How the Native American tribes Water Crisis Got Here

Native American tribes continue to struggle to secure the most basic of services, such as access to clean drinking water and indoor plumbing.  As I have written about before, tribal homes on Indian reservations in the United States lack access to clean drinking water and sanitation facilities at a rate of more than 20 times the national average. In some cases, a significant percentage of tribal homes on reservations lack access to running water altogether.

How, in the United States in the 21st century, is this possible?  How did it get to this point?  There is no one reason, but there are three major failed federal policies that have contributed to the plight of Native American tribes – removal, allotment, and termination

Removal and Reservation Period

 In the early 1800s, to aid American white settlement, the federal government adopted a policy of removal and reservations. In short, this meant that federal government took tribal land for non-Indian uses.  Eastern tribes were, in many cases, forcefully removed from the East to states like Oklahoma.  Western tribes were not immune. As a price for peace with the United States, many Western tribes were forced to agree to the reduction of their land base and the restriction to reservations. To make matters worse, many tribes were forced to move to lands deemed worthless to non-Indians, which meant they often lacked resources, were frequently not farmable, and were isolated from cities and transportation hubs.

Allotment Period

Native American TribesWith the Indian location and restriction mostly completed by the end of the 19th century, the United States moved to dispersing tribal land and population.  In 1887 Congress passed the General Allotment (Dawes) Act of 1887, which allotted tracts of lands to individual tribal members.  After a certain period, those land could pass to non-Indians, thereby further diminishing tribal landholdings.  The intent of the Dawes Act was to “civilize” Indians, promote farming by individual Indians, and to assimilate Indians into American society.

Stated simply – it was a disaster.  During the allotment era, Indian landholdings were reduced from 138 million acres in 1887 to 48 million acres in 1934. See Bonnie G. Colby, John E. Thorson, and Sarah Britton, Negotiating Tribal Water Rights, Fulfilling Promises in the Arid West, p 5 (2005).  In 1928, a federal report entitled the Meriam Report, correctly blamed the Allotment Act for the impoverishment of American Indians.  The report also documented the appalling conditions in Indian Country, providing:

It almost seems as if the government assumed that some magic in individual ownership of property would in itself prove an educational civilizing factor, but unfortunately this policy has for the most part operated in the opposite direction.

The Report also states:

In justice to the Indians it should be said that many of them are living on lands from which a trained and experienced white man could scarcely wrest a reasonable living. In some instances, the land originally set apart for the Indians was of little value for agricultural operations other than grazing.

Congress ultimately recognized that the Dawes Act was a failure, and attempted to remedy the damage done by passing the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) in 1934.  The IRA ended allotment, and moved to creating and recognizing federal governments.  See The State of Native Nations, Conditions under U.S. Policies of Self-Determination, The Harvard Project on American Indian Development, p. 4 (2008).

Termination Period

 In the 1950s, the federal government sought to end the reservation system and federal trust responsibility with tribes.  To this end, the federal government de-recognized and terminated the government status of over a hundred tribes, making those tribes ineligible for trusteeship and federal funding.  “At the same time, decades of economic and education deprivation left individuals and tribes without the human capital and accumulated wealth by which they might fend for themselves economically.” Id.

Thankfully, Indian policy has changed dramatically since then, but the impacts from the failed Indian policies are still being felt to this day.  Poverty and a lack of resources still plague Indian Country at an alarming rate.  In order for this to change, there needs to be more awareness regarding the dire conditions on this country’s Indian reservations.

Ryan Smith

Ryan Smith

Manager and co-owner of Hohokam™ Water LLC

red-canyon-logoManager and co-owner of Red CanyonTM Water LLC, Ryan A. Smith, has dedicated his career to helping tribes secure access to clean drinking water. Ryan served as Deputy Counsel for the Arizona Department of Water Resources and as professional staff in the U.S. Senate where he secured hundreds of millions of dollars of federal funding for Indian tribes throughout the United States. He continues to work as an attorney, working with tribes to secure funding for critical water infrastructure.

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