Interviews at North American Blackfoot "Indian" reservations

By Hiroshi Onishi and James Craven (Omahkohkiaaiipooyii) (*) - April 21, 2018

Blackfoot Reservation

This article, written mostly as a first-person narrative, explores some of the stark and some would say genocidal, realities of American 'Indian' reservations and Canadian 'Indian' reserves from the experiences, research and travels of Professor Hiroshi Onishi on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana and Blackfoot Reserves in Canada. This work was informed by professor Onishi’s travels to other IndigenouPeoples' reservations in the US, and research in China and Japan among national minorities for the comparisons between conditions, statuses and realities of Chinese and Japanese national minorities versus those faced by American and Canadian 'Indians'. Additional historical material and research findings were provided and integrated into the narrative by Professor James Craven, Blackfoot name Omahkohkiaaiipooyii, a Blackfoot himself and professor of economics who arranged Professor Onishi’s visit, based on his own life experiences as a Blackfoot, and his scholarship over some 40 years on indigenous issues globally and nationally.

1. Introduction

This paper is a collaborative effort written primarily by Professor Onishi Hiroshi based on his travels and research on Native American reservations in the US and reserves in Canada. It was translated first into Chinese from Japanese, and from Chinese into English primarily by Jia Craven, with additional translation into English and additional contextual and historical commentary and fact-checking, by Professor James Craven, a professor of economics, whose Blackfoot name is Omahkohkiaaiipooyii, a holder of both U.S. and Canadian citizenships, and a member of the Apatohsipiikaani Band of the Blackfoot at the ‘Buffalo Jumps’ Reserve at Brocket Alberta - also visited by Professor Onishi. Professor Craven arranged for the entry and extended visit into Blackfoot Country and discussions with some of the traditional leadership and most respected activists, Elders and spiritual leaders who constitute the traditional government and most respected activists of the Blackfoot.

One such person met with was Professor Keith Chiefmoon, whose Blackfoot name is Onistaya Kopi, a former professor of Native Studies at the University of Lethbridge, and a highly respected keeper of the sacred ceremonies of the Blackfoot, into some of which Professor Onishi was given a rare invitation. The narrative, written about the travels and analysis of Professor Onishi is partly written as a first-person account in his voice. Additional commentaries on indigenous economics and international law were made, context added, based on the life experiences and some forty years of scholarship on indigenous issues of Professor Craven.

In May and June of 2011, Professor Onishi visited the Kainai (Blood Band) Blackfoot reservation at Cardston, Alberta, Canada, after visiting some other reservations in the USA including the Blackfoot (Blackfeet or Amskaapipiikaani) reservation at Browning, Montana. From this visit Professor Onishi acquired some understanding that there are not only economic disputes between Native Americans and the American and Canadian governments, but fundamentally about the 'Indian' [sic] Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934 in the US and the 'Indian' [sic] Act in Canada, and the whole system of blood-quantum, definition, registration, and administration of ‘partly sovereign’ first nations by non-'Indians' (that many feel are clearly intent on the genocidal assimilation or extinction of First Nations and their remnants).

2. Some disappointments and contradictions commonly pointed out among Blackfoot 'Indians'

(1) Life is extremely difficult and harsh. For example, Keith Chiefmoon, a former professor of Native Studies at the University of Lethbridge, and his extended family, live and farm in the countryside under typical living conditions much worse than those for the neighboring white farmers. Reserve Blackfoot typically live on about 350 Canadian dollars per month for all expenses. Houses are broken down, often high in radon gas levels and with only two small rooms to house many family members. Other native families have about the same living conditions. All must have cars as the Reserves are isolated, with no medical facilities nearby and of course there is the peer pressure from a car-oriented society. Roads on the Reserve are often not paved and thus cars suffer costly rock damage.

(2) There is a typical Reserve unemployment rate of around 90 percent and with many jobs held by family members of Band Council Members at the Reserve. Most of the youth people go outside of the reservation to find jobs, but they still face a lot of discrimination against them. Even when they are graduates from college or university, the employment rate among them winds up only around 1–2% and they wind up in urban areas homeless or on social assistance payments.

(3) The Canadian government claims that spending on education in 'Indian' Reserves is very high, but that is illusory. Government helped open a community college, but had not provided enough for its maintenance and operation.

