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"American Indian Reparations,"

by Ronald L. Trosper November/December 1994 issue of Poverty & Race

The experience of American Indians in obtaining reparations from the federal government should interest those who seek similar actions with respect to Black Americans. American Indians have received three types of reparations: (1) cash payments, through the operation of the Indian Claims Commission and the U.S. Court of Claims; (2) land, through an occasional action of Congress to return control over land to particular tribes; and (3) tribal recognition, by either Congress or the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The first of these has been the least satisfactory, measured by long-term impact on Indian communities. The second was more satisfactory, but has been experienced by very few tribes. The third, which is in process now, has had the best results.

The settlement of claims for lands unjustly taken was a widespread demand of Indians in the 1920s and 1930s. When the federal government began to accept suits-as a sovereign, the federal government must consent to be sued-limitations were placed on the awards. Congress, in the Indian Claims Commission Act of 1946, forbade award of lands. Proof had to be presented to the Indian Claims Commission regarding ownership; litigation that started in the 1950s lasted until 1978. The Supreme Court developed a distinction between aboriginal title and recognized title; interest could not be earned on awards based on aboriginal title. The federal government paid $5 million in 1975 for lands worth $5 million in 1865.

The majority of tribes that received payments distributed them on a per capita basis among the members enrolled in the tribe at the time of the award. This dissipation of jointly held capital to one generation of recipients has meant that their descendants' benefits depend solely on the private action of parents to their children and grandchildren. In many cases, people on welfare had their welfare payments suspended until they had used up their per capita share of the tribal award. Some tribes developed traditions of per capita payments, which continue to inhibit community development.

Some tribes have refused to accept money for land. Other tribes, through extraordinary action, have received land. The Taos Pueblo is the best known example; they acquired U.S. Forest Service land. The Hopi received land; but Navajos were removed. No tribe has received land that required white people to leave their homes.

Recognition of tribal sovereignty and the implementation of self-government have achieved the most significant results. Economic development tends to follow assertion of governing powers. The creation of casinos is the best known example of this phenomenon; but the success of casinos over the long term is not assured. While other tribes have established economic development with other industries, many tribes have not yet been able to assert enough sovereignty to build solid economies.

What are the analogies to tribal self-government among Black Americans? Perhaps the Marshall Plan for cities has an element of political institution-building similar to the reconstruction of tribal governments. The narrow definition of reparations as investment in human and business capital does not. The Native American example would recommend investment in political capital, in institutions of community organization similar to tribal governments. Money cannot buy such institutions, and some kinds of reparation payments undermine them.

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