Fourth Commentary on TNToT: Chapter 3 — “Indians as Unmotivated, Dependent Victims”

This is the fourth full commentary on “The New Trail of Tears” (TNToT), written by Naomi Schaefer Riley (NSR or the author). The announcement post is here.

  • The first commentary, “Framed by a Friend,” is here.
  • The second commentary, “Turning Indian History against Indians,” is here.
  • The third commentary, “Indians are Saudi Arabia, Not Israel (Oh, and Crying Toddlers)” is here.

In line with the earlier chapters, NSR sets sights on specific reservations and tribes, in this chapter targeting Pine Ridge and the Rosebud, and yet more attacks directed at Seneca (a repeat player from Chapter 2).

Attacks on Pine Ridge and Rosebud Indian People and Nations

This chapter delivers the lowest blows on Indian people in TNToT. This is classic blaming the victim, but with undertones of race-baiting. In the TNToT narrative, Indian people struggle and poor because of their own character flaws. TNToT, as usual, offers no tribal or reservation history whatsoever on either the Oglala Sioux Tribe or the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. That naturally would complicate NSR’s harshly judgmental conclusions.  

Here’s a bit of history, mostly from my reading of United States v. Sioux Tribe. The history is way, way more complicated. But I am trying more than NSR, who is actively ignoring or hiding the history.

The two reservations now known as Pine Ridge and the Rosebud are far smaller than the original Great Sioux Reservation, which covered all of the Dakotas and parts of other states. My sense is that the Black Hills were the keystone of the entire original reservation. It’s where there were resources in the winter and a gathering place for lots of tribes. The Rosebud and Pine Ridge cannot be considered in isolation without reference to the Black Hills. My guess would be that most of the federally recognized “Sioux”
tribes would rather live in and near the Black Hills than where they are in South Dakota, for example, if they had to choose. The US initially obliged itself in treaty language to protect that territory for the benefit of Indian people, but stupidly placed people like George Custer in charge of that mission, who promptly betrayed the tribes (and later died for it, one could say — remember that victory NSR called “Pyrrhic” on page 3?).

Of course, once the US started on the path toward greatly diminishing Indian land holdings, the Black Hills was the main target.  As far as I understand, there is no treaty consenting to the taking of the Black Hills by the US. There are statutes that confiscate the territory, ostensibly negotiated with tribal interests, but these are truly confiscation acts. Ultimately, the Supreme Court (and even Congress, which authorized the suit — it didn’t have to do so) held in 1980 that the taking of the Black Hills was compensable (over the objections of the Executive branch). The United States’ argued that the rancid meat the government provided on occasion to starving Indians in the winter was “just compensation.” [It’s maddening and tiresome that NSR advocates for property rights in Indian country — recall the “magic force” quote on page 15 — but simply will not acknowledge the property rights of Indians and tribes.] Still, the tribes refused the money in order to keep alive the claim to the actual land. Five years ago, the trust fund was at $1.3 Billion and likely far more now. This is far greater context, though ultimately just a snippet, of the history of the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Reservations. TNToT wants nothing of that.

NSR sees abject poverty and spreads blame to the feds and to the Indians. The feds allegedly do things like prevent coffee shop owners from putting up signs: “A couple of locals told me that they [Pine Ridge reservation coffee shop owners] couldn’t get permission from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to put up a sign on the road.” [at 81] Maybe at the beginning of the book, I was more willing to give the benefit of the doubt to NSR on her stories, but no longer. This totally sounds like fiction. The Interior Secretary and the BIA, it is true, once exercised a micro-managing style in Indian country, but that has really wound down in the last several decades, especially since the advent of the self-determination era in the 1970s. If this is still going on, please someone in the know tell me for certain. I’d rather have someone other than the unnamed “locals” that NSR cites to set me straight.

NSR blames Indians for being dependent on government subsidies: “The rhythm of life at Wounded Knee is actually surprisingly dependent on the timing of government subsidies.” [at 83] “[A]ctually surprisingly”? I’m thinking the rhythm of life anywhere people are living paycheck to paycheck, Indian and non-Indian, is like that. Are these the only poor people NSR has met? 

Here’s another example of NSR’s surprise at how poor people live: “Wounded Knee uses a system of incentives for the parents too – which is not uncommon at schools on reservations.” [at 84] Yes, lots of public schools around the country in struggling school districts use incentives to get parents to show up at PT conferences (here’s Cleveland as an example). I think it shows initiative.

Indian Country Education

Indian country education in the 21st century is a strange thing. The Johnson-O’Malley Act in the 1960s was an effort to move the federal government’s obligations to educate Indian kids to the states, which is why there are state-operated public schools in the middle of reservations, for example. But there are still a few federal Indian boarding schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Education, too, to serve Indian kids in far-flung locations. NSR has previously complained [at ix-x, citing Cato] about the feds spending $20,000 per pupil on Indian schools, way more than the national average, with not so great results. Well, considering that rural education already costs more and often leaves much to be desired throughout the US, the BIE can’t be that much worse than other schools, and probably isn’t. NSR’s solution, I suppose, if one were to appear in TNToT, is to get rid of the BIE. The question NSR doesn’t want to answer probably is this — what then?

Blaming Indian Students and Their Parents

TNToT lays blame on parents and teachers for bad Indian schooling. [at 98-99]  That’s a tired old dog whistle politics trope. Tribal colleges are bad, too, in TNToT, because they discourage Indian kids to “leave the nest.” [at 89]

NSR is particularly callous when talking about (likely first generation) Indian college students. NSR has Cheryl Beasley at Lumbee to say Indian students don’t manage their time well or talk to profs much — Native American College Fund has a short primer on this and many other issues that make it difficult for Indian students to succeed. NSR implicitly blames the federal government and (I think?) Cecilia Fire Thunder at Red Cloud School, the same school that famously attacked the Washington Football Team’s nickname. Given NSR’s defense of Dan Snyder in TNToT’s conclusion (we’ll get to that later), I’m thinking this is NSR retaliating against the school.

