If we could do it all over, things would be different. That seems to be Americans’ attitude toward the way we treated indigenous people. In a new survey by the polling firm YouGov, released in time for Columbus Day (now renamed Indigenous Peoples Day by various localities including, most recently, Los Angeles), Americans say that if they encountered an isolated tribe today, sixty-four percent said they would “leave them alone.” Only nineteen percent said they would attempt to make contact and the rest did not know.
No doubt these answers are the result of Americans being taught for decades about the terrible things we did to Indians. In fact, when it comes to Indians, that’s about all we learn. A study by Sarah Shear, a professor at the University of Missouri, found that eight-seven percent of references to American Indians in state academic standards portrayed them in a pre-1900 context. According to Shear, when students arrive in her college classroom, they’re largely ignorant about modern Indians. “What they told me is that they learned about Thanksgiving and Columbus Day,” she told a writer for the Indian Country website. “Every once in a while, a student would mention something about the Trail of Tears. It was incredibly frustrating. They were coming to college believing that all Indians are dead.”
When students arrive at college, then, professors tell students that if only we could somehow return Indians to their state of nature, “pre-Contact,” Indians would be saved. Barring that, though, there’s little we can do.
This lesson harms modern Indians in two distinct ways. First, it perpetuates the belief that Indians are doomed to live in a state of poverty and social dysfunction forever. In fact, as I have written elsewhere, it is actually the reservation system that takes away property rights from Indians and that is largely responsible for these problems. Reservation land is held in trust by the federal government and Indians cannot buy or sell it without the permission of the federal bureaucracy and they cannot borrow against it because they do not hold the land as collateral. These conditions lead inevitably to a lack of businesses, few jobs, government corruption and a variety of other problems. Few Americans understand that if we could restore a system of private property to American Indians, they would be able to help themselves out of their difficult conditions.
Unfortunately, the YouGov survey also found, “With regards to the responsibility for protecting indigenous peoples, 62% of Americans agree that the country’s federal government should be responsible.” That has not worked out very well for Indians so far. After sending reservations billions of dollars and creating special federal bureaucracies for Indian education and health, for instance, the results are horrendous. Indian Health Services makes the Veteran’s Administration look like a top-notch research hospital and the Bureau of Indian Education, despite spending about fifty percent more per pupil than the average American school, can’t even keep its buildings’ roofs from caving in.
But the second problem with this view of Indians as some kind of ancient people who should be returned to a state of nature is that doing so means we don’t see them as people—who deserve the same rights and want the same things for their children as the rest of us.
The survey also asked, if you did make contact with an isolated tribe, what would you “share” with them. Only forty-seven percent said they would introduce modern medicine. Only forty-two percent said they would introduce them to modern tools and only forty-five percent said they would introduce them to modern food, like canned goods. In other words, a significant majority of Americans think that Indians would be better off without all of these innovations. I know we are supposed to be concerned that processed food makes you fat but the idea that we would not share modern medicine with others seems both hopelessly patronizing and heartless at the same time.
All of this reeks of the attitude that indigenous peoples are just not like you and me. For all of the sensitivity training perpetuated by academics and politicians who want to change the names of football teams and tear down statues of Christopher Columbus, we have obviously failed to communicate the most basic lesson of our common humanity.