When university students in Moscow asked Ronald Reagan to explain the disastrous economic and social conditions of this country's American Indian population, the President became reflective.
"We have provided millions of acres of land for what are called preservations--or the reservations, I should say. (The Indians), from the beginning, announced that they wanted to maintain their way of life, as they had always lived there in the desert and the plains and so forth."
But, he mused, "maybe we made a mistake. Maybe we should not have humored them in that, wanting to stay in that kind of primitive life style. Maybe we should have said, 'No, come join us. Be citizens along with the rest of us.' "
Not a very original idea, Mr. President. Five hundred years ago, people in what is now this country tried that plan. Rich and populous, they felt sorry for a few stragglers who washed up on their shores, bereft of food or shelter, in need of medicine and instruction, and they said to these poor lost vagabonds, "come join us."
What came next, as the President might describe it, is show-biz history, reminiscent of that vintage comedy, "The Man Who Came To Dinner." Like Sheridan Whiteside, who exploits and abuses his horrified hosts, turning their once placid home into a nightmare, our garrulous leader's forebears repaid aboriginal hospitality with centuries of chicanery, bad contracts, broken promises and outright lies.
And now, according to this President--under whose Administration the quality of life for native Americans has declined in every sphere more drastically and more rapidly than at any previous period since the Bureau of Indian Affairs was a subdivision of the Department of War--it's the Indians' fault.
Let's set the record straight on a few basic issues: As Suzann Harjo, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, put it, Europeans "weren't dragging any land behind them when they came to this country." In 1492 the Western Hemisphere was thoroughly inhabited, supporting tens of millions of people--more than 100 million, by one demographic calculation--living in a tremendous variety of cultures. During their millenia of residence, they had developed cities, commerce, agriculture, aesthetic traditions of art, philosophy and religion. What they lacked, unfortunately, was a natural genetic immunity to Old World diseases.
It is estimated by some demographers at the University of Texas that roughly 19 out of 20 Indians on this continent died from such maladies as smallpox, tuberculosis, measles and influenza passed on, for the most part inadvertently, by European explorers and settlers. As result of this decimation, huge tracts of cleared land, including the sites for many present-day American cities, became vacant.
In an attempt to salvage something for their descendants, Indian leaders made treaties with European powers and later with the United States' government. The deals were simple: In exchange for the peaceful cession of most of North America, a few relatively small parcels would be retained in perpetuity by tribes as secure homelands. The sovereignty of these areas, which of course preceded that of the United States, was somewhat modified by these understandings, but it was never lost.
Even the U.S. Supreme Court, in 19th-Century decisions that still apply, defined Indian lands as "dependent, domestic nations," a fine point of law that the Executive branch of the government, from Andrew Jackson to Ronald Reagan, has found difficult to comprehend or uphold.
Before his advisers could turn him off in Moscow, the commander-in-chief went on to prattle about that old saw--oil-rich Indians. Tell that to people on the Pine Ridge or Crow Creek (Sioux) reservations, residents of Shannon and Buffalo counties, S.D., the poorest in the United States with per-capita incomes of $2,637 and $2,642, respectively. Tell it to the 70% unemployed on Rosebud, to the Indian students without college money in Montana, to the Alaska Natives, who have to travel hundreds of miles to poorly equipped Indian Health Service clinics.
And what of the "primitive life style" to which the President believes Indians are so attached? Is it the reservation system or is it broken treaties that are ultimately responsible for the nation's highest teen-age suicide rate, soaring infant mortality, shortened life span (37% of all Indians die before the age of 45), poverty, chronic alcoholism problem?
Has "humoring" Indians on those "preservations"--i.e., encouraging them to believe in the solemn agreements ratified by the Senate that made their survival a national trust--caused racism, cultural genocide or environmental catastrophe?