Stacy Phelps and Brian Moore

In Chapter 2, TNToT finds an informant named Brian Moore to badmouth the BIE, and another named Stacy Phelps to badmouth tribal councils. Moore and Phelps are the subject of a federal investigation, as reported in the news: “South Dakotans featured in new book ensnared in GEAR UP scandal.” This isn’t Moore’s first time being the subject of a federal investigation; he was investigated while at BIE (here’s the IG report). These are the people NSR is willing to name, people who have a vested interest in going after their accusers. Who are the unnamed sources throughout the book?

My favorite part of this chapter is the part where NSR reports that Moore told her he wrote a memo to Ken Salazar in 2012 (around the time he left BIE under a cloud of suspicion, again the IG report) that supposedly detailed all his concerns about the BIE. NSR states, “(I made several attempts to obtain the memo through a Freedom of Information Act request, but the BIA has been unresponsive.”). Four things: (1) Salazar was Interior Secretary, so a FOIA request to BIA isn’t going to help, especially since (2) the BIA and the BIE are different bureaus. Let’s face it, (3) there’s no memo — NSR got played. 🙂

UPATE: Stacy Phelps has actually been indicted for falsifying records. Can’t be a good source.

General Notes:

Cecilia Fire Thunder

NSR singles out Cecilia Fire Thunder for rebuke. No. Just no.

Cecilia Fire Thunder is a hero, the first woman chair of her tribe, a woman who stood up for women’s rights throughout South Dakota in the 2000s, at great cost to her political prospects. She is a modern incarnation of the best of tribal leaders that dates back centuries.

But to NSR, who recounts none of this history, Cecilia Fire Thunder is just a school bureaucrat who wants more money from the feds (at 101] — of course, that’s because there’s no money from anywhere else. There’s more to tell in Chapter 4, where NSR’s trashing of Cecilia Fire Thunder gets much, much worse.

More Allegations of Tribal Government Corruption

NSR can’t mention tribal government without alleging corruption, and Chapter 3 is no different. This time it’s the tribal council leaning on public school administration on page 86. Not sure how this is different than every other schools district in the US, especially given that these are public schools operated by the state (and certainly doesn’t rise to the corruption in non-reservation public schools, like this, for example). And then there’s hearsay evidence from unnamed sources that this is widespread “I hear numerous times from other educators.” Plus, there’s a Ben Chavis sighting for the proposition that “nepotism” is to blame for bad schools at Lumbee [at 101]. But still waiting on actual evidence, like the guy in Human Rights Watch provided.

Update: Here is real corruption.


On page 89, NSR writes, “There’s nothing resembling a meritocracy on many of the reservations, and the schools are both a cause and an effect of this problem.” [at 89] Just flat wrong. Importantly, no evidence — we are just to take NSR’s word on this one. As a former in house attorney who dealt with dozens of HR issues and handled a few dozen tribal employment contested cases, I know it’s wrong. Even wrote a law review article or two about it. And Kaighn Smith wrote a book about it. Also, there’s no such thing as a meritocracy.

Indians Working in the Service Industry on Reservations

Recall in Chapter 2 how in Robeson County there’s positive economic activity because they have a Wal-Mart. [at 70] Well, at Crow, Indians are working at McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Papa Johns, and so on. That’s unacceptable at Crow because now it’s the “bottom of the economic ladder.” [at 87] In any event, still no living wage at these jobs.

More Ad Hominem Attacks on “Indian Studies” and Tribal Colleges

NSR critiques Indians and the schools they attend for learning about themselves and other Indians: “[S]tudents can take courses in Native American Studies, Cheyenne Studies, and Arts and Crafts.” [at 88] Here, NSR considers “Cheyenne Studies” to be equivalent to “Arts and Crafts.” Well, NSR seems to be suggesting that a tribal studies class is a joke, perhaps betraying her views on Indian cultures more generally. My guess is that NSR hasn’t read Karl Llewellyn (who did, to be fair, call Cheyenne law “primitive”).

And we get yet another “truth be told” from NSR: “And, truth be told, these jobs are filled just as often by relatives of people in tribal leadership as they are by people who might be more qualified.” [at 89] We saw this first on page 48 — now it’s a recurring thing, these honesty phrases suggesting a lack of honesty.

More on Seneca

There’s more about Seneca here, and it’s still baffling to me that NSR keeps repeating that tired old conservative trope about people of color being lazy and unmotivated: annuity checks, for NSR, are “sapping the nation’s entrepreneurial spirit” [at 96]; relying on NSr’s notion of a loophole economy is just “hold[ing] fast to a narrative of victimhood” [at 96]; casino payments create a “culture of dependency”, [at 96], and reservation culture is “holding the nation back.” [at 97] It’s all so Orwellian — surely, NSR has met Seneca people, possibly the most aggressively entrepreneurial tribal group in America. We talked about this in the previous chapter — don’t think that NSR’s repetition of falsehoods means they are accurate.

Rob Porter, a living embodiment of the entrepreneurial spirit, is mentioned not by name once for trying to get through a tribal charter school through the state system [at 93]. NSR should have interviewed him — they’d have plenty to agree about, and TNToT would be far richer for it. Instead, NSR rehashes old complaints about the Seneca reservations: drugs [at 94], and older family members discouraging their children from attending school [at 95]. NSR suggests that Seneca families take their casino money and send their kids away to boarding school. Wow. BTW, there used to be a Seneca boarding school operated by the state of NY that, well, could’ve been better.