Is Indian Country Still In The Great Depression?

More than five million people in the U.S. claim some form of Native American identity. November is Native American Heritage Month and host Michel Martin is having a series of conversations with author Anton Treuer. Today, they talk about some of the particular political and economic challenges facing Indian Country.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's Native American Heritage Month, and that's the time of year when many people try to take the opportunity to learn more about this country's first people. But sometimes asking and answering questions can be awkward. Our next guest has taken on the challenge and opportunity to try to answer the questions that many people may have about Native Americans.

Anton Treuer is a professor of Ojibwe history and language at Bemidji State University. That's in Minnesota. He's the author of a number of books, and his latest is "Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask."

Last week, we talked about the question of just who gets to be Native American and who gets to decide that. Today, we want to talk about some of the political and economic issues in Indian country.

Professor Treuer, welcome back to the program. Thanks for joining us once again.

ANTON TREUER: Yes. Thanks for having me on again.

MARTIN: So, last week, you were telling us about the whole question of sovereignty, that one of the distinctive features of being Native American is that these are tribes, and that sovereignty is a big part of that. Can you talk a little bit about what sovereignty means?

TREUER: The United States government is the connection point for dealing on a nation-to-nation basis with tribal governments. So if a state has some law that says gaming and gambling is illegal, except for church bingo, those state laws will not be applying to reservations because only Congress can maintain that relationship with tribes. And that's one of the defining features of sovereignty and one of the big differences in the political and economic situation for Native people.

MARTIN: Does tribal sovereignty extend only to the boundaries of each specific reservation? For example, if you are a diplomat representing France and something happens, you have diplomatic immunity from certain laws. Does tribal sovereignty extend beyond the boundaries of the reservations, or is it limited to those reservations?

TREUER: On the one hand, the primary functions of a sovereign tribal nation's government really do exist within the borders of the reservation, but there are some dimensions of that sovereignty that go beyond. One of the most notable examples would be in a state like Wisconsin, where the treaties by which tribes signed over title to the land to the U.S. government had clauses that retained for the use of tribal citizens the right to hunt, fish, gather wild rice and harvest throughout the entire land, even the land that was ceded to the government. So these use rights would be the basis of treaty rights disputes in the 1980s and 1990s, which were affirmed for tribal governments.

An issue that wasn't really well understood - a lot of people thought, someone's giving the Indians special rights, but it was actually partial payment for the land that was sold, that those rights were not given, but are retained and are part of, you know, the structure and integrity of United States Constitution and its promises to Native people.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm speaking with Professor Anton Treuer. He is the author of "Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask." He has agreed to be our guest for a series of conversations during Native American Heritage Month, and we're talking about, you know, issues related to Native American heritage, like identity, history, politics and culture.

So, given that, you know, part of the reason you wanted to write that book, professor, is that you wanted to kind of address sometimes awkward or difficult things, I wanted to talk about two conflicting stereotypes that people have about Native Americans. One is that all Native Americans are rich because of the casinos, and the other one is that all Native Americans are poor.

TREUER: Right.

MARTIN: Which then, obviously, those are two conflicting issues here, but let's just take the poverty question first, because statistically it is true that Native Americans are more likely to experience poverty than the general population. According to the Census Bureau, 28.4 percent of American Indians and Alaskan natives were living in poverty in 2010. That compares to 15.3 percent of the general population. Why is that?

TREUER: It's complicated in Indian country. There are 571 federally recognized tribes. Of those, 265 are in the gaming industry. So it's around half that are somehow involved in casinos. Of those, there's really just a tiny fraction that have had an outsized financial impact, but in some places, it's been significant. For example, at White Earth, or Leech Lake in Northern Minnesota, the unemployment rate way back, B.C. - that's before casino - was around 50 percent, five-zero. You know, when we had a sustained unemployment rate of 15 percent in the United States, we called it the Great Depression. Native people, you know, had a Great Depression that started in the 1800s with the start of the treaty period, and has never ended.

If you jump ahead to after casino at those communities that I just mentioned, the unemployment rate dropped from 50 percent down to around 22 percent, and that was before the most recent recession. So, yeah, poverty's an issue in many places.

At the same time that poverty is very real and pervasive in many parts of Indian country, there are counterexamples to that. So, the Seminole Nation in Florida, for example, has had not only tremendous success with their gaming industry, but a really big, diversified business plan that has enabled them to acquire and run the Hard Rock Cafe enterprise, manage casinos and businesses for other tribes. It was to the point where, when there was a major budget shortfall in education for the state of Florida, the Seminole Nation helped fill that gap by writing a check, which brought them plenty of love and helped affirm their own sovereign status - there's nobody who's going to be working against the Seminole in Florida. They've been very astute politically and financially.

MARTIN: What are leaders in Indian country talking about in addressing this endemic poverty?

TREUER: I think all tribal leaders are aware that there are major issues around poverty, substance abuse and health, and it's right at the top of the agenda for anyone who's running for tribal office to address those things. The solutions usually have revolved around sound business development on reservations and education.

Some of the things that have really impressed me, a place like Red Lake, Minnesota, which has had tremendous poverty. They're still at a 37-percent unemployment rate. But they have been really careful about trying to develop businesses that not only make money and develop jobs, but also reinforce traditional life ways. And there are other things that tribes have been doing, too. White Earth has worked pretty hard at developing their wild rice businesses, and I think all of that has been very welcome. And it's those hybrids that maintain what's really distinct and special and unique about tribal culture, but also enable tribal members to make it in the big, bad world we all live in that I think offer some of our greatest opportunity going forward.

MARTIN: Anton Treuer is a professor of Ojibwe history and language at Bemidji State University. He's the author of a number of books, including "Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask." He joined us from Northern Community Radio in Bemidji, Minnesota.

Professor Treuer, thank you so much for speaking with us. We'll speak again next week.

TREUER: Thank you.

MARTIN: Next week, we'll talk about the whole issue of Native Americans and pop culture, from football teams to spaghetti westerns. We look forward to talking about it.

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