Rose Stremlau: Indigenous Financial Literacy

Today we welcome a guest post from Rose Stremlau, author of Sustaining the Cherokee Family: Kinship and the Allotment of an Indigenous NationHere she explains that despite the efforts of allotment imposed upon indigenous populations by the federal government, some native people found smart and inventive ways to thwart this predatory system and keep their land within their families. -Alex.

Most American parents would rather give their kids the awkward “birds and bees” lecture than talk about money. In a study published in April 2011 by investment firm T. Rowe Price, researchers also concluded that parents think they do a poor job modeling fiscal skills.  No wonder that experts lament Americans’ financial illiteracy and that our general lack of economic know-how contributed to the real estate and debt crises. We can look to the rich and famous for role models, but the fabulously wealthy sometimes didn’t earn their fortune. Also, a sizeable bank account doesn’t equate to skill at managing money, and living the good life often comes at the cost of being a decent human being. Where can we turn for better examples? History.

I just completed a book that explains how Cherokee families survived a fiscal crisis called allotment. Between 1887 and 1934, allotment, the subdivision of common land into small, individually owned tracts, was a central component of federal-Indian relations. Reformers advocated the program as a means to assimilate Indian people into the margins of American society. Across Indian Country, allotment resulted in impoverishment, and if desperation was reason to assimilate, then it sometimes caused that, too, although to a lesser extent than its champions had predicted. American Indian communities survived, but non-Indians gained title to much of their land through fraud and, more often, the legal but ethically questionable ways in which Indian estates were managed, taxed, and probated.

The policy devastated Indian communities. Across the US, tribal land holdings declined from 138 to 55 million acres. Indian communities did not experience dispossession evenly, however; those in more desirable areas, like the Cherokee Nation located in what is today northeastern Oklahoma, lost the most. The dismemberment of tribal land bases has created an enormous range of obstacles to economic development and has caused immeasurable suffering. But that is not the whole story, at least not for Cherokees.

The heroes of this tragedy are those who figured out how to survive within this predatory system in order to provide for their families and live with dignity. In the face of enormous obstacles including a hostile legal system, an unresponsive bureaucracy, and racist officials, some Cherokees held onto their land. As I finished writing their story, the American economy slid into a deep recession, and now the world knows that our national financial house is in chaos. It will take years for us clean up this mess.

As we do, let’s look less to billionaire businessmen and talk show economists for advice. Instead, let’s learn about financial literacy from Abe and Margaret Sixkiller, who opposed allotment but raised their children to understand the society that they never would have picked for them. Contemporary outsiders repeatedly commented that the Sixkillers were hard-working and practical, but I noticed another pattern in the historical record as well: their loyalty to one another. The family held onto their farm because their adult children practiced reciprocity and shared resources generously among themselves.

Let’s also emulate Noah Sand. This elder shocked a judge when, during the probate of his late son’s alloted land, he quietly shared his theories about estate planning by explaining that he did not want the inheritance, which would be taxed again when he passed away. Instead, he wanted his surviving son, Will, to receive all of the family’s land. Noah lived several more years in a household that included Will and Will’s wife and children, and the family held onto their farm because of Noah’s selflessness and foresight.

Finally, let’s admire Tinna Dog. Tinna managed her family’s resources with a shrewdness that both impressed and annoyed those who repeatedly, unsuccessfully tried to swindle her. She practiced income diversification: she farmed, rented out another property, and leased wells for oil and gas revenue. She also invested in her grandchildren, seven of whom she raised. Tinna bought five dairy cows and an electric cream separator for two of her granddaughters to start their own business as a way to bring additional income into the household. When she died, Tinna left them a farm and the skills and means to sustain it.

Allotment impoverished Indian communities because the misguided policy established a predatory system that legally robbed people of their homes and farms. Most Indian people lost land through no fault of their own. Those who held onto it demonstrated a financial literacy that remains applicable in our own time. We can look beyond the consumption-driven examples set by modern-day “economic successes” to see the sound fiscal values and practices rooted in relationships, work, generosity, planning, and persistence that comprised indigenous financial literacy.

Rose Stremlau is assistant professor of history and American Indian studies at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.