At the beginning of this incredibly surreal political season, Donald Trump, devoted a large portion of his maiden speech as a contender to the topic of illegal immigration. Of course, he was infamously referring to Mexicans, among other ethnicities, but the eruption in various echo chambers talked only about modern-day illegal immigration into the United States per usual without any thought to the irony of how we got here. The remaining population of Native Americans living on the reservations we so humanely allowed them to have (insincerity included) are still suffering in ways that rival any inner city or desolate border town. Naomi Schaefer Riley lays it all out in her new book, The New Trail of Tears.
For those younger readers who may not understand the reference, the ‘Trail of Tears’ is the macbre monkier given to the forced marches Native Americans were led on by the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Numerous tribes were pushed off their land and given a long and arduous path to their new lands. Thousands died along the way.
So why refer to that black hole in our nation’s history? I believe Riley’s intent is to compare that journey to the current long, dark, and seemingly impossible road out of the perpetual cycle of hopelessness, poverty and death the populations on the reservations are stuck in. At this very moment, many of the schools are literally falling apart and classrooms are standing empty due to shortages of teachers. And as the educational output decreases, so does the opportunities for the next generation, thereby dooming them to fall into the trappings of the generation before.
The levels of alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual abuse, and nearly every other societal ill on the reservation is at or above national averages. The most heart breaking statistic actually appears in the preface of the book as Riley notes, “Suicide is also the leading cause of death for Native American males aged 10 to 14.” That’s beyond horrific. Those are children, who should never need to even comprehend the idea of killing themselves, but instead are reminded of it constantly each time another friend of theirs disappears.
Some adults on the reservation are making attempts to help those children out of whatever horrible situation they are in. Certain schools actually provide a “lock-in” event over particular weekends. While to the outsider this may seem like a punishment or some type of forced activity, it’s explained to Riley that the “lock-in” weekends coincide with the timing of the government checks, which quickly turns many homes into a drunken, drug-fueled hell. The schools are actually providing a safe haven for the students while the adults sleep it off.
The New Trail of Tears dives into many more statistics and piles of evidence to show where things are going wrong and possibly why, but you begin to wonder, “What can be done?” Riley gives some suggestions without sounding prophetic and overconfident about if and how these solutions can be implemented.
Her number one answer goes back to education. Giving the children on the reservation the absolute best education possible she believes is the number one way to decrease the hopelessness and increase the human capital in those communities. She also believes an ongoing problem is the federal government has been trying to fix these issues for years only by increasing funding to various programs and agencies. Her strongest animosity is reserved for the BIA, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, an agency she claims is financially bloated and legendary for inefficiency.
The Native American population historically owns the title of longest oppressed people by the United States government, but the book doesn’t make a case for trillions in reparations or anything like that. Riley calls for the government to release its hold on the reservations, allow the people to buy, sell, lease, and develop on that land as they see fit (currently they can’t because the reservation lands are held in a federal trust and all development must be agreed on by both the government and the entire tribe.) That’s just one step at the beginning of a long list, but one step at a time is exactly how all lists get finished.
The New Trail of Tears is a stark reminder of those communities not featured on our nightly news or mentioned in most national politics. They have and continue to suffer in a country that was stolen from them generations ago. The time has long since come to bring them into the “American Dream”, even if it began with their ancestors nightmares.