Economics and Politics: Interview WBAI 2-15-98 with Doug Henwood

Economics and Politics INTERVIEW WBAI 2/15/98
(Doug Henwood and Jim Craven)

DH: There was a court decision in Canada last December in British Columbia where the Canadian court decided that Indian claims to property in BC were actually well grounded and that this may have a substantial effect in Canada about who owns what. A lot of these disputed lands are rich in resources, so this is not mere matter of landscape, it’s also a matter of big money.

Jim, before we get going, just a word on nomenclature. I’ve been saying “American Indians” all along, and I know a lot of folks prefer Native Americans, or the Canadians use First Nations, what’s the word on language here?

JC: There’s a mixed bag on that. Most of the people that I know use the term American Indian. What they mean by that is an Indian of the Americas. The reason why many will use that is first of all, Indians weren’t even American citizens until 1924. Many Indians also feel that they’re not real Americans, there’s no real place for them in America, and they are sovereign nations within a nation. They prefer the term Indian rather than the term Native American. Also many Indians I know don’t like the nativism that’s associated with that term Native American, and there may be some implication that the further back here your ancestors go, the more “real” American you are; and most Indians that I know don’t share that kind of sentiment. They don’t differentiate people by how far back your ancestors go. The actual word Indian didn’t come from Columbus looking for India and missing the boat. Rather, when he came here there was no India. The Indian comes from the term “la gente en dio” – the people in god. They’re also referred to as “Los Indios.” Columbus called them gentle and loving people and thought they would be easy to turn into slaves, which is what he actually wrote in his diary. Most of the people I know prefer to use the term American Indian, but they don’t mean an equivalent to “Irish-American” or Jewish American”, they mean an Indian of the Americas, which includes Central, South American and Canada.

DH: Now let’s talk about this decision from the Canadian Supreme Court. What’s involved with this decision that’s relevant to the US?

JC: First of all, the decision didn’t go as far as some people might think in terms of of really laying out full use, full custody, for indigenous lands. But it was an extremely important decision in the sense that it was a recognition that some of the very same rights and privileges and laws that protect property today in white society, call into question the very property they protect. For instance, suppose you find all around you your relatives and neighbors being slaughtered and the people who are doing the killing send a message that you’re next. You flee for you life, leave your home. Somebody moves into your home and destroys all records, histories, whatever that show you occupied that home. Then they proceed to go ahead and sell your home to someone else who had no idea how it was acquired. The new owner holds that property only as long as the true story isn’t told. As soon as the true story is told about how that property was originally acquired, even under mainstream or capitalist law, that property becomes tainted. The new owner doesn’t get to keep it, even though he innocently bought stolen property. The same thing holds here. More and more the courts are realizing that when the true story is told and it becomes evident that so much Indian land was stolen, and by stolen I don’t mean according to Indian law, I mean according to white law, capitalist law. What happened with the Canadian decision was that for the first time or almost the first time they are starting to admit oral histories and historical place names as a basis for establishing original occupancy. What happened historically was that American society was confronted more and more with this contradiction, and this contradiction was by virtue or your own laws, not Indian laws, this is stolen land; ill-gotten land.

So the answer to that was, first of all, you know Indians never really had a concept of private property or territory; therefore, in Indian terms, nothing was really stolen from them. That was the first myth. The second myth was, well, Indians never continuously occupied territorial lands, or Indians never made “improvements” on the land; therefore, they don’t hold ownership in the way that we establish legitimate ownership. So there were attempts to rewrite history to get around that contradiction, that being by virtue of capitalist law, that property is stolen property. Now what’s happening is that the courts, right now there’s a case going on whereby thousands of non-Indians are being sued by the federal government on behalf of the Cherokee, Chocktaw and Chickesaw nations having to do with the Arkansas River because it turns out that as a result of a 1970 Supreme Court decision, that land was treaty land and it was illegally sold to non-Indians. So now these mineral and land owners are all being served notices that they don’t hold title they once thought they held. So what we’re seeing now is a recognition that either you’re going to have to come out in an open, naked say and say, yes, we have sacred laws but they’re only situationally applied; they’re not really that sacred. If you’re non-white they don’t apply. If you’re not “American” they don’t apply. Or they’re going to have to make some kind of attempt to apply consistency.

