exception were being located in what then was understood to be desolate and unproductive areas, the bargaining of tribes for certain federal benefits and services hardly qualified as overreaching. In being disarmed and at the same time restricted to reservations, the nomadic buffalo hunters of the Great Plains, for example, had been quite literally stripped of their ability to feed and clothe themselves. To characterize obligations required by the United States Constitution or imposed by formal treaty and federal law with a hyperbolic reference to "socialism," as Watt did, is misleading and grossly unfair.
Furthermore, to assume, in the secretary's words, that "if the Indians were allowed to be liberated, they'd (be able) to go and get a job"-- presumably off the reservation--is, in light of history, naive. Barely a generation ago the Eisenhower administration indulged the same presumption with singularly disastrous economic, social, and cultural consequences for Indians and Indian tribes. The approach was well motivated and appealing in concept--if the Indians could be relocated from the reservation to America's urban centers, where the jobs were, they finally could join the maintstream of national life. No historian of federal-Indian relations differs concerning the result of this policy: Indians by the tens of thousands joined the scrap heap of urban poverty--unfed, untrained, unhoused, unemployed, and culturally alienated. This solution to Indian poverty was repudiated explicitly by subsequent Democratic and Republican administrations and should remain so --Watt's recent comments notwithstanding.
This returns the discussion to the fundamental question that somehow was obscured during the recent press exchanges on Watt's comments: apart from a commitment in the abstract to the preservation of Indian homelands and reservations, what practical impact are administration policies, Indian and otherwise, having on Indians? The hard reality is that rarely in the recent past have they suffered so much so disproportionately.
In the recent "fact sheet" on its Indian policy statement, the administration did reaffirm a commitment to the goals of Indian political self-determination and economic self-sufficiency that have been enunciated by every administration for the past 20 years. In the Reagan statement, however, the emphasis very clearly is that these objectives should be achieved through an eradication of federal involvement and entanglement with reservations.
Therein lies the fallacy and the tragedy of this administration's Indian policy. It is based on the assumption that private activity is a viable economic force on Indian reservations. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the reasons are readily apparent. Most Indian reservations do not begin to have the infrastructure, such as roads, power, health and sanitation facilities, and physical plant essential to attract and sustain private business and economic activity. More important, these also are not the types of improvements private investors are willing to undertake.
Thus, Indians have found the administration's radical budget cuts affecting them to be far more meaningful and telling than the reiteration of past federal Indian policy objectives. Among a people long accustomed to being at the bottom of every socioeconomic indicator, the administration's fiscal and economic policies still have had an unusually devastating economic impact because of the total absence of private-sector alternatives.
Whatever problems Watt may have with getting "squashed by the liberal Democrats in the House of Representatives" in his efforts to "liberate" Indians, the point is that Congress and several past Republican and Democratic administrations had taken several positive steps with the use of federal funds to build an economic foundation on reservations that ultimately could have reduced federal dependency and facilitated private economic activity. In this administration, however, that brief moment of promise clearly appears to have fallen victim to the ax of budget reductions in Indian country.