Three decades ago, the freshly fired chairman of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation was facing federal charges that he paid personal bills with tribal cash.
In a noisy attempt to punch out his successor, the ex-chairman got drunk with two of his brothers and attacked tribal headquarters -- a run-down trailer. Hearing threats outside, the new chairman resigned on the spot, kicked a hole in the back of the trailer and disappeared.
In those dissolute days, the tribal council rarely met and when it did, members fought (sometimes with fists) over money the tribe did not have. Tribal holdings had dwindled to 21/2 acres of trust land. Cash on hand in the tribal checking account (after the ex-chairman had seen to his bills) was $550.
Then came a revolution in Indian Country, what tribal leaders and academic researchers describe as the most fundamental, far-reaching and positive pattern of change in more than a century.
It has nourished a remarkable period of growth in Indian incomes, resuscitated many tribal governments and helped generate the energy -- cultural, artistic and psychic -- that fueled the creation of the National Museum of the American Indian, which opens Tuesday on the Mall.
The opening of that museum, the world's largest collection of Indian art and artifacts, is the centerpiece of a week-long national celebration of Native American culture and art. It also punctuates a formidable Indian renaissance that -- even though it has left many tribes behind -- has brought wealth, optimism and self-determination to what 30 years ago was a landscape of poverty, social disarray and bad living conditions.
"Back when we were poor, our tribal government was not a government at all," says John "Rocky" Barrett, chairman of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. "It was the circus run from inside the monkey cage. It was a bad family reunion."
Like scores of other once-struggling tribes, the Citizen Potawatomis reinvented themselves. They reformed their government, enforced the rule of law and shrewdly managed the tribal sovereignty -- formally acknowledged only in the last few decades -- that gives Indians a competitive edge under federal and state laws.
The corrupt and querulous Potawatomi government that had $550 in the bank in 1971 now owns a bank with $120 million on deposit. It is the largest tribally operated bank in the United States.
Annual cash flow for the tribe has gone from $1,800 to $300 million. It now owns the largest stand-alone supermarket in Oklahoma, a casino and nine other profitable enterprises. It provides cradle-to-grave benefits (day care, scholarships, a home-purchase subsidy and burial allowance) to tribal members, two-thirds of whom live in cities far from the Oklahoma prairie. (Like most American Indians, the Potawatomis are mainly people of the city and suburb.) Land owned in trust has mushroomed to more than 2,000 acres, with new purchases nearly every month. Membership has doubled to 25,000. Far-flung members of the tribe are moving home to take advantage of job opportunities, subsidized housing and health care. To conserve its traditions and keep its language alive, the tribe is recording DVDs of every member's family history.
From the Choctaws in Mississippi to the Muckleshoots in Washington state, something more or less like what has happened here in the middle of Oklahoma is occurring across Indian Country. Tribes are building day-care centers and auto parts factories, colleges and malls, golf courses and sewage treatment plants.
"The single most important thing that has happened is that people have gained confidence and pride in themselves," says Joe McDonald, an elder on the Blackfoot Reservation in western Montana and founding president of Salish Kootenai College, one of 35 tribal colleges created on Indian land across the United States since the 1970s.
Indian-run gambling, sometimes called the "new buffalo" and enabled by a 1987 Supreme Court ruling, has been an important contributor to this boom. With annual revenue of more than $14 billion, it has created 400,000 jobs (25 percent of which are held by Indians).
But gambling is by no means the whole story.
In the 1990s, tribes that had gambling operations experienced per capita income growth of 27 percent, according to an analysis of census figures by Harvard University's Project on American Indian Economic Development. Yet tribes that did not have gambling had an even higher income growth of 29 percent, Harvard's analysis shows. For the United States as a whole, income grew by 11 percent in the 1990s.
The Mississippi Choctaws, perhaps the most economically diversified tribe in the country, went into gambling only after getting rich in other ways. The tribe has generated far more factory jobs than it has Indians to fill them. It employs about 8,000 non-Indians who come onto the reservation every workday to create everything from auto parts to greeting cards.
Still Miles to Go for Many
Change in Indian Country, though, is not benefiting all Indians. It is a patchwork quilt, with gaping holes of inequity, poverty and preventable illness. For many Indians, nothing good has happened.
Income growth is far from solving the decades-old crisis in Indian health and family survival. Catastrophically high rates of diabetes, family dissolution, depression, drug and alcohol addiction, accidental death and suicide remain a major brake on the progress that began gathering momentum in the 1970s. And now, addiction to gambling, a gift of the "new buffalo," can be added to that list.
Reservations are still the poorest places in the United States, and the typical Indian -- even after the income gains of recent years -- remains poor, with about half the average per capita income of other Americans.