DH: This speaks to what Marx calls primitive accumulation, which is the origin of private property through act of theft or in claiming private land that was previously held in common. So whether we’re looking at the enclosures in England or the theft of native lands here in North America or in what’s going on in a good bit of the Third World today, the capitalists have not really lost much sleep over the contradictions of their own tradition. Do you think this is actually going to give them pause? Force them to come to terms with their own hypocrisy?

JC: I think that the extent to which this happens is as much is as necessary. Their primary goal is to maintain the system as it is and the basic power structures as they are. But they do make concessions when contradictions require it. Their policies represent very few of ultra rich, but they need a mass social base, especially when you have the illusion of a democracy, participatory democracy, they need a mass social base to ratify policies which are actually in the interests of a very few ultra rich people. How do you do that? One way is to push hot button issues, like abortion and whatever. They try to get people to vote one way or another on single issues for a party that can never represent the interests of those who are actually voting for that party. That’s one way. The second way is of course through mystification and rewriting history: American the most moral, decent, productive, efficient, richest, beacon of democracy, and so on. Of course then they don’t discuss all the ugly dictators we’ve supported and are supporting cause there’s a contradiction there. The other way they deal with it is to make concessions on an ad hoc situational basis. So when those contradictions surface, become really glaring, naked, they will make such concessions as are necessary to keep the façade going. So they say, yeah, you got me, you got me there. According to my own laws, this is stolen property, you’re right. So they’ll return bits of land, piece by piece. Of course usually what happens is that land returned bit by bit, they just find another way to get it. What you’ll see is big developers who come in and front certain interests in the tribal councils, and they wind up getting the land back through “normal commerce,” or they’ll find ways to counter-litigate and tie people up in court for extensive periods of time through expensive, costly litigation. But still they’re caught in that contradiction between the façade of the system and the façade they need to maintain that system vs. how the system really works and for whom it really works.

It’s quite clear: out of 22 industrialized countries, the US is No. 1 in wealth and income Inequality. We’re number one in infants born at low birth weight; homicides; substance abuse; executions; imprisonment. We’re number one in a whole bunch of indicators that don’t speak very well for us. Those indicators are an indictment of that very system itself. The average life expectancy for most Indian males is between 49 and 52 years old. For Indian females, 47 and 51 years old. That’s as opposed to a white male around 71 and white female around 73.

DH: Those life expectancies are really about the bottom of the poorest portion of the Third World. We’re talking about some pretty bad social rankings here.

JC: That’s correct. The infant mortality rate is much lower in Cuba than it is among Indians in North America. In fact, it’s lower than all of America combined.

DH: Let’s talk about the social-economic conditions that Indians in America live in. I think people who live in urban areas might not think about it very often. Where do folks live, just how bad off are they?

JC: It will vary, of course. But for the vast majority of reservations in this country, and I’ve been on many, people are isolated, it’s very stark, almost all the businesses are owned by non-Indians. Typically you get about 12 or 15 cents on the Indian dollar that stays on the reservation, the rest is shipped out in banking and other services. Savings are little, and what little savings that occur don’t stay on the reservation, taken to big banks in the big cities, it’s never reinvested on the reservation. You have tribal councils that sometimes are corrupt and sometimes not. You have big developers with extensive agendas with their eyes on the prize, with various ways of identifying the mineral rich land and moving in to get it 10 cents on the dollar. You have very few children graduating from high school not to mention going to college and graduating. You have one Indian Health clinic overworked and understaffed. You have high incidences of tuberculosis, incidences of AIDS because of kids going to urban areas and becoming involved in prostitution and drugs and returning with AIDS. So the clinics are overstretched in terms of demands and ability to meet those demands. You have high incidences of alcoholism and drug addiction, about 5 times the national average, teenage suicide roughly five times the national average.

