From a good read in today’s New York Times by John Tierney:
- The Crow Indians rode with Custer at Little Bighorn, but they have since reconsidered. On the anniversary of the battle Saturday, they cheered during a re-enactment when Indians drove a stake through his fringed jacket and carved out the heart of the soldier going by the name of Yellow-Hair in Blue Coat Who Kills Babies, Old Men and Old Women.
Their revised opinion is understandable considering what has happened to them since that battle to get their valley back from rival tribes. Today it’s a Crow reservation with enough land and mineral resources to make each tribe member a millionaire, yet nearly a third live below the poverty level, and the unemployment rate has reached 85 percent.
What went wrong? Before Custer, the Crows had prospered by trading with whites, but he represented a new kind of white: the one who tells you he’s from Washington and he’s here to help you. As the economists Terry Anderson and Fred McChesney have documented, the downfall of the American Indians correlates neatly with the rise of two federal bureaucracies.
The first was the standing army established during the Mexican War of the 1840s. Before then, settlers who wanted Indian land usually had to fight for it themselves or rely on local militias, so they were inclined to look for peaceful solutions. From 1790 to 1840, the number of treaties signed with Indians each decade far exceeded the number of battles with them.
But during the next three decades there were more battles than treaties, and after the Army’s expansion during the Civil War the number of battles soared while treaties ceased. Settlers became an adept special interest lobbying for Washington to seize Indian land for them. For military leaders, the “Indian problem” became a postwar rationale for maintaining a large force; for officers like Custer, battles were essential for promotions and glory.
Indians no longer had any bargaining power, and they were powerless to resist the troops that avenged Custer’s death. They were consigned to reservations and ostensibly given land, but it was administered by another bureaucracy, the agency that would grow into what’s now the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The agency, in addition to giving some of the best land away to whites, allotted parcels to individual Indians with the goal of gradually transferring all the land and ending federal supervision. But what self-respecting bureaucrats work themselves out of a job?
Oh, the parallels!
As a side note, the defeat of Custer – who was heroically attempting to slaughter an entire village, as commemorated in this popular print from the time – did not dissuade America from staying the course.