LLOYD OMDAHL: Reservation parochialism is not the answer
President Barack Obama has come and gone.
While on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation south of Bismarck, he gave a message of encouragement to all of the residents in Indian Country.
He promised a better future for American Indian children by breaking down the old cycles that have handicapped progress on Indian Reservations. The common theme of his proposals was the idea of giving American Indians greater control of their environment.
Every American Indian deserves the chance to work hard and get ahead, he said. So, he talked economic development.
“That means creating more jobs and supporting small businesses in places like Standing Rock,” he said.
From there, he went on to propose returning control of Indian education to tribal leaders, with additional resources and support so tribes could reform their schools.
While the president was holding out new hope for a distressed people, Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, were appropriately touting the need for more research of Indian problems.
Not to be left out of the parade, North Dakota State University was promoting an American Indian Pubic Health Resource Center, consisting largely of academic programs some distance from ground zero.
Having chaired the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission for Gov. George Sinner for four years, my experience tells me that there is good reason to be skeptical. I have become inoculated against the oversupply of rhetoric and undersupply of everything needed to transform rhetoric into action.
As for the president’s proposals for economic development on reservations, that is a pipedream. The folks in the reservation power structure like to hear such talk, but it is unrealistic. Economic opportunities for American Indians cannot flourish within the perimeters of reservations.
To share in the modern economy, American Indians must think and participate beyond reservations. It does no good to talk about new economic opportunities as long as thinking is confined to the geographic bounds of the reservation.
The casinos were supposed to be the answer to unemployment. They provided some jobs, but unemployment on reservations continues to be high and will remain high as long as the only acceptable employment must be on reservations.
Then there is the president’s proposal to delegate more authority over schools.
If there is authority to be delegated, it will not change education on the reservations. The heart of the education problem — which is the root of reservation unemployment — is the same as it is in non-Indian territory: motivating young people to get an education and become employable.
Russ McDonald, chairman of the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe, got the message.
“No matter what kind of race you are, no matter where you come from, if you’re living in poverty and you become educated, you have the chance to pull yourself out.”
The solution is not deciding who turns the lights on but getting students in the classroom. We keep coming up with temporary answers for permanent problems because they require little courage and cost less money.
Reservations have never been good places for American Indians. They are even worse today because the American economy and society have become nationalized. Isolated pockets of geography may have been feasible 200 years ago, but not today.
While American Indians deserve a greater share of the public resources, performance and accountability must be integral parts in the delegation of more authority. Simply strengthening the parochialism of reservations is not an answer.
Omdahl, a retired professor of political science at UND, is a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota.