Opinion: Maybe it's time to end reservation system

"Maybe we should give land back to the rez-dwellers, so that they may own private property the way other Americans do. Currently, the inability to put up land as collateral for personal mortgages and loans is a major obstacle to economic development. This problem is complicated by the fact that not all reservations have adopted uniform commercial codes or created court systems that are independent branches of tribal government -- the sorts of devices and institutions that give confidence to investors who might have the means to fund the small businesses that are the engines of rural economies.

Tribal ownership of the land is defended as the sine qua non of Indian sovereignty, which many activists regard as sacrosanct. It maintains the semifictional notion that the reservations are separate nations within the U.S. Although tribal members are American citizens, the reservations themselves are exempt from many federal and state laws. This is why so many Indian casinos have sprung up in areas that otherwise curb gambling.

Sovereignty also is understood as a form of cultural protectionism. Without it, goes the thinking, Indians eventually will follow the course of immigrant groups and assimilate into the great American melting pot. Intermarriage between Indians and non-Indians is pervasive, especially off the rez. More than half of all Indians already marry outside their race, according the Census. For racial purists who believe that the men and women of today's tribes should be preserved like frozen displays in natural-history museums, this is a tragedy akin to ethnic cleansing (albeit one based on love rather than hate).

Yet the real tragedy is that reservations, as collectivist enclaves within a capitalist society, have beaten down their inhabitants with brute force rather than lifting them up with opportunity. As their economies have withered, other social pathologies have taken root: Indians are distressingly prone to crime, alcoholism and suicide. Families have suffered enormously. About 60% of Indian children are born out of wedlock. Although accurate statistics are hard to come by because so many arrangements are informal, Indian kids are perhaps five times as likely as white ones to live in some form of foster care. Their schools are depressingly bad."

Get the Story:
John J. Miller: The Projects on the Prairie (The Wall Street Journal 1/27)