The 30-year-old story of Indian revival is tainted, too, by the centuries-old story of atrocities perpetrated in the name of Manifest Destiny. That narrative of swindles, war, ethnic cleansing, death from infectious disease, land theft, broken treaties, destruction of natural resources, paternalism, racism and federal policies designed to eradicate Indian language and culture has finally run its course. Its legacy endures, however, and inequity has been built into a reservation system that, from 1887 to 1934, allowed two-thirds of Indian land to pass into non-Indian ownership. Ninety million of 138 million acres was lost; almost all of it was the most fertile and well-watered land. Nearly half of the land that remains in Indian hands is desert or semi-desert.
According to the researchers at Harvard, the federal government's share of spending on non-Indians has consistently exceeded the funds provided to Indians for health care, education, housing and rural development. In recent years, the size of the Indian share has fallen even further behind, government numbers show.
"What you are seeing in Indian Country is not a uniform pattern of economic and cultural revival," says Joseph P. Kalt, co-director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. "But you are starting to see some places that are attacking and solving problems that had long seemed unassailable."
For the Choctaw in Mississippi, average life expectancy has risen 20 years in the past 15 years. The Citizen Potawatomi Nation has begun intensive monitoring and treatment of 460 Indian diabetics, reducing their rates of amputations, blindness and renal failure to well below the Indian norm.
Significant improvements for some chronic health problems have percolated through the entire Indian population. In the past three decades, infant mortality has fallen more than 60 percent, tuberculosis is down 80 percent and maternal mortality has declined by 70 percent.
Better health care, a better chance of finding a job, improvements in tribal government and a revival of cultural pride are among the reasons why there was a 25 percent increase in the population on Indian reservations in the 1990s, according to field research conducted by the Harvard project.
"Suddenly there is an economy going on, so people are going home," says Kalt. "In some reservations, the rate of population growth has been astounding."
The Lure of the Land
Generalizations about American Indians -- how they live, what they value and what it means to be "Indian" -- are nearly always suspect. There are 562 federally recognized tribes and many of them have little in common.
"There is as much difference between a Potawatomi and an Apache as there is between a German and a Turk," says Barrett, chairman of the Citizen Potawatomis and a fair-skinned, green-eyed man whose father was, he says, "as Irish as Paddy's pig."
Racial appearance is not an especially efficient way of identifying a Potawatomi (they began marrying French traders in the 1700s) or members of many other Indian tribes. The craggy cheekbones, dark skin and straight black hair seen in the formal photographs of the Sioux chief Sitting Bull hardly characterize the features of many Indians today. The boom of recent decades -- gambling, in particular -- has heightened pocketbook differences among tribes. The Mashantucket Pequots, with their stupendously profitable Foxwoods casino in Connecticut, have economic and political clout that are unimaginable in isolated places such as the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where the Lakota are mired in the old pattern of poverty, ill health and ineffective self-rule. Money from gambling is highly concentrated, with about 41 tribes raking in 65 percent of all revenue. Income distribution in Indian Country -- thanks to gambling -- looks more and more like the American mainstream in the 21st century, with increasing wealth concentrated in fewer hands.
The exigencies of modern Indian business belie one of the long-standing generalizations about Native Americans -- that they are wise stewards of their land. In southeast Alaska, several native corporations, in the hunt for a better bottom line, have clear-cut vast stretches of the world's largest temperate rain forest, causing severe erosion, wrecking salmon streams and endangering wildlife.
The difficulty of generalizing about American Indians extends even to counting how many there are. The Census Bureau changed the way it counted Indians and Alaskan natives in 2000, and, compared with 10 years earlier, it found more than twice as many people who wanted to be counted as Indian. The bureau now estimates a total of 4.3 million, compared with 250,000 at the beginning of the 20th century.
Of these, however, about 1.9 million say they are Indian "in combination with one or more races." Only about 8 percent of these people live in what Indians call "Indian Country," which includes reservations, the tribal trust lands of Oklahoma and Alaskan villages. Most are not enrolled in any tribe. Little research has been done on these "in combination" Indians, and many experts say the numbers are unreliable.
One explanation for their eager self-identification as Native Americans, according to Russell Thornton, a demographer at UCLA, is that it "has become cool to be Indian."
A more reliable number is the estimated 2.4 million people who self-define as "single-race" American Indians or Alaskan natives. There are several demographic generalizations that apply to them.
More than half live in just 10 states, mostly in the West. They are extraordinarily young -- a third are under 18. They are the nation's fastest-growing ethnic group, and the Census Bureau predicts their numbers will double by 2050.
Two-thirds live in and around cities. They began moving there in significant numbers in the 1950s, pushed by a federal relocation program and pulled by jobs.
Demographers say the migration has slowed substantially, but the urban Indian is probably here to stay, since incomes for all Americans are generally higher and living conditions better in cities.
Indians, though, do not seem to be "melting" into cities and suburbs, even after decades of living there. Researchers have found that they retain ties to extended families, tribes and reservation land -- ties that have been strengthened in recent years by revival back in Indian Country.
On any given weekend across the United States, there are likely to be tens of thousands of Indians driving long distances home to the reservation. They go home often, according to research compiled by the Harvard Indian project, because they ache for family, for ancestral land, for ritual.
