Are Midwest Indians Typical?

The potential for economic development on reservations differs widely depending on the reservation’s location and access to resources. Great Lake tribes have been able to take full advantage of the federal government’s support for tribal sovereignty because they had a history of participation in the regional economy and treaty-guaranteed access to significant natural resources that could be developed commercially. Compared to tribes that do not have this tradition—and the upland Plains tribes are a good example—the Great Lakes tribes have a higher living standard and better employment history. In 2000, the median per capita household income for reservations in Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota was $21,302. On Minnesota reservations, the median was $26,250, and on Wisconsin reservations, $26,842 (higher for tribes in the more urbanized southern part of these states). And a comparison of unemployment rates in 2005 shows that the median unemployment rate was 73% on the Plains reservations. In Minnesota, the median unemployment rate on reservations was between 26% and 39%, and on Wisconsin reservations the median was 62%.

Why has economic development been more difficult for Plains tribes?  First, both the Plains subsistence and commercial economy was based on buffalo-hunting, and, when the buffalo became virtually extinct in the last quarter of the 19th century, the Plains tribes had little option but to rely on rations and provisions provided by treaties and agreements with the United States.  

Second, the upland plains is very arid (which makes farming very difficult), and it is remote from major population centers that could support businesses or offer employment. Here, Indian casinos, for example, are small, minimally profitable enterprises. Still, the large reservations had grazing land, so a transition to ranching was the best hope for self-sufficiency.

Tribal members worked with determination to make this transition to ranching, building on their knowledge of herding and skills as horsemen.  But they faced overwhelming obstacles. The policy of the federal government vacillated between supporting and discouraging ranching. Indian ranchers in the 1890s built up their herds and sold beef to the agencies and to the eastern markets.  But in the 20th century, federal policy encouraged the leasing of reservation grazing land to non-Indian cattlemen. Sometimes virtually all the reservation grazing land was leased, and at below market prices. Indians worked as cowboys and farm laborers for low wages.  During this time federal policy also promoted the allotment of reservation land to individuals and the sale of unallotted land to non-Indians at below market value.  Federal agents encouraged allottees to lease their allotments, and many allottees were given fee patents on their land, which they then sold.  Indian and non-Indian owned land was “checkerboarded,” so that Indians could not accumulate sufficient pasture to raise cattle.  By the time of the New Deal, there was little grazing land left for Indian operators.  From 1934 through the 1940s, federal policy encouraged ranching, even helping to purchase land and set up loan programs.  But during the “termination” era of the 1950s, many of the gains were lost. So despite high interest in ranching and efforts by tribal governments to promote cattle operations, today only a minority of tribal members own ranches, which often are not large enough to support a family.

In the early 20th century, Plains tribes began to advocate for control over the management of the mineral resources on their reservations and over the disposition of the mineral income.  They struggled to retain subsurface mineral rights  and to persuade the government to promote energy development and obtain market value prices for their oil, gas, and coal.  After the Indian Reorganization Act, tribal leaders had some success in gaining control over mineral income, especially in obtaining per capita payments to mitigate poverty.  In 1938, in response to tribes’ complaints that their mineral lands were leased at below market value, Congress passed legislation that required competitive bidding.  In the 1970s, complaints about air and water pollution led Congress to grant the tribes authority in 1986 to set air and water quality standards.  Aided by the Council for Energy Resource Tribes (organized in 1975 with mostly Plains and Southwest tribes), tribal leaders developed expertise in environmental and monitoring issues.  Partly in response to the tribes’ discovery of energy company thefts of tribal minerals, Congress passed the Indian Mineral Development Act in 1982, which authorized tribes to develop their minerals through regulation, negotiation (for jobs, environmental quality, monitoring and accounting), and joint ventures with energy companies.  Also that year, the Supreme Court authorized tribes to tax mineral production on their lands.  Leases, royalties, bonuses, and taxes have been the major source of income for Wind River, Blackfeet, Crow, Northern Cheyenne, and Fort Peck, and these reservations continue to struggle to defend their resources.  That said, the members of the “energy tribes” are not “rich Indians”: the reservation populations are large enough so that the per capita shares of the income are small and few energy jobs go to Indians.

How do reservations that lack mineral wealth, like Pine Ridge and Rosebud, try to improve economic conditions?  These Sioux (or Lakota) live as members of large households of relatives who pool their labor and income.  A household may have only one or two people working full-time for wages, but the other members contribute income from part-time wages, social security or pensions, or public assistance, and possibly a little income from ranching or a small business.  Others hunt and fish, babysit or do housework, and in over 80% of the households people engage in microenterprises.  These businesses, run out of the home, bring in income or goods in exchange.  The Pine Ridge Sioux and the Rosebud Sioux have very limited funds for economic development, but both work to obtain contracts and grants so they can hire tribal members.  Programs provide low-rent housing and educational grants, and health care is available from the Indian Health Service.  Of course, tribes with money from oil and gas wells and coal mines have more income to hire their members, support education, and offer services to mitigate the effects of poverty.  

All the Plains tribes and their members pursue the sovereignty agenda of self-rule and self-sufficiency in various kinds of social activities and programs that affirm identity.  Some tribes have historically resisted assimilation to Western values and customs, so the sovereignty era has meant that they can openly practice their traditions.  Others, who experienced a significant decline in Native ceremonies, language, and sharing customs, embarked on a process of cultural revival.  The American Indian Movement was very active on the Plains, especially at Pine Ridge and Rosebud, and AIM’s advocacy for sovereignty and Native culture had a major influence on Indian youth in the late 1960s and 1970s.  Generally, identity in these Plains communities is reaffirmed (and often reinterpreted) in several ways.  Skill in horsemanship is important and often is expressed in rodeo participation.  The reintroduction of buffalo herds is widespread, with some tribes primarily using the buffalo for food, others for commercial sale, and others to reinforce community unity through ceremonial feasts.  Native religious ritual has undergone a revival.  In the case of the Crow, that revival began during the New Deal.  For others, such as Fort Belknap, the revival process began in the 1970s.  Powwows are always vehicles for the expression of individual and tribal identity, the revitalization of music traditions, understandings about kinship, and the occasion for “giveaways,” in which the values of generosity and sharing are reinforced.  The tribalization of education also is widespread, with reservation communities asserting control of the schools on the reservation and establishing tribal colleges and Native language programs.  And rituals that reinforce collective memory are important, especially in respect to massacres (such as Wounded Knee, Sand Creek, or Baker) or in relation to sacred sites (such as the Black Hills).

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