(4) The government’s allotment of ‘Rez-Indian money’ is typically only about $375 per month for living expenses including rent and utilities, gas, food, clothing, and auto insurance, which is far from enough. The government wasn’t helping in the repairs of the home either. Life expectancy for a Reservation-based native male is 44 and 46 for a female, as compared with 71 and 73 for white males and females, respectively.

(5) Some of the Reserves still have no roads. The people must build the roads by themselves.

(6) Drinking water must be bought in bottles as the tap water is contaminated with all sorts of chemicals and radioactive substances (In 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency in the US listed 73 toxic waste sites, 72 of which were 'Indian' reservations). This also causes poisoning of agricultural products grown in the area.

(7) At the Blackfoot 'Indian' reservation at Browning, as with the other Reserves in Canada, there are ongoing lawsuits and demands for investigations against the federal and state governments for mismanagement of Native American funds, corruption, cronyism, nepotism, unlawful and coerced sterilizations, theft of Native American lands and 'Individual Indian Money' (IIM) accounts.

There are many problems in Blackfoot people’s lives, most of which are economic in nature and origin. The situation is comparable with the national minorities in China, and in both cases, the problems are historical. But some of the fundamental causes today for disparities and conditions of poverty typically suffered by first nations (relative to non-natives) are different than the causes of disparities and conditions of poverty suffered by Chinese national minorities relative to members of the Han majority populations in China. The legal (international law and domestic laws), social, and economic status and the place of national minorities in China, along with the class and ideological nature of the Chinese Government, policies and system are very different, historically and in the present, from those of the Canadian and American States. These differences produce some of these disparities between the US-Canadian realities versus those of the Chinese systems in terms of de jure as well as de facto status of respective national minorities.

In order to develop this idea, there are more examples of the unique legal and social status of Indigenous Peoples in America and Canada taken from other reservations. In Minnesota, among the first nations that fish, there is the ban on commercial fishing every year from February 26 until mid of May. But the natives always start fishing one day before the lifting of the ban on the basis of asserted treaty and other legal rights, and US Supreme Court decisions on their limited sovereignty and treaty rights to fish, which causes friction between them (and their treaty and aboriginal rights under international law) and the non-native commercial fishermen and their families and supporters. There are some parallels here with China in that there appears to be some emerging resentment among some from the Han national majority alleging discrimination in some forms of ‘special treatment’ accorded to national minorities (exception to one-child policy, etc.) as part of policies to redress some of the historical inequities suffered by national minorities that are embodied in, and constrain, present-day China and its economic development.

On the Canadian side of the US-Canadian border[1] as on the American side, the Kainai Blackfoot Reserve is far away from any big cities. They thus don’t have the amenities to draw in non-native tourists and consumers generating jobs and other businesses including at the local casinos. Libraries and facilities for learning are extremely limited in scope and depth.

In Canada and the US, the Supreme Courts have recognized 'Indian' nations as ‘nations sui generis’ (of a special type) with ‘limited sovereignty’ which includes exemptions from some state/provincial as well as federal taxes and regulations including in gambling. Today, in the US, out of 562 federally-recognized Indian ‘tribes’[sic], 239 of them operate some 448 ‘gambling businesses’ (not all casinos) in 28 out of 50 states earning average annual revenues of some $26.7 billion in gaming and another $3.8 billion from hotels, food and souvenirs. Where gaming under these regulations represented 20% of all casino revenues in 1993, it rose to 44% in 2010 with 45% of revenues from commercial gaming and 11% from ‘Racinos’ (race tracks plus casinos). Casino revenues rose steadily up 15% over the period 2002–2005 and suffered small losses for the first time only in 2009 ( When American 'Indian tribes’ have opened a casino, most of the time it is the biggest local industry. I have visited two 'Indian' casinos in New York State, and some others in Minnesota. The casino of the Onondaga Nation in New York State, which was the center of the famous Iroquois League, is also a sponsor of the American Indian Movement (AIM) leader, Dennis Banks, and is routinely visited by the US Department of Justice to protect the well-known reservations against criminal elements attracted to casinos.

