What the Failures of American Indian Policy Can Teach Us About the Injustice of Divisive Tribalism


Naomi Schaefer Riley’snewly-released book,The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians,looks to be more than just an interesting examination of an isolated but regrettable phenomenon. It may provide us some insights about the perils of a progressive administrative state that is obsessed with identity politics.

The fishing camp where my family has vacationed every summer for the last several years is on the Yurok Tribe’s reservation in Northern California (Klamath). In her reviewof Riley’s book, Ramona Tausz, notes many things that confirm some of the sentiments we have have encountered and the thoughts we have had while talking with our friends in and familiar with the tribe.

This kind of poverty, lack of motivation, and dependence are what come when your rights are defined and dependent upon negotiation with the federal government. You might get some special privileges (hunting and fishing rights, permission to operate casinos, etc.) but your grasp on these shiny objects is tenuous and subject to the whims of the giver/government. So the enjoyment of these privileges is probably only temporary. It is never really secure. Rights need to be understood as inherent and natural and equal among citizens. And the object of all legitimate government is to protect them.

Can “tribes” even properly be described as having rights? If they do, it seems, they are often at the expenseof the individuals within the tribe. And they are at the pleasure of the government, too. And all of this is to say nothing of the question ofrule of law. Whose law rules? Who is the law?

There’s a lesson in this for Progressives and their enablers in the GOP who seek to divide Americans of all sorts (not just the native kind) into one or another kind of tribe for the purpose of milking them for their votes. We are not made to be insulated collections of hyphenated Americans. We are made to be citizens of this great country. We are not made to be divided into easily manipulated little interest groups. To the extent that we allow this, we are falling short of the task of self-government and are unworthy of our freedom.

Tribalism is the natural end point of Progressivism and leftism. It is antithetical to individual rights and liberties. This is because the starting point both of tribalism and of Progressivism is that rights are gifts from the government, the tribe, or the chief. The American view, in contrast, is that the legitimacy of government is derived from the people because of their inherent natural right to consent to their government.

The trend today is more and more tribalism. If we want to see where this will take us we need only look at the results on our reservations: corruption, cronyism, stagnation, and wealth for a select few. Reservations can be dismal places full of despair, broken families, disease, and addiction. In this, we now see, they have much in common with our inner cities and with the decimated small towns of Appalachia where dependency is high and self-government is a distant memory. The attitude of our administrative state to all of these people and all of these problems is to encourage dependency and even more tribalism–though it is selective about it in that it picks the winning and losing tribes. The “winners,” as you probably guessed, are the ones who do the most to augment and advance the powers of the Progressives in the administrative state.

Government exists only to protect the free exercise of our individual rights. Government that falls short of that task is, quite simply, illegitimate.

About Julie Ponzi

Julie Ponzi is Senior Editor of American Greatness. She holds an M.A. in political philosophy and American politics from the Claremont Graduate University. She was an Earhart Fellow and a Bradley Foundation Fellow while studying at Claremont and also earned a Publius Fellowship from The Claremont Institute. Formerly the Director of Academic Programs at the Claremont Institute, she also taught American politics at Azusa Pacific University. Her writing has appeared in the Claremont Review of Books, The Online Library of Law and Liberty, The Columbus Dispatch, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and The Washington Times. She was also a regular and long-time contributor to the Ashbrook Center's blog, No Left Turns. She lives in California. You can follow her on Twitter at @JuliePonzi

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