Editor’s note: In August, the Star Tribune published a two-part series on “Indian families broken apart” from a high rate of children placed in foster care. Retired Star Tribune writer Joe Rigert takes a different look at the problem in his new book, “The Dependency Curse: How Reliance on Government and Casinos Damages Native American lives.” Excerpts from the book, published by Amazon, follow:
You could call it “The tale of two tribes,” one a tribe of millionaires in Minnesota; the other a less-fortunate tribe in Oregon. Though wildly dissimilar in circumstances, they share a common malady: a dependency curse that tribal leaders now see as a cause of epic social problems, from alcoholism to suicides and parental dysfunction.
The Mdewakanton Sioux of Minnesota are dependent not on the government, but on the wealth of a gambling enterprise that provides an unbelievable $1 million for each adult member each year, making them the wealthiest native tribe in the country, by far. That should make them an unmitigated success story, but it doesn’t. In fact, for the Sioux, dependence on gaming could be viewed as a curse as well as a well-demonstrated cure. It has indeed produced tribal self-sufficiency. But it also has eliminated the incentive for the natives to get an education and a job, causing some to turn to drinking and drugs to compensate for empty lives. It has led to feuds and fights for control over the lucrative gambling business. It has caused a gambling addiction for some members. And it has led young people to be spoiled and undisciplined.
Charles Trimble, past president of the National Congress of American Indians, concedes that the new casino wealth has improved the lives of natives and helped preserve their culture. But he says it also brings a new dependency replacing the reliance on a federal largesse that has “eroded families and entire societies among some tribal communities.” Under that federal largesse, he says, the government supplants the family, causing some men to remain unemployed for years. “A man who has no role in providing for the family has little purpose as a father, he brings nothing to the household, and gradually loses respect from his spouse and children. Thus alienated he will likely resort to alcohol or drugs, leading to despair and early death.”
The concern over dependency is not new. More than 50 years ago, venerated Klamath Tribes chairman Seldon Kirk didn’t buy the romantic view of Indian Americans as eternal victims of white Europeans. Rather, he attributed their problems partly to a dependence on government payments from their timber sales. The Klamaths, he told this writer, had been coddled too long on those payments and had lost their initiative. Kirk knew because he had presided over the tribe as chairman in the four decades the members had been receiving those “per capita” payments from the government, making them one of the most prosperous tribes in the country.
The Klamaths later became independent and wealthy upon selling their forests to the government. Then, after many had dissipated their one-time fortunes, they won back tribal status, dependent again on government benefits, prompting many to drink too much and work too little. As described by tribal member Mario Sampson: “People are running rampant,” dealing drugs out of their homes, drinking alcohol to excess. Sampson didn’t mention all the negatives. Others tell of children taken away from drugged-up mothers, too many natives dying young, committing suicide or going to prison because of alcohol and drugs, too many dying in traffic accidents.
Of course, not all native leaders blame dependency for the social problems of so many of the 5.2 million people in the native population. Others attribute the social ills to a possible genetic predisposition to a devastating addiction to alcohol, foisted on the natives in early years by white traders as trading bait. Or to a claimed disorder from a lingering trauma resulting from the loss of so much of their land and culture to European colonizers. Native scholar Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart contends that the trauma contributes to a “current social pathology of high rates of suicide, homicide, domestic violence, child abuse, alcoholism and other social problems among American Indians.”
The persistence of such problems, along with lack of jobs, has prompted a startling, little-noticed migration of natives from the poverty-ridden reservation ghettos to urban America — two thirds of them at last count. It’s an oft-told story of Native Americans, still being written.