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Citizens in the Shadows

The Bookmonger Interviews Naomi Schaefer Riley on Reservation Desolation
By Peter Merani | August 04, 2016

There is nothing for miles. When you first come upon signs of civilization, the streets are covered in mud and trash is piled high enough to rival the distant hills. There are no businesses and residences are bursting from clutter and overcrowding. The sun peels the color from painted roofs and the resident’s faces are hollow and hungry.

This is not some far off land. This is not a dying village in Africa. This is right here, in the United States.

Welcome to a America’s Native American reservations—poverty sick lands in which the federal government holds the rights of citizens hostage, denying Native Americans the same freedoms over their lands and their lives that other US citizens enjoy.

In a recent interview with John J. Miller, Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians, Riley paints a picture of the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota and explains how Washington continues to impose horrific conditions upon Native Americans:

Miller: How is the federal government making life hard for American Indians?”

Riley: On a most basic level we are preventing American Indians on reservations from having the economic freedom that the rest of Americans have. The fact that they’re on reservations means that the land is held in trust by the federal government, which means that American Indians don’t properly own their land like the rest of us do. Which means that for instance they can’t get a mortgage the way the rest of us do. It means that they can’t have equity in their homes the way the rest of us do, which often stands in the way of them opening businesses the way the rest of us do. They are also prevented from engaging in economic business transactions, buying and selling land among themselves, without the Bureau of Indian Affairs, for instance. And all of this regulation, that’s coming from Washington, is creating the desperate poverty and dysfunction that I think a lot of American’s are vaguely aware of on reservations.

Miller: …Let’s go into some of the specifics… How bad is life on the reservation?

Riley: It is a deeply depressing situation. American Indian reservations are literally a third world country in the middle of the United States. They are the poorest places you will visit; they have some of the highest rates of violence, the highest rates of sexual abuse, the highest rates of child abuse, the highest rates of gang activity and it is… just an amazing shame, a true blight on the American people that we have people living like this in our borders.

American Indian reservations are literally a third world country in the middle of the United States.

Miller: Now the subtitle of the book is How Washington Is Destroying American Indians and a lot of people would say ‘well of course the situation for American Indians is bad’ because Washington has been destroying them for a very long time, killing them in wars, breaking treaties, and on and on and on. What do we Americans of the twenty-first century owe to the descendants of the people who suffered vastly in the nineteenth century and earlier?

Riley: I think it’s very easy for us to say that all the problems on Indian Reservations are the result of history, are the result of things our ancestors did to people a hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago. But I think that would really be pushing the problem under the rug a little to quickly. Because the fact is that we have embraced many of the same policies that our ancestors did, only now we’re saying that we’re doing it in the name of being benevolent. We are essentially saying that we are going to hold this land in trust for you, as if you’re children, as if you can’t be trusted to be in charge of your own lands. And we’re saying that we’re doing it for their own good. So in terms of what we owe American Indians I think we owe them what we owe every other American citizen. American Indians are full-fledged American citizens and they are owed the same kinds of economic freedoms and the same kinds of opportunities that the rest of Americans are owed and we are not giving it to them.

American Indians are full-fledged American citizens and they are owed the same kinds of economic freedoms and the same kinds of opportunities that the rest of Americans are owed and we are not giving it to them.

Miller: Naomi you’ve visited a lot of places in the United States and Canada as you did your research. And you went to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. I’ve been there too. It’s one of the most depressing places I’ve ever visited. What’s it like? What did you see there?

Riley: Well, obviously the first thing you notice is how remote it is. And by remote I mean I got in my car one morning on my way to visit a school and I drove forty miles thinking that somewhere along the way I’d find a way to buy a cup of coffee and there was literally nothing. Now I think many Americans are used to driving long distances in the West without encountering a McDonalds, but it is nothing like this. There is simply no business and no private enterprise. But more than that, I think probably the most depressing moment in my research was when I found myself up at a school in the Pine Ridge Reservation and a woman there who was the principal told me about “lock-in weekend”. And I said to her, “what does that mean?” She said, “Well the kids stay over here on the weekend.” And I said, “Well what have they done?” She said, “Oh no. It’s not them. One weekend a month is when the adults get their check from the government and we know that the time when they’re most liable to be drinking and abusing their children. So we keep them here.” And I was literally speechless. I could not think of any response to that. But the fact that this is happening in the United States of America was so disturbing to me; I could not get this conversation out of my head. It’s very easy to ignore poverty in the south Bronx but it’s so much easier to ignore poverty in South Dakota.

Listen to the full podcast interview here.

And learn more in The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians by Naomi Schaefer Riley.

Peter Merani is a journalist for the Port Washington Newspaper, The Odyssey Online, and the author of Evolution: Poetry. He is a junior at Franklin & Marshall College.  

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