Tribes cannot capitalize on their energy resources because they have been hobbled by burdensome regulations and a heavy-handed bureaucracy. Federal control of Indian lands began in the 1800s when Supreme Court Justice John Marshall characterized the relationship between tribes and theUnited Statesas “that of a ward to his guardian.” To this day, the Bureau of Indian Affairs acts as the trustee of all tribal lands. This guardianship, however, has locked Indians in a poverty trap.
The result is that Native Americans have largely been excluded from the American economy. Even in areas booming with energy development, reservations are lagging behind. Roughly twice as many oil and gas wells are drilled outside of the Fort Berthold reservation in North Dakota than inside the reservation, despite having the same development potential.
“It’s our right. We say yes or no,” Ron Crossguns of the Blackfeet Oil and Gas Department recently told a documentary filmmaker. “I don’t think the outside world should come out here and dictate to us what we should do with our properties.”
As long as tribes are denied the right to control their own land, they will remain wards of the state, locked in a path of poverty and dependence. If Native Americans were given the dignity they deserve, they would be freed from federal guardianship and given independence. Then they could decide whether and how to unlock the tremendous wealth of their lands.