Termination and Idle No More

Mark Trahant*

Republished with permission from Mark Trahant’s blog, http://www.marktrahant.org/marktrahant.org/Mark_Trahant.html, or https://www.facebook.com/IndianCountryAusterity,  January 11, 2013

Today is the day of action for IdleNoMore. In cities across Canada, across the United States, globally, and via digital media, there is a shared connection with the challenges facing First Nations as they press their case with the Canadian government.

The legislation that started this uprising was a budget measure, Bill C-45, now recast as the “Jobs and Growth Act, 2012.” (A good roundup of the legislation from the six nations is here.)

It’s significant that a budget bill was the spark because the same political winds blowing from Ottawa are also blowing hard in Washington, D.C. “The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which set up its ever-ticking massive debt clock on Parliament Hill last week, declared the country is “broke” and points out that Canada’s debt hit $563-billion, a record and one that wiped out more than a decade of steady reductions with one massive $56-billion federal budget deficit in 2010,” according to the National Post. The paper says some analysts put Canada’s debt-to-GDP ratio anywhere from 30 percent to as high as 80 percent.

Canadian politicians see the extraction of natural resources -- quickly and with little environmental oversight -- as the key to paying down this debt. So the government is quite willing to sacrifice native people as part of the deal. (And, from their point of view, as a by-product, spend less federal dollars on First Nations.)

One example: The expansion of the Alberta tar sands. “The First Nations in this area are questioning whether the expansion will have a negative impact on the surrounding wildlife habitats and the health of their members. Shell’s previous expansion has already caused substantial damage to the nearby wildlife and has had significant health effects on First Nations people living in the proximate areas,” says a piece in The McGill Daily.

The end result is borrowing a failed policy from the United States, termination. In the United States, termination officially began on August 1, 1953, when Congress enacted House Resolution 108. “Whereas it is the policy of Congress, as rapidly as possible, to make the Indians within the territorial limits of the United States subject to the same laws and entitled to the same privileges and responsibilities as are applicable to other citizens of the United States, to end their status as wards of the United States,” the resolution said. Yet termination didn’t really take off as policy until the late 1950s and 1960s. It was a terrible idea that slowly evolved into a disasterous policy. But the tribes first hit with this policy were those with abundent natural resources.

The budget side of the termination debate, then, and now, was so easily cloaked by the words that sounded like good deed. Utah Sen. Arthur Watkins, in words that sound very much like some Canadian commentators, viewed the treaty era itself as an aberration. The Indians “want all the benefits of the things we have, highways, schools, hospitals, everything that civilization furnished, but they don’t want to help pay their share of it,” he said.

As I wrote in The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars, a young Henry Jackson complained about the cost of Indian adminstration. He asked on the floor of the House. “Is it not true, may I say to the gentleman from South Dakota, that it costs more to take care of the Indians in the United States than it costs to operate the legislative branch of the government?” Then Jackson elaborated. “Twenty-six million dollars, I believe it is. The budget this year for the legislative branch of the government, and the Bureau of Indian affairs, I believe, is going to get $30,000,0000 this year.” South Dakota’s Karl Mundt followed Jackson and continued with this same theme. “We have been appropriating funds for Indian administration at least since 1775, when Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry and James Wilson were appointed Indian Commissioners by the Continental Congress. For 170 years the total of our annual appropriations for this purpose has been growing. Today our Indian population is increasing twice as rapidly as our white population. Unless we do something to reach a fair, just, and permanent solution to the Indian problem, that will incorporate the Indian into our national economy, we are going to have to look forward to spending increasing millions every year on Indian administration. That would be the inevitable result of a ‘do nothing’ policy.”

So once again in Parliament (or soon in our Congress) the idea of native contribution to society is reduced to a ledger item, an expense. And the opposite of do nothing, is to do something that will be a disaster.

It will be interesting to see if today’s meeting between First Nations and the government does anything to change that thinking, the same thinking that evolved into what we know call termination.

*Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He lives in Fort Hall, Idaho, and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Join the discussion about austerity. A new Facebook page has been set up at:https://www.facebook.com/IndianCountryAusterity.