People say then, well what about the casinos? The best studies I’ve seen suggest that out of each casino gross profit dollar about 18 cents actually goes to the tribe because you’re taking out consulting, licensing fees. So only about 18 cents stays with the tribe and of that a large amount is taken off by the powers that be in the tribe, so that maybe 5 cents of a casino dollar comes anywhere near the average Indian on an average reservation. So casinos are not the panacea that everyone talks about. Plus you lose part of the heritage and culture when you enter that type of enterprise. It’s a very sad, stark existence. It’s an indictment. People talk about genocide on Bosnia, and we should definitely be concerned about that because we’re all human beings, we’re all part of this planet. It’s interesting by the way that in the Inuit language there’re 103 words for snow, but only one for people: which is “Inuit” (human being) There’s no word for black people, white people, red people, there’s just one word: human being. And so we should be concerned about Rwanda and Bosnia, but there’s genocide going on right here in America, and as long as it keeps going on it’s an indictment of this country. For those who say why should I care, I’m not Indian, the issue is that the best form of “national security” is having a society that’s worth being secure.

DH: How does the situation of American Indians compare with that of other indigenous peoples around the world, say in Australia or Canada or New Zealand?

JC: Well, from what I’ve been able to see, the situation in New Zealand and Australia with respect to aboriginal people is actually somewhat better than the US in terms of available services, recognition of aboriginal rights – it’s not a rosy picture, there’s still very brutal exploitation there–but there is more recognition that when this kind of subjugation and genocide is going on inside your borders it’s an indictment of the whole nation. In terms of services and national sovereignty, in Canada, in my opinion, it’s much better than the US, although again if you go to Saskatchewan and Alberta and whatever, it’s still a very stark existence on Indian reserves. I worked on a Cree reserve and conditions then and now still are pretty raw. But I would say that they’re better than here in the US. The US is way behind in terms of addressing not only land issues but issues of national sovereignty and what’s happening. If something isn’t done now I suspect that there won’t be any Indian people left in three generations.

Narrator: Because of their death or because they will blend into the surrounding society?

JC: All of it: death, blending, all of it. Part of it has to do with the redefinition of Indian people by non-Indians. This is a serious issue. The other thing is the powerlessness. Just imagine if you had a football team called the New York Niggers. Or the Kansas City Kikes. Or the San Francisco Spiks. Imagine that they have the watermelon shuffle. Some caricature of a black person coming out and shuffling around. There would be an absolute outrage and rightly so, because that’s really ugly stuff. But nobody thinks even twice about the Washington Redskins, the tomahawk chop Kansas City Chiefs, the Cleveland Indians with the buck-tooth, illiterate looking Indian icon. We’ve seen so much sensitivity, and rightly so, to injustices that have been done to blacks, Jews, Hispanic people, and we should, but when it comes to Indians, we see all sorts of stereotypes and caricatures that no one would dare make with respect to any other group, and part of it comes from the fact that we have no national Indian voice or leadership, but part of it is the whole history that well, they’re dying anyway, they have no power anyway, they’re off on their own anyway, so just let them go.

DH: You say there is no national Indian movement, virtually one publication of any significance. Why is there this lack of cohesion, lack of voice?

JC: Well, a lot of it has to do with the divide and rule tactics that have been used against Indian people for hundreds of years, where they would separate tribes and where there were some territorial disputes, and not even disputes really, disputes were created. A good example is the Hopi and Navaho. The Hopi and Navaho have been inter-marrying for generations. But because there is some uranium and coal some land disputes were started. The Paiute and Navaho are another example where the powerful, mostly for economic interests, played one off against the other. These divisions continue to this day. Just imagine: we don’t have, for example, a Bureau of African American Affairs, of Polish Affairs. But we have a Bureau of Indian Affairs. What do they do? Right now, for example, there’s close to $3 billion missing in BIA accounts. Missing! Nobody knows where it went. And the records were all torched, they weren’t even put on computer backup. We’ve got another case where, because Indian royalties were undervalued by oil and mineral interests according to the formula they were using, almost $6 billion of royalties due tribes being ripped off by undervaluation of oil and gas royalties. The BIA also has been caught, for example, fronting for developers, identifying mineral rich lands and then aiding developers in getting some of the land at 10 cents on the dollar. The BIA should be abolished; they’ve done far more harm than good. Their argument is that now, for example, to recover your money you’ve got to stick with us because otherwise you have no chance of getting the tribal monies that are missing – almost $3 billion dollars missing. But the BIA is a custodial agency, a broker on Indian issues. It was formed to take care of “internal colonies” – it’s part of the Department of Interior and says, “we can’t trust you Indians to deal with non-Indians directly.” So if non-Indians want to deal with Indians they have to go through the BIA. There are some exceptions to that, but not many. It’s a gatekeeper between various nations and non-Indian people and other interests. Again, we get to the same problem. Can you imagine if we had a Bureau of African American Affairs, or Bureau of Caucasian Affairs? There would be an outrage if there was something like that, but nobody says anything when it comes to Indians.