Since January, James O'Kimosh and his wife, Stacie, have packed their two children and Stacie's mother into their SUV and driven four times from Germantown, Md., back to the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin. It's 925 miles one way and takes 14 hours.
"I go home because there is an emptiness and a longing in my life that I cannot forget about," says O'Kimosh, 33, who works in downtown Washington as a consultant to the Department of Health and Human Services. "I think every day about what I am losing by living in this big city."
He says he misses being able to drop in on his parents and siblings at any time, day or night, being able to hunt for deer, fish for bass and gather ginseng in the forest.
"Our reservation is 95 percent forest and you drive out into the woods and you don't hear anybody else, no subway trains, no buses, no airplanes," he says.
O'Kimosh and his wife, a Menominee who is an executive assistant in Bethesda, moved to the Washington area a year ago to show their children the wider world and to make money. But he says it is a temporary stop.
"This is just a point in a circle," he says. "I will bring back experience that will help the tribal community and my family. This cannot be home. There are too many things inside me that will never ever melt."
The Menominee reservation has thrived in recent years, with a reformed tribal government that uses profits from gambling and logging to beef up social services.
But the tug of Indian Country remains, even for Indians who've moved away from places where living conditions are, at best, grim.
Jessica McMakin has driven five times in the past year from a houseboat on Puget Sound in Washington state back to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in southeast Montana. It's 900 miles and 13 hours.
"When I grew up there, it was, like, I don't want anything to do with this place," says McMakin, 23, who now works in a discount store for minimum wage. "I felt, then, that if living on the reservation is what being an Indian is, then I don't want it."
Yet she keeps going home -- to a place that has not participated in the revival of Indian Country. She goes home to a place where 46 percent of residents live below the poverty level and where six of her high school friends are now dead: Three suicides, two hit by vehicles while walking on reservation roads and one who fell out of a moving car. Methamphetamine addiction, alcoholism, unemployment and garbage in the streets are what McMakin talks about, when she talks about "home."
"We used to be a very fierce warrior people and all the other tribes were scared of us," she says. "There is, like, nothing to be scared of now."
Still, when she completes college (she is taking a break from the University of Montana, where she has 11/2 years to go to get a bachelor's degree), she says she will probably move back to the reservation and teach school.
"It's strange, but being away from the reservation, I realize more what it means to be an Indian," she says. "We are a small tribe and I don't want it to die out."
Determining Their Destiny
For the Citizen Potawatomi Nation in Oklahoma, as for scores of tribes across the country, a century of slow-motion deterioration finally ended when a handful of leaders decided to create a new kind of tribal government.
They wrote a constitution that insisted upon tribal self-determination under federal law, but it also held tribal officials accountable for their mistakes.
It was President Nixon, besieged by Watergate and by Indian activists who took over the Department of the Interior on Nov. 2, 1972, who opened the door for this kind of self-rule. Thanks to his executive order, which would evolve into the Indian Self-Determination and Education Act of 1975, tribes were allowed to break the paternalistic grip that the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs had long held over reservation life.
Reformed tribal governments have since taken over the operation of everything on the reservations from housing to health care, schools to forest management. They don't have to pay federal and state taxes on profits, so they can often compete effectively against private companies. In many cases, they reinvest profits or pour them into social services.
The Harvard project on Indian economic development has found a consistent statistical pattern: When tribes take control, there are dramatic gains in income and jobs.
Researchers have also found that the tribes that have performed best -- made the most money, created the most jobs -- are ones that wrote constitutions requiring a separation of legislative and executive powers and creating an independent court system.
"What has happened in Indian Country is what happened in Eastern Europe after the collapse of communism," says Kalt, the co-director of Harvard's Indian project. "Tribal governments moved from being powerless offices of a federal bureaucracy to being truly independent governing units."
Here among the Potawatomis, after the tribe created a powerful executive branch, its chairman, Rocky Barrett, moved quickly to clear deadwood. He fired all 13 employees of the tribe because, he says, "the books did not balance. My predecessor was making $18,000 a year but somehow could afford a Mercedes and a quarter-horse ranch."
Barrett abrogated a contract that had given nearly all the profits from a tribal bingo hall to an outside management company. He shut down the hall by blocking its doors with trucks and backhoes until a federal judge upheld the tribe's right to run the bingo game by itself.
Barrett later fired all the Indian Health Service doctors at the tribal clinic, replacing them with teaching doctors from the University of Oklahoma.
"We now manage things ourselves," he says.
To secure loans and attract outside investors, the tribe adopted uniform accounting standards and commercial codes. It won a national award two years ago for producing scrupulously transparent financial reports.
"If you are going to be sovereign, you have got to behave as sovereign," says Barrett.
Along with thousands of other Indian leaders across the United States, Barrett will be in Washington this week to celebrate the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian and the economic comeback of his people.
But he will not stay long. He has to get back home. The tribe is building a new casino and, by law, the chairman has to be a stickler for details.