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Colonialism: Then and Now


Published April 21, 2020

Persistent colonial policies stifle today’s reservation economies. Breaking the bonds of colonialism requires defining tribal jurisdiction, establishing new governance structures built on rule of law and tribal heritage, and securing property rights—both collective and individual—that help tribal members fully participate in and benefit from the modern global economy.

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For hundreds of years, the federal government has assumed a major and active role in managing all aspects of tribal life – a much larger and more intrusive role than it plays in non-Native economic life. When Native Americans were placed on reservations, the federal government became guardians over its Native American “wards.” 

But in reality, the reservation system was used as an effective way of taking resources from Natives and giving them to non-Natives. Reservation boundaries were often gerrymandered around resources that were valuable to non-Natives. The Dawes Act of 1887 was billed as a way of integrating Native Americans into American society by bringing their property into the American legal system. Indians were allotted 160 acre parcels, but their titles were held by the federal government as the trustee and guardian until they were considered competent and capable. In practice, it further consolidated the loss of personal rights and tribal sovereignty, as individual allotments and other tribal lands were sold to non-natives. 

This “Allotment Era” was made worse by the modern “trusteeship era” in 1934 when native Americans were no longer able to prove themselves competent and capable. Many rules and regulations affecting tribal lands are still dictated from Washington D.C., where the Bureau of Indian Affairs oversees the management of 55 million acres of native land held in trust by the federal government. Tribal governments and members remain legally obligated to defer to federal agencies on everything from land-use decisions to managing a loved one’s inheritance. Most tribal governments are reliant on grants allocated by D.C. politicians and tied to meeting federal priorities, rather than community ones. 

Over the centuries a constantly evolving regime of federal policies overturned economies based on entrepreneurship and replaced them with economies dominated by government interests. Starting a business is now very slow and difficult, because without federal approval tribes and individual natives cannot use trust land as collateral to obtain loans. A flourishing indigenous private sector has withered away. What’s needed to revive indigenous economies is a restoration of true sovereignty and the dynamic economic and governance institutions that existed before tribes were colonized.