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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Reform the Rez

    Quick: Guess which ethnic group has the highest rate of poverty in the United States.

    Blacks? Hispanics? Nope. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, almost 26 percent of American Indians, more than twice the national average and more than any other group, fall below the poverty line. That’s not terribly surprising, considering that by mid-2004, more than 45 percent of American Indians were unemployed. That ranks unemployment rates among American Indians in the U.S. somewhere between those of Kenya and Haiti. And that’s just the national average.

    The story gets worse – much worse – when we move onto the reservations. The Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota is the second-largest reservation in the U.S. It is home to more than 40,000 Lakota Indians, who are direct descendants of the famed warriors Crazy Horse, Red Cloud and Sitting Bull. Throughout the 1990s, Pine Ridge constituted the poorest county in the U.S. Unemployment on the reservation is a staggering 88 percent. Nearly one-third of Pine Ridge households do not have electricity or indoor plumbing. Life expectancy for men on the reservation is 57 years, while women can expect to live another 10 years. The reservation must also deal with rampant crime: More than 200 different gangs have been identified in Pine Ridge.

    Sadly, the situation in Pine Ridge is not rare for American Indian reservations. To be fair, some reservations have cashed in on lucrative casino operations (which come with their own huge array of problems). The vast majority, however, are rural slums, where poor health conditions, a critical lack of jobs, substandard education and rampant crime keep their residents economically isolated and distressed.

    These conditions explain the most insightful statistic of all – only 20 percent of Native Americans actually live on reservations and submit through enrollment to tribal government. If only one in five American Indians choose to live on reservations, then life there must be pretty bad. So it’s time to rethink federal Indian policy, and to reform life on the rez.

    Many American Indian activists have deflected attention away from the serious problems that exist on reservations by focusing on colonial history and Western expansion. Let me say emphatically: The history of early American settlement is not a pretty one, and there are many parts of that history that Americans should not be proud of. But history is not going to change, and dwelling on it is not going to help American Indians deal with the problems of reservation life today.

    The primary issue for American Indians who live on reservations should not be that land was stolen from their ancestors many decades ago but that the federal government continues to control the land on which they live. Indian reservations are technically held in trust by the federal government, which means that while tribal governments manage the land, most individual Indians do not own any of it.

    Without property rights, American Indians have an incredibly hard time securing loans or starting businesses (they have no land to put up as collateral). Indeed, the ridiculously complex process of starting a new business – or even making improvements on existing land – is maddening, and it discourages many from making commercial improvements on the rez.

    The tribal governments themselves are also huge obstacles to reform. In Pine Ridge, for example, there is a great deal of political turnover, with most council members swept out of office every two years. As a result, political instability makes it difficult to enact basic reforms that many Americans take for granted, such as a uniform commercial code.

    Without private property rights, political stability and a rule of law, there is simply no way Indian reservations will reverse their dim economic prospects.

    Additionally, there is no separation of powers on many reservations. In Pine Ridge, the judiciary is appointed by the tribal council, and its decisions are reviewed by the council itself. It would be as if the Supreme Court were to find the Patriot Act unconstitutional, only to have that decision reviewed by the same people who wrote it in Congress. In short, without private property rights, political stability and a rule of law, there is simply no way Indian reservations will reverse their dim economic prospects.

    The American dream should be available for all Americans. It is a shame that the federal and tribal governments responsible for creating the conditions necessary to make that dream a reality for so many Americans have failed so miserably. It would be an even bigger shame to allow it to continue.

    Jonathan Riches is a second-year law student. He can be reached at

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