Thursday, July 21, 2016

The New Trail of Tears: How Washington is Destroying American Indians

by Naomi Schaefer Riley
Encounter Books     2016
214 pages     Nonfiction
The Shortlist

One of my childhood memories occurred at our family cabin in Bemidji, Minnesota. My father and I were out fishing, near one of the inlets of Big Turtle Lake. I saw some people in canoes doing something along the edges of the stream. My father took me closer so that I could see natives harvesting the wild rice that grew there. They pulled the stalks over the edge of the canoe and then whacked the stalks with sticks, loosening the seeds, which then fell into the bottom of the canoe. It was a fascinating operation, and my dad told me that Indians were the only people who could legally harvest wild rice in Minnesota. 

I grew up in areas where Chippewa and Ojibwa Indian reservations were prevalent; Native Americans were the "minorities" in Minnesota—they were part of our everyday life. The people on the reservations were poor and powerless. There are approximately 3 million Native Americans living in reservations, and all these years after my childhood, they are still poor and powerless.

Many people think that the lives of Native Americans improved with the advent of casinos and the money that came from working in the casinos. Riley's thesis is that the government has a paternalistic attitude toward native peoples and that paternalistic attitude is what has kept them in poverty with inferior educational and medical opportunities. I do have to mention that Riley is very conservative and her book reflects her conservative bias. 

I received The New Trail of Tears from the publicist, and while I didn't read the book all the way through, I found what I did read to be enlightening. I would recommend it to students of sociology and those interested in social justice issues. It is to be published this week.

Riley is married to Jason Riley, the author of Please Stop Helping Us, which I reviewed a year or so ago. His thesis about African Americans in American society is quite similar in tone to the thesis of The New Trail of Tears.

I would also recommend books by Sherman Alexie because he explores some of these same difficult themes in fiction—poverty, alcoholism, and identity. My favorite is the Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Then I love the Minnesota Native American author Louise Erdrich. I read and reviewed The Round House, a novel that deals with violence against Native American women very effectively. She has a new novel LaRose, which I plan to read yet this summer.

Finally, I have been watching Longmire, a Netflix series based on the books by Craig Johnson. It features a Wyoming sheriff whose district includes a reservation. Although it is primarily a mystery solving series, it includes the interplay between the white population of the county, the people who live on the "Rez", and the owners of the casino that is being established. It is very good.

The summary of The New Trail of Tears:
If you want to know why American Indians have the highest rates of poverty of any racial group, why suicide is the leading cause of death among Indian men, why native women are two and a half times more likely to be raped than the national average and why gang violence affects American Indian youth more than any other group, do not look to history. There is no doubt that white settlers devastated Indian communities in the 19th, and early 20th centuries. But it is our policies today—denying Indians ownership of their land, refusing them access to the free market and failing to provide the police and legal protections due to them as American citizens—that have turned reservations into small third-world countries in the middle of the richest and freest nation on earth.
The tragedy of our Indian policies demands reexamination immediately—not only because they make the lives of millions of American citizens harder and more dangerous—but also because they represent a microcosm of everything that has gone wrong with modern liberalism. They are the result of decades of politicians and bureaucrats showering a victimized people with money and cultural sensitivity instead of what they truly need—the education, the legal protections and the autonomy to improve their own situation.
If we are really ready to have a conversation about American Indians, it is time to stop bickering about the names of football teams and institute real reforms that will bring to an end this ongoing national shame.

Naomi Riley's website
Here is a recent opinion column she wrote for the New York Post about tribal sovereignty.

No comments: