The weak winter sun rose on a bitterly cold morning on Jan. 29, 1863. Having stealthily surrounded the sleeping encampment of the Northwest Band of Shoshone a few miles outside of Preston, Idaho, Col. Patrick E. Connor and his Third California Volunteers, U.S. Army, attacked roughly 500 sleepy Shoshone Indians beginning to stir in dozens of teepees on a gooseneck of the Bear River.
With almost complete surprise, the soldiers came down upon mostly unarmed women, children and men, killing between 250 and as many as 500 Shoshone by gunshot, bayonet, freezing in the river, torture and even evisceration. The Bear River Massacre claimed more than twice the Native American victims than the more famous Wounded Knee or Sand Creek tragedies — the largest American Indian massacre by the United States Army. Col. Connor followed orders to subdue and punish the American Indians for crimes the Shoshone most likely hadn’t committed. And this was one of thousands of misdirected and indiscriminate actions taken in the Indian wars of the 1860s and 70s.
The Native American hunter-gatherer culture seasonally moved across wide swaths of land. However, surging numbers of miners, buffalo hunters, railroaders and settlers began to travel across, develop and settle on traditional tribal lands. Tribes initially tried to co-exist, but their use of the land had little in common with the white settlers who took the timber and game to excess, put down roots and built fences, who thought American Indians were mere savages to be shunted aside or destroyed according to Sheridan’s policy that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
The federal government intervened many times to make peace and negotiate treaties. But surging crowds of miners, settlers and hunters were unhappy that rich lands were closed to them. In a hopelessly unfair cycle that stains our history, the U.S. government’s promises and treaties with Native American tribes were repeatedly re-negotiated, misinterpreted and disavowed. As the conflicts increased, the government removed tribes to reservations, oftentimes located on undesirable lands with insufficient game and arable land to sustain the American Indians. Reservation tribes grew hungry and poor, which enflamed upstart warriors, who fought the white man’s betrayal and greed by attacking settlers, miners or Army posts. In response to these American Indian “depredations,” the Army rushed in to put the American Indians down. One by one, tribes walked Trails of Tears to reservations often foreign to them and hundreds of miles from their native lands.
Yes, the Native Americans broke treaties and made savage warfare in some cases. Their revenge for injustice was often indiscriminate. But their greater crime was that they stood inconveniently in the way of “progress” and “civilization.”
Ultimately, the federal government became the trustee for American Indian lands and reservations. But hardly a good one. One lawsuit credibly claimed the federal government had “lost” $200 billion of American Indian assets. The case was settled for a mere $3.5 billion. While some modern tribes have flourished through investing, developing natural resources and business development, Native Americans on reservations are among the poorest, least-educated of Americans. Unemployment is 50 percent on some reservations. American Indian schools have lamentable results.
While these reservations contain trillions of dollars of mineral, oil, gas, timber, farm lands and other resources, no business transaction can move forward without the permission of the Bureau of Indian Affairs within the Department of the Interior. Even among our stifling federal bureaucracy, the BIA stands out for its mastery of bureaucratic delay and inefficiency.
As trust beneficiaries, tribal members generally own no reservation land, which proves Milton Friedman’s maxim: “When everyone owns something, no one owns it or has any incentive to care for it.” A reservation American Indian can give no collateral to build or buy a home or improve a farm or ranch.
Congress and tribal leaders should work together to make the reservation system a fair and empowering space, and they should find equitable ways for tribal members to own and benefit from their share of tribal assets. Tribal members could still voluntarily combine assets and pursue tribal-based businesses and projects based on tribal values.
The American Indians’ sad history with the federal government is perpetuated in the current reservation and governance system.