Entitlement or Obligation?

I’ve been reading a lot about all of the places where budget cuts under the present administration are threatening services in Indian country. Rightly or wrongly, we hired our current president to straighten out the national economy and lead us to a better standard of living. So, it follows that there will be places where unnecessary expenditures will be trimmed away. The caveat however, as always, will be: unnecessary from who’s perspective.

There is always a lot of talk about the entitlement mentality; that somehow a segment of the population has gotten the idea that the government should be responsible for their sustenance. And I fear that Indian country is being lumped into that perception.

It certainly is a common public perception that Native Americans are beneficiaries of the state. The federally-recognized Natives are quick to accuse anyone who wants to find a place in their community of wanting a piece of their pie; that is also the crux of their opposition to any new tribal entities achieving Federal recognition. And I have heard wannabee individuals express an interest in gaining access to funding that has been set aside for Native individuals and groups; they want to be included in those entitlements.

The problem is, however, that many programs that are being labeled as entitlements are not. Social Security is not an entitlement; workers pay into the program and receive their investment back at a later time. Yet, somehow, we are hearing the sentiment that it is a government handout that needs to be curtailed. Similar observations are often made regarding the Indian Health Services and other services that are made available to Indian country.

What seems to be forgotten now is the relationship between the United States and Indian country. Each tribe remains a sovereign nation. The services offered to those nations are treaty obligations; they are foreign aid.

I have an acquaintance who is one of the chiefs of the Onondaga nation. I was told a story by a mutual acquaintance of his accompanying the chief to Washington DC to expedite some services for his nation. After being shuffled around throughout the Bureau of Indian Affairs, he finally got some satisfaction when he suggested that if the government did not wish to honor its obligations, they should give the Onondaga their land back!

I am afraid that the government is trying to place their treaty obligations to Indian country in the wrong budget column. They are not unnecessary, nor are they expendable.

Back to Traditional Governance?

There are several things about the Trump presidency that concern me; his administration is a mixed bag, to say the least. But I was struck by one criticism out of Indian country that prompted me to remember one aspect of the nature of the governance of the United States that has changed since the origins of that nation.

As we roll up on the 250th anniversary of the founding of the United States of America, we have become accustomed to the concept of the career politician. There are still those who rail against it, yet it has become the status quo. People who engage in national politics are expected to do so as a career avocation. And those offices are now monetized in such a way that one term in office is sufficient to establish a long-term lifestyle arrangement.

Gone are the days of the public servant that temporarily lays aside his/her own avocation to offer a term of service to his/her country, after which they resume their previous activities. We forget that the Founding Fathers, whatever you may think of them, were successful businessmen who felt compelled to pledge their “lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor” to a cause greater than themselves. Several of the signers of Declaration of Independence paid dearly for that pledge.

Now we have a chief executive that has temporarily laid aside his own financial endeavors to offer service to his country. The merit of his efforts is far from decided and the impact of his legacy remains to be seen. But it seems rather disingenuous to criticize him for maintaining an interest in his personal affairs outside the realm of his responsibilities to the country.

By law, he will only have eight years to make his mark on the national history. At this point, I expect that he will then gladly return to his former activities without any further adieu. I have no reason to suppose that his motive is significantly different than that which he stated from the beginning: he wanted the opportunity to allow an individual from outside the political establishment to mold the trajectory of the national history for a change.

How that will ultimately play out remains to be seen. Whether or not the Trump empire continues to flourish while he is only peripherally involved in its day-to-day operations is just that: peripheral.