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Restorative Justice For Native Americans Necessarily Comes Back to the Land

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erik Devereux
October 28, 2019

This is the fourth and final in a series of columns related to achieving restorative justice for Native Americans and African Americans who are living with the pervasive, negative consequences of crimes against humanity perpetrated against their ancestors during the foundation of the United States. These columns have addressed the need to face up to America’s, “Original sins,” the pivotal role of issuing a formal government apology and the community engagement missing from current debates over reparations. This final column focuses on the unique challenges facing Native Americans and the role of land in possibly responding to those challenges.

Accompanying this column is a map generated from the Opportunity Atlas, a joint project of Harvard University, Brown University, and the United States Census. The Opportunity Atlas uses tens of millions of IRS tax records to track the income of grown children relative to that of their parents across two recent generations. This map displays the data at the county level for Native Americans. What you can see in this data is that there are numerous concentrated areas of multi-generational poverty among the Native American population, especially in the Western United States on reservations (and please note the overall grim situation in otherwise resource-rich Alaska).

As I have noted previously in this series, the policy of the European colonists in the United States, which then became the policy of the United States Government until the early 1900s, either was complete eradication of the Native American tribes or their sequestration on remote and usually low-value land. I grew up in one of the exceptions—in New Mexico—where the Pueblo Indians were able to retain access to some of their ancestral places and communities. Overall, however, the surviving tribes are situated away from the broad expanse of the United States which previously was their hunting, fishing, farming and living grounds.

That Native American populations have rebounded considerably since the early 1900s is a testament to their fortitude. That those populations are frequently enmeshed in poverty, substance abuse, poor education and very high levels of violence (especially against women) speaks to the ongoing legacy of the oppression experienced by the tribes. The United States simply needs to fix this situation for the better and thus repair a canonical crime against humanity.

It seems to me that there is a clear path forward toward reparations for the Native Americans based on a transfer of land back to them. Such land needs to be more valuable while also restoring control over spaces sacred to Native Americans. The United States Government is ideally positioned to pursue this type of reparations because it already controls so much land, especially in the West. This transfer need not impinge on the private property rights of others.

One possibility that I have been researching is giving Native American tribes the contracts to manage the National Park System, provided that the quality of management meets necessary standards of excellence. Many of the National Parks are of special importance to specific tribes in places such as the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park and similar well-known places. These contracts currently are let out to private corporations with no connections to the issues related to Native Americans. Those tribes that wished to participate in this arrangement might access benefits such as workforce training and education related to serving as long-term stewards of these amazing spaces.

Another possibility is transferring lands that open the way for sustainable economic development through resource extraction, farming and ranching. The participating tribes also might access workforce and business training as part of pursuing sustainable development of these resources in a way that would lift them completely out of poverty. The United States Government has control over many spaces that would serve this purpose.

I have to admit a great uneasiness with the single largest economic initiative of the Native American tribes in my lifetime: legalized gambling. I especially was discomforted by the growth of such enterprise across New Mexico during my most recent visit in 2016. I have spent just a few hours of my life in or around a casino, but those hours gave me a serious case of the heebie jeebies. They are not elegant, fun places; rather they reek both literally of cigarette smoke and alcohol and figuratively of addiction and desperation.

In my opinion, it would be a triumph of restorative justice if the United States Government, working closely with the tribes, would redistribute access to public lands, foster sustainable economic development, and wean the Native Americans off of gambling as their only credible path to a better future in the shadow of the genocidal acts committed against them.


Author: Erik Devereux has worked for 25 years in the public policy and management field. Erik currently is an independent consultant to nonprofit organizations and to higher education and teaches applied policy analysis at Georgetown University. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). Contact Erik at [email protected].

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