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American Indians Need Help Not Indigenous People’s Day

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

There is a move afoot to cast Christopher Columbus as an evil person instead of the person celebrated as the first to traverse the Atlantic Ocean, discovering there were two major continents not previously known to the world as it existed in 1492. In another feel-good moment, some cities are renaming Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day. American Indians are desperate for real help, not placating moments.

Naomi Schaefer Riley has defined how bad things are for American Indians and how Washington, D.C., bureaucracy is destroying the lives of these Americans in her terrific and terrifying book "The New Trail of Tears." Ms. Riley traveled all over the country seeing and hearing the experiences of these citizens and conveys that in her book. One of the fascinating aspects of her book is how the Canadians mistreat their Indians (called First Nation People in Canada). Interesting to know they are just as inept in adapting their people to modern society as we are in the States.   

You don’t need to go far into Ms. Riley’s book to begin to grasp how bad matters are for American Indians. According to statistics maintained by the federal agencies (that are supposed to be helping), the estimated three million American Indians have the highest poverty rate of any minority group – almost twice the national average. They also have the highest rate of crime, suicide, alcoholism, gang membership and sexual abuse. The rate of child abuse is twice the national average. Indian women report being raped at 2.5 times the national average. As staggering as these figures are they are even higher for the one million American Indians living on reservations.

Lest you think these American citizens are not just a group of social deviants, it is fair to say that if one lived under the control of the American governmental entities as they do one might exhibit some of the breakdowns in social behavior that American Indians have. 

That brought me to ask Ms. Riley whether the mission of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) was actually helping or hurting the people they supervise. When speaking of the BIE, Ms. Riley said “They are terrible. They have gone through 33 directors in 32 years with many directors fired for misconduct. The educational system for American Indians needs real reforms.”

Ms. Riley went on to say “They are spending $20,000 per student and they cannot even keep the roofs on the buildings. A lot of the problem is nepotism in tribal schools. They could really use charter schools.” Riley’s book goes in-depth into the horrifying conditions of the educational systems for American Indians and how that is central to challenges they face as a people.   

Riley answered a question I have been asking for years: Why are people living on reservations in the year 2017? She said “Most people will say to protect the Native Americans. Part of it is the tribal leadership telling families they don’t want to mix with mainstream America.” 

The Indians live under intolerable restrictions. Individuals cannot get a loan to build a home because the tribal land is held in trust. Everything is owned by the Tribe and has to be approved by multiple layers of the federal government. Thus nothing ever gets done. Though they have mineral and/or oil rights on their land, they need to go through a multitude of approvals to produce from these assets.

Ms. Riley said the most surprising thing she found “was the sheer shock of the living conditions these people are living in. They have housing shortages and live in broken down trailers. They are far away from where the rest of us live, so we never experience the squalor.”

The Indians are then led to focus on certain businesses. As Riley stated “Gambling, cigarettes, alcohol, drugs – who would not want these businesses to form the economic backbone of their community?” Once you review the decision-making process and the control by the BIA or BIE and the Tribal leadership, you come to conclude they are actually living in a Communist system. This system has failed as badly as any other Communist system anywhere in the world.

This all leads to the ultimate negative impact. On the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Ms. Riley cites “The average life expectancy for men on the reservation is 48, and for women it’s 52. Suicide and poor health are partly to blame for these numbers, but so is violence.” That violence is within the community, and not from outside.

I could go on, but why further depress you. You should read first-hand "The New Trail of Tears." You will learn that many focus on false solutions that do nothing to help except to assuage their own guilt.

I contacted Major League Baseball to find out what they are doing to help American Indians. This is because Commissioner Rob Manfred has pressed the Cleveland Indians to rid themselves of their long-time symbol, Chief Wahoo. What has MLB actually done to help Native Americans? A couple of teams have held Native American Heritage Games, and there are a couple of players of Native American descent.   Overall, this is another feel-good moment that does nothing to solve the problems or focus leaders on the challenges facing American Indians.

City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell led the charge to change the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day in Los Angeles. Mr. O’Farrell’s office could not identify that there are actually any American Indians who live in his district or the city of Los Angeles. When asked what Councilman O’Farrell has done to help Americans Indians as they struggle to overcome the hurdles placed in front of them by government, we were told of some other acts of placating, feel-good legislation offered by the Councilman. 

Tomorrow some will celebrate Columbus Day while others celebrate Indigenous People’s Day. Indigenous People’s Day will make some people feel good about themselves but will harm the American Indians who need real help. Americans will be diverted because of these feel-good acts. It’s time for actual help to be delivered to these American citizens.

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