The New Trail of Tears
How Washington Is Destroying American Indians
By Naomi Schaefer Riley
Published by Encounter Books
Hardcover; 184 pages; $23.99
July 26, 2016; 9781594038532
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 Schaefer Riley, author of The New Trail of Tears, is a weekly columnist for the New York Post and a former Wall Street Journal editor and writer whose work focuses on higher education, religion, philanthropy and culture. She is the author of several books on those topics. Her book, ‘Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America (Oxford, 2013), was named an editor’s pick by the New York Times Book Review. Ms. Riley’s writings have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other publications. She appears regularly on FoxNews and FoxBusiness. She has also appeared on Q&A with Brian Lamb as well as the Today Show. She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University in English and Government. She lives in the suburbs of New York with her husband, Jason, and their three children.
I am not Native American, but I am interested in all cultures and I jumped at the opportunity to read this book by Naomi Schaefer Riley. She stated in the acknowledgments, “When people ask me how I came to write a book about American Indians, I can only say anger. For years, I had read about the poverty, suicide, abuse, and alcohol and drug problems on reservations with deep sense of sadness” (page 187).
THE NEW TRAIL OF TEARS is a well-written book addressing current concerns of Native Americans. Riley included so many facts in the narrative that I often had to set the book down, because I felt like I was taking an accelerated sociology class. Riley cited her research throughout and included an extensive list of references at the back of the book. I did not take the time to verify any of the information.
Some interesting details mentioned by Riley caught my attention:
--- “There are 562 federally recognized Indian nations in the United States – about half of which are in Alaska – and 310 reservations” (page xii).
--- “Violent crime on the country’s 310 reservations is on average about 2.5 times as high as the national average” (page 7).
--- “American Indians, it turns out, have served in the military at the highest rate of any group since the American Revolution. According to the Defense Department, as of 2012 there were more than 22,000 American Indians and Alaska Natives on active duty, and the 2010 census identified over 150,000 American Indian and Alaska Native veterans. Twenty-seven have been awarded the Medal of Honor” (page 175).
--- “It was not until after World War II in the 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act that all states were required to allow Native Americans to vote on the same basis as any other American” (page 175).
A great portion of the book addressed the issue of property ownership. I had zero knowledge of this beforehand. I found it quite mind boggling how complicated the federal government has made it for Native Americans to own land, and the problem still exists today. That’s ridiculous. Furthermore, it’s not just in the USA but also in Canada. “In Canada, there are three types of individuals not allowed to own property – kids, the mentally incompetent, and Indians living on reserves” (page 44). The issues are too complicated for me to highlight in my review. Read the book.
“Underlying federal policy are the assumptions that Indians are simply incapable of managing their own affairs and that natural resource development somehow runs contrary to their traditions” (page 13).
Tribal economics represented another relevant issue addressed in Riley’s book. “The unemployment rate for the 8,000 tribe members [of the Northern Cheyenne] who live on the reservation is more than 80 percent … the most talented people on the reservation tend to leave” (pages 20-21).
So the federal government has offered Native Americans “what you might call a loophole economy. We allow Indians to engage in enterprises that we can’t or won’t have in other neighborhoods. It used to be selling tax-free cigarettes, liquor, and gasoline. Then it was the gaming industry. Now, more states are allowing casinos to be run by non-Indians, and casinos aren’t the source of profit they once were. But never fear. The Justice Department decided in December 2014 to allow marijuana to be grown on reservations – even if the drug is illegal in the state where the reservation is located. Gambling, cigarettes, alcohol, drugs – who wouldn’t want these businesses to form the economic backbone of their community?” (page 50).
I could go on and on referencing the disappointing details presented in this book, which only reflect the current state of affairs for Native Americans, but I’ll let you read the book. I was surprised at my lack of awareness, which I attribute to my own privilege and naivety. So whether you think we should continue to celebrate Columbus Day (touted as celebrating the explorer who launched a genocide) or replace it with “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” take the time to look at this book. It is a very worthwhile read, especially for anyone interested in equal rights for all, sociology, or psychology.
I am passing my copy of the book along to one of my Native American friends, and I look forward to being able to discuss it with her and read her review of the book.
Furthermore, please, continue reading for an intriguing opinion piece written by a Cherokee descendant.
[I received a copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This in no way influenced my opinion of the book.]