DH: What might a more humane set of policies look like?

JC: I can only speak for myself, but basically it comes down to the fact that there needs to be more coherent and cohesive outreach to non-Indians. Indians alone are not going to be able to solve these problems. They need natural allies. Part of the problem is to break down a lot of the stereotypes and myths, you know, about the rich Indian from casino money, and so on, among non-Indians. Indians need to work with working class people and progressive intellectuals and whatever, to say, these are the myths you’ve been told about us. We don’t think you’re the enemy, because your skin color is different. Please join us because our fight is your fight. You know, there was a time in Germany when people said, well, I’m not Jewish, or homosexual, or trade unionists and therefore this isn’t my problem. What happened is they were living in a Nazi society where it was only a matter of time that anyone with a heart or an IQ over 60 could be next. It’s the same thing about Indians in America. If you don’t care about Indian issues, well go ahead and say that now, because you may be next, because it means you live in the kind of society that allows genocide, that allows this kind of desecration of the sacred, if you want to put it that way. And it’s only a matter of accident as to whether or not you’re next. So we need to reach out, we need to build united fronts, common concerns, break down stereotypes, and need to educate. We need to say, listen this is all of us, we need to stay together. We don’t want to take your land, please don’t steal ours. By virtue of the very same principles that you hold sacred that defends your property, then please understand that our lands, our rights, our birthrights, our cultures and heritages have been stolen from us and we need to define ourselves, we don’t need non-Indians defining what is “authentic” Indian and what is not.


About jimcraven10

About jimcraven10 1. Citizenship: Blackfoot, U.S. and Canadian; 2. Position: tenured Professor of Economics and Geography; Dept. Head, Economics; 3. Teaching, Consulting and Research experience: approx 40 + years all levels high school to post-doctoral U.S. Canada, Europe, China, India, Puerto Rico and parts of E. Asia; 4. Work past and present: U.S. Army 1963-66; Member: Veterans for Peace; former VVAW; Veterans for 9-11 Truth; Scholars for 9-11 Truth; Pilots for 9-11 Truth; World Association for Political Economy; Editorial Board International Critical Thought; 4.. U.S. Commercial-Instrument Pilot ; FAA Licensed Ground Instructor (Basic, Advanced, Instrument and Simulators); 5. Research Areas and Publications: International law (on genocide, rights of nations, war and war crimes); Imperialism (nature, history, logic, trajectories, mechanisms and effects); Economic Geography (time and space modeling in political economy; globalization--logic and effects; Political Economy and Geography of Imperialism); Indigenous versus non-Indigenous Law; Political Economy of Socialism and Socialist Construction; 6. Member, Editorial Board, "International Critical Thought" published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; International Advisory Board and Columnist 4th Media Group, (Beijing); 7. Other Websites publications at;;; 8.Biography available in: Marquis Who’s Who: in the World (16th-18th; 20th; 22nd -31st (2014) Editions); Who’s Who in America (51st-61st;63rd-68th(2014) Editions); Who’s Who in the West (24th- 27th Editions);Who’s Who in Science and Engineering (3rd to 6th, 8th, 11th (2011-2012) Editions); Who’s Who in Finance and Industry (29th to 37th Editions); Who’s Who in American Education (6th Edition). ------------------- There are times when you have to obey a call which is the highest of all, i.e. the voice of conscience even though such obedience may cost many a bitter tear, and even more, separation from friends, from family, from the state, to which you may belong, from all that you have held as dear as life itself. For this obedience is the law of our being. ~ Mahatma Gandhi
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