What is the Real Source of Native American Poverty?

A reflection on racial preservationism and tribal separatism.

The dire conditions under which Native Americans live in the United States are pitiful. Statistics grow dated by the month. According to the American Community Survey, one in three Native Americans live in poverty with a median income of around $23,000 per year.

Self-proclaimed experts on Native American poverty such as sociologist Beth Redbird point out that despite heavy investments in education, up to 80% of Native Americans move back to their rural communities. Given that poverty tends to be higher in rural areas, the poverty gap between Native Americans who live in rural areas and urban areas is larger than the white rural and urban gap. The conclusion is that poverty is not driven by the propensity of Native Americans to live in rural areas.

Redbird concludes that amazing things would happen if Native Americans had the same employment rates, occupations, levels of education, lived in the same geographic locations and were in the same types of white households as white Americans. She claims the payoff to education is not nearly as great as the payoff to jobs. In other words, if such conditions held, Native American poverty would decrease because poverty could be reduced for the Indian-only population by nearly 20% with employment.

She cites the abysmal failures of Native Americans to address their own economic development through tribal gaming and energy. Reports from the census show that when tribes started gaming establishments or energy projects that poverty rates did not decrease, and that few lasting jobs were created. In 2015 alone, casinos created about only 25 jobs, while energy had hardly any effect on reservations with more than 2,000 residents on average.

The solution? Redbird wants tribes to invest in a variety of job initiatives and to diversify economic opportunities. This will require federal negotiations and, Redbird admits, “Indians don’t have the highest trust in federal policy.”

Let us pause here and state the obvious. Autonomy, sovereignty and self-determination have simply not worked for American Indians. Their self-determination and alleged autonomy really rest on one set of collective entitlements after another to preserve their distinct tribal heritages to the detriment of economic growth and well-being. Even Redbird admits that economic well-being at the local level might look different for a tribe in Wyoming versus one in California—all of which lead to a variety of outcomes.

Protracted tribalism, which is a form of crude racial/ethnic or national collectivism, is atavistic and primordial. It is static and outside the evolutionary laws of history that steer towards progress. As racial preservationists, Native Americans have yet to enter modernity and are, therefore, still outside the historical process. When Western ethno-nationalists attempt to preserve just some semblance of their culture, they are called cultural chauvinists. When indigenous cultures do the same, they are said to be displaying cultural integrity. But cultural integrity practices by indigenous purists are predicated on a set of false beliefs about both American culture and about the culture the purists are trying to preserve. In the case of the latter, the idea that any culture can pretend to be a hermetically-sealed unit in a technologically-advanced civilization is foolish. The culture will atrophy. This is what is happening to Native Americans. Rather than modernize and update their cultures and incorporate the best within American culture to advance their economic well-being—assimilate to some degree like all other cultures—the American Indians hold fast to atavistic sensibilities that are now dated, primitive, and ill-equipped to lead them into the twenty-first century and beyond.

This leads us to the second point. Native Americans will continue to be poor and live decimated lives not only if they live by a separatist tribal logic, but if they hold to the philosophy that undergirds that moral logic: one of contagion. America is regarded as something they must inoculate themselves from because the prototypical American characteristics will not only annihilate their cultures; America and her genetic ancestors, the Europeans, were guilty of a heinous crime, so it is believed, that can never be forgiven: the crime of genocide against Native Americans.

This false belief—yes, it is false—has allowed American Indians to become certified, eternal moral victims with an iconic status meant to continue inducing shame among Americans. This victim status has been used to excuse every failure and every debilitation they have suffered on their reservations: opioid addiction, alcoholism, illiteracy, diabetes, high rates of hypertension and chronic depression. Post-Genocidal Stress Disorder was how I heard it described at a conference years ago.

Let us be clear. It is true that millions of Indians did die as a result of contact with whites; however, they died by contracting illnesses such as smallpox, measles, malaria, and tuberculosis against which they had no natural immunities. These were diseases whites transmitted unknowingly.

As Dinesh D’Souza points out in his book What’s So Great About America?, a few centuries ago, one-third of Europe’s population perished as a result of contracted diseases from Mongol invaders from the Asian Steppes. These diseases included the bubonic plague. This was not referred to as a genocide. Nor should it have been.

Genocide explicitly denotes an intention to wipe out an entire population. There were isolated incidents of European military commanders who did attempt to kill hostile Indian tribes by giving them smallpox blankets. This, however, was not a systemic policy adopted by Americans. Had the Americans truly intended to eliminate the entire population of American Indians they certainly had the military and firepower to do so.

Total annihilation of the Native American population was never a policy of the United States government. In fact, in his “Essays on the Races,” Alexis de Tocqueville noted that the American Indians never wanted Western civilization but that the white man was determined to shove it down his throat. The problem the American Indian faced, then, was one of forced inclusion. Blacks, Tocqueville reported, had a deep desire to share in the culture, privileges, and customs of white society, “but whites will never allow them to do so.” Their problem was one of forced exclusion.

Intended genocide and intended forced inclusion are neither logical nor existential corollaries.

The fundamental problems facing Native Americans today, it must be declared, is simply that, as a whole, they constitute a pre-modern set of groups comprised of individuals. They cannot have their cake and eat it too. They have excluded themselves from the ambit of universal inclusion by cultivating a separatist ethos. Their own valorization of tribal sovereignty and autonomy has proven to be a license to be spared the rigors of development required of the rest of mainstream society. They want the benefits of tribal/ethnic purity without the assimilative sacrifices that must be undergone to achieve any semblance of socio-economic and cultural parity with their American compatriots. Hence, a self-imposed arrested development is the existential concomitant of a life led outside the innovative and experimental processes in modern life that aid development, growth and change.

Native Americans will remain poor if they remain rooted to a false dichotomy between collective tribal well-being, and individual development and prosperity. In short, they ought to embrace the virtues of individualism and stop hyper-inflating collective well-being (still yet to be defined) as some unassailable good that behaves with the same invariability as do the laws of nature.

The entire collective versus individual well-being trope is passé. The atomistic individual in practice has always been a fictitious straw man devised by strong communitarians to win an inflated argument. No individual, regardless of how he conceives himself, has ever existed as a solipsistic agent apart from the community or society that he lives in. He is imbricated in a causal web of relationships that mediate his self-conception and his sense of how free he is in relation to the political configurations of his society.

Aside from embracing a healthy dose of American individualism, what Native Americans need is a remapping of the terms that determine communal relatedness, and a destabilization of the totalizing grammar of collective well-being that stifles individual growth, personal accountability and responsibility for one’s life.

If civilization had been left in the hands of Native Americans, it is obvious life would have remained as it was centuries ago for them: harsh, pastoral, and bucolic in places, but undeveloped. Modernization has to take place from within by embracing a philosophy of anti-collectivism, that is, anti-ethnic particularism at the cost of individual liberty. A thousand more casinos will not ameliorate anything—as the evidence has shown.

It is the philosophic transformation of the indigenous mind, that, coupled with a desire to divorce oneself from primeval ways of life by leaving the primitivism of the tribes and fully conjoining oneself to mainstream society that will see a radical transformation of indigenous life. For such a person the imperative is to move beyond his or her contemporary decimated pre-modern existence into what is simply the modern historical process.

Jason D. Hill is professor of philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago, and a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center. His areas of specialization include ethics, social and political philosophy, American foreign policy and American politics. He is the author of several books, including “We Have Overcome: An Immigrant’s Letter to the American People” (Bombardier Books/Post Hill Press). Follow him on Twitter @JasonDhill6.

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