The New Trail of Tears by Naomi Schaefer Riley

The New Trail of Tears is an important and yet depressing book. It details the myriad problems besetting American Indians today. These include: a lack of economic opportunity, massive dysfunction and family breakdown and tribal and Washington leaders unwilling to face the reality or do anything about it except propose more money and more government (neither of which has worked).

Naomi Schaefer Riley details the plight of the American Indian by highlighting the structural, legal, economic, and political barriers to their success.  Through history, interviews and anecdotes, and analysis, Riley charts the bleak picture.  They lack the opportunity to achieve success in important ways because they do not have the property rights we take for granted.  They can’t really build up equity in property, use land or ownership as an investment or as collateral for a loan, etc. This basic element of financial and economic growth is denied.

Those on the reservations also suffer because everything they do flows through the federal government.  So everything is bureaucratic and political. Again, this blocks growth and success at every turn. It also means they are dependent on government for not just a safety net but for the necessities of life.  If the money doesn’t flow everything comes to a stand still. Imagine if anything, and I mean anything, you wanted to do involved getting approval from Washington and you can see the challenges.

This adds up to a system that is designed to create dependence and stymie entrepreneurship, innovation and success.  Mix in the complicated history of betrayal and broken promises, combined with a deep sense of paternalism from the government, and you have a culture that supports nepotism and political favors over high standards, growth and the long term health of the community. Indians who want more leave and rarely come back.  And even when they come back they have to fight a culture that blames the past and refuses to embrace change for fear of, to borrow a phrase, “acting white.”

Tragically, it is the American Indians themselves who suffer. Atrocious schools, high unemployment, drugs and crime, and disturbingly high abuse rates. Generations of children and families trapped in dysfunctional communities and institutions without even the opportunities offered to those outside the reservation. The worst dysfunctions of urban and Appalachian poverty with an even more complex history and politics.

When you see the dollars amounts that have been spent by Washington to achieve this level of suffering it makes you want to cry.  Add in gambling money and the numbers really are staggering for a system that destroys so many and manages to help so few.

If this level of suffering won’t force some hard choices and a re-examination of liberal pieties about more money, more programs and more cultural sensitivity, I don’t know what will.

bc-trailoftearsGranted, there are no easy answers but the level of devastation should require some soul searching.  Myths that paint Indians as utopian societies where private property and individual rights are rejected in favor of eco-friendly communalism won’t cut it.  We owe them the same basic rights as any other American and the opportunities that come with those rights.  Property rights, a legal system that functions at the local level and for the community, choice and opportunity for their children, and protection from predatory adults (and fellow children) are things the political system needs to focus on.

They don’t need more money and regulation from Washington.  They don’t need protection and paternalism.  They need to be given the ability to chart their own destiny, build their own economy and strengthen their communities without constant interference and involvement of the government.  Anything else is the “bigotry of low expectations” on steroids.

This is not a book you will enjoy.  But it is an important look at the fundamental failure of government when liberal paternalism and dogooderism runs amok.  It is the story of how we have ignored the plight of millions of Americans just because we don’t want to think about what we owe them; because we are afraid to face tough questions and tackle difficult issues head on.

If I had a complaint, it is the way the book can feel like a series of newspaper or magazine articles. It offers the perspective of a great many people with direct experience with the problems discussed but all of the quotes, opinions and perspectives gives the book a discursive feel. At times you wanted a little more detailed analysis and stronger conclusions.

But still, a insightful if depressing look into the underlying problems behind the misery and hopelessness so many American Indians are facing today.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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