Ramshackle Trailers - An Opinion Piece by Artemis Grey
My Grandfather’s side of the family doesn’t really exist. You see, my grandfather was Cherokee. He wasn’t a Cherokee prince, and his mother wasn’t a princess, and her father wasn’t a king or chief. They were just people. People who had to choose between walking thousands of miles and probably dying for who they were, or pretending to be white people. My great grandmother grew up learning how to be white. The only time her hair was ever braided was when she was dying of cancer, and even then, she worried she would “look like a savage”. My grandfather probably didn’t even think of it as “acting” like a white person. I’ll never know for sure. By the time I was old enough to ask questions like that, he was dead.
A hundred years after American Indians were systematically forced to pretend to be white, the tables have turned. Now, it’s fashionable to be an Indian. Everyone seems have a “Cherokee princess” for a grandmother. Millions of dollars in profit are made yearly by white designers, white artists, white pretty much everyone, off Native inspired items. I’m saying this as a white person. I can’t be anything but white because I was never raised any way but the white way. I know what my grandfather, great grandmother, and great great grandfather were, but I don’t know who they were, and I never will. The chance for that is gone.
So too, is the chance slipping away for the entirety of white America–along with other races–to ever know who the remaining indigenous peoples are. Whatever Americans picture when someone says the words “American Indian” or “Native American” it usually involves teepees, war parties, buffalo hunts, leather and fringe and fancy headdresses. No one pictures ramshackle trailers with caved-in roofs, sheltering a dozen family members. No one pictures a suicide rate triple the national average. No one pictures wastelands of civilization where people are told to do for themselves but deprived of the means by which to act, told to make something of themselves, but denied the chance to be educated, told to govern themselves, but smothered by federal regulations. No one ever pictures Wallstreet stockbrokers, millionaire recording artists, Hollywood socialites, or Greenwich Village mansion owners, either.
From the moment white Europeans set foot on this continent, the indigenous peoples of America have been exploited and idealized, in equal parts. The image non-Indians have of Indian is one established and maintained by their white contemporaries. The majority of books written about Native Americans have been written by white men (mostly) and white women. Some of these books and articles idealize Indians, and some of them vilify them. Some call for the government to provide them more opportunities, others call for the government to leave them alone entirely. What all of these books and articles share in common, however, is that they were written about indigenous peoples through the gaze of non-indigenous peoples. Thus, they carry the expectations of their white authors.
What I know for certain about the indigenous peoples of my country is that virtually nothing I know about them is anything that they taught me. I learned the same white-written history in school as other American students, I’ve read about the conflicts of white-written laws, in regard to how tribes are alternatively enabled by federal allowances and hindered by federal laws. I grew up seeing and reading white accounts of Indians who slaughtered settlers and white accounts of Indians who represent the epitome of unity with nature. I’ve grown up celebrating white holidays that celebrate white people, and now I’m living through a white-instigated movement to eradicate Columbus day–a white holiday–in favor of “Indigenous Peoples Day” which is supposed to be better, but will still be a white holiday.
Where are the best-selling books by Native authors? The art and artists? As recently as last season, fashion runways in Milan hosted celebrated clothing lines which blatantly appropriated Native American cultural designs–some of them actually taken from Native fashion designers. Those who complained were told that it wasn’t “appropriation” it was something done in reverence of the cultures from which the designs were stolen. Hollywood is no different. Thousands of movies about Indians have been made over the years, but excruciatingly few, if any, have been written, directed or the characters even portrayed by actual Indians. Only in recent years have a scant few Native Americans been able to break into the ironclad curtain of Hollywood, and those have been largely viewed as novelties to be celebrated and subsequently forgotten, not as contemporary artisans skilled in their chosen areas of craft.
The enduring problem that oppresses Native Americans everywhere in our country, more than anything else in history, is that white America is still not interested in hearing what American Indians, Native Americans, or Indians, (their preference varies from person to person, it’s best to just ask) have to say about anything, from their current state within our society, to their own histories. White America must listen to–not discuss–the issues facing our indigenous peoples, both on reservations and off. We need to ask, not presume, offer, not give, and understand, not idealize. Until white America steps back and allows Native Americans to control their own lives, we’re not going to ever get to know who they are as people. We must stop dictating the dialogue of a conversation that is not ours to hold. Native Americans were thriving before we ever landed on these shores, and they could do so again, if we’d just get out of their way and allow them the freedom to do so.