Alexandra Harmon: Public Reaction to Indians’ Pursuit of Wealth

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Rich Indians: Native People and the Problem of Wealth in American History, by Alexandra Harmon[This article is crossposted at FirstPeoplesNewDirections.org.]

We welcome a guest post today from Alexandra Harmon, author of Rich Indians: Native People and the Problem of Wealth in American History. In a previous guest post, Harmon addressed wealth disparities within Native American communities. Here, she explores the differences in public discourse about wealthy Indians compared to discourse about wealthy non-Indians.

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I have followed with great interest the increasing public discourse about economic inequality in the United States. Spurred in large part by the Great Recession and reactions such as the Occupy movement, people who previously tended to avoid the subject—politicians, pundits, journalists, scholars, and others—are acknowledging the extreme lopsidedness of American wealth distribution. Thanks to the ongoing fiscal policy debate, the discussion has not waned with the end of election season, and the questions being addressed include the social contributions and obligations of our wealthiest people. (See, for example, Chrystia Freeland in the New York Times, November 29, 2012.)

Americans have periodically debated such issues before, of course, and some examples are worth considering in the current era. That is why Rich Indians: Native People and the Problem of Wealth in American History seems timely. Among other things, it offers accounts of earlier public soul-searching about issues such as what the rich owe their society, the social benefits and hazards of unrestrained individual property accumulation, and the relationship of power to wealth.

When I began research for the book, the 1990s were just ending. Because the tech boom and the comparative prosperity of that decade colored Americans’ view of opportunity in our capitalist economy, public talk about the obligations of the rich was much scarcer than now. A few commentators did remark on the growing distance between high and low incomes, but they also noted Americans’ apparent unconcern about inequality and their admiration for people who were profiting spectacularly from the good times. Meanwhile, my eyes were on a widely publicized rise in the economic fortunes of some American Indians who had launched casino gaming businesses, and I noticed a difference between discourse about their success and the discourse regarding financially successful non-Indians. Whether the speakers and writers were Indians or non-Indians, references to ethical or moral principles were decidedly more common when the subject was prospering Indians. Indians’ seemingly novel involvement in lucrative capitalist enterprise was prompting a lot of people to articulate and debate some of the values, moral choices, and problems implicit in gainful activity.

That reaction to Indians’ pursuit of wealth has a lot to teach us, not only about common conceptions of Indians but also about dilemmas inherent in Indian/non-Indian relations and in America’s economy because of that economy’s foundation in lands and resources appropriated from indigenous peoples. The lessons become clearer and more profound if we also consider history; hence my motivation for writing Rich Indians.

Most Americans would be surprised to learn that neither high-visibility Indian wealth nor the controversy it generated was unprecedented in the 1990s. Rich Indians considers several such historical precedents, describing questions that arose both for Indians and for non-Indians in four different centuries when Indians were in possession of substantial economic assets. The book shows that questions about the compatibility of Indian and non-Indian economic aims and practices came with European colonial settlement in North America and have persisted into the present. It shows that wealth alone has not been a guarantee of power for Indians. Ultimately, by identifying recurring themes in the controversies concerning Indian affluence, the book confirms that current questions about economic relations in the United States are deeply rooted in our history and culture.

Thanks to publicity about the lavish business revenues of some Indian tribes, images of Indians as rich gambling tycoons now coexist with Indians’ long-standing, well-founded reputation as chronically poor. Consequently, the controversy that arose two decades ago with the tribal casino boom has continued, especially in the Indian media. And as before in history, the issues in controversy are not issues for Indians alone. If you doubt that, just ask the many non-Indian politicians and charitable organizations receiving major donations from tribes, or ask the thousands of non-Indians employed by tribes and unsure of their rights to bargain collectively for higher pay, or ask the people caught up in disputes about whether they can claim membership in prospering tribes. Or read Rich Indians.

Alexandra Harmon is professor of American Indian studies at the University of Washington. Her books include Rich Indians: Native People and the Problem of Wealth in American History, The Power of Promises: Perspectives on Northwest Indian Treaties, and Indians in the Making: Ethnic Relations and Indian Identities around Puget Sound.

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