I learned that the main industry in this reservation is also a casino, although casinos are typically seen as threatening to indigenous cultures and ways. Basically the non-native casinos outside of reservations are highly restricted and more competitive with each other, thus the 'Indian' casinos are seen as very profitable, more so as compared to non-indigenous ones. Despite the common name of ‘casinos’, different states have different requirements. But beneath the façade of super profits is the reality that few of those profits go anywhere near the average native on a typical reservation. For example, according to one study with data from some fifty casinos by James Craven, typically, of each dollar of casino profit, 51 cents go to ‘investors’ (all non-indigenous like Harrahs, Balley, Trump, etc.); about 31 cents go to consultants, licensing, taxes, etc., all non-indigenous; about 5 cents go for Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) holding and administrative fees; and about 5 cents go out in local corruption and skimming by insiders. This leaves about 8 cents of each profit dollar going anywhere near the reserves and their natives in programs and per-capita distributions. Further, the non-indigenous ‘investors’ provide the ‘vertical and horizontal integration’ infrastructure, machines, and buildings, and thus can over-charge as ‘costs’ and reduce profits on paper available for distribution to Native Americans.

The casinos are just like Japan's treasury vault stores on a smaller scale, but there is not this kind treasury vault store in the cities of the United States and Canada because they were and have been forbidden (but 'Indian' reservations do not need to comply with certain ordinances and taxes). As a result, non-natives gathered in these areas looking for isolation and minimum supervision, taxes and regulations. On the surface, the natives in the reservation may seem to enjoy certain protections, exemptions from certain laws, and are to the possibility (from an economic point of view) to take monopoly profits. In fact, like in the famous Nevada and New Jersey casinos opening, casino entrance is completely free for non-natives while for the natives, access is highly restricted. In addition, in some places outside of the Montana Blackfeet Reservation, one can also see a lot of commercial casinos, as those casinos have permission to open on adjacent Blackfoot land leased to non-Blackfoot. The grounds for these exemptions are that the Montana ‘Blackfeet’ reservation is connected with the scenic Glacier National Park with significant tourist attractions.

In this particular case, residents of the Blackfeet 'Indian' Reservation at Browning strongly opposed lifting the normal ban on non-native casinos because the only way they can benefit is to prohibit off-reserve areas being allowed to open casinos. This highlights a contradiction between the ‘limited sovereignty’ of Native American nations on the one hand, and their status as recognized nations on the other (a group being classified as a nation with all the rights of nations, is a matter of facts on the ground and a stipulation of international law rather than the recognition or non-recognition by other nations, and all nations are assumed to be equal in rights and responsibilities under international law). Historically, the colonizing settlers recognized early on that the very same system of property rights they developed and employed to justify their own acquired (often outright stolen) private property, also called into question, under the same legal constructs, that very property, their property, as ’private property’, as an institution allows only for property that is legally held to be legally bequeathed, sold or gifted. Under international law even at the time of settlements, property could only be legally held and sold under law in the case of: 1. gift; 2. bequest; 3. sale (but only legally-held not stolen property could be gifted, bequeathed or sold); 4. property acquired from the spoils of ‘just war’ (defensive only); and 5. ‘original discovery’ (one cannot ‘discover’ a place with people already indigenous there). Thus all the property of the European settlers could be seen to be stolen not only in native's terms, but more importantly, in terms of their own property rights and laws that they, the settlers, evolved and invoked to justify and legally sell their own property however initially and illegally acquired.

3. The economic activities of American 'Indians'

In general, most of the casinos on the reservations are on Federal Government property. The benefits obtained are supposed to be allocated to Native American residents, which makes some on the Canadian side of the Blackfoot envy the reservations on the U.S. American side who are able to open a casino. Often, however, the natives are not skilled and trained at how to find and use the existing commercial opportunities, and they are often frozen out, even when schooled, from certain levels and roles in businesses, natives and non-natives. At the casinos, you will find a few who stereotypically ‘look Indian’ as greeters, waitresses, cashiers, and sometimes card dealers. All the upper-level positions are in the hands of non-natives.

For example, in the United States side, the Blackfeet Reservation, which is partly in the East Glacier tourist area, typically the 'Indian' you can spot is as a gas station employee, room cleaner at the motels, and perhaps as a waiter in restaurants owners almost all owned bu non-aboriginal people. In addition, another tourist destination – the Santa Maria region, the specialty shops and resort hotel staff are almost all non-indigenous people (who might define themselves as whites or blacks). In fact, an Arizona 'Indian' reservation has just become a ‘tourist attraction’ for the first time that an 'Indian' reservation has become tourist destination itself, and this is important business opportunity not to be snatched away. It appears that the reservations, like the Blackfoot Reserves, are often rich in oil, gas, dinosaur fossils, and ammonite, yet are still far more sluggish in the scope and depth of their development than what is found in Tibet, now under governance of China.

The Canadian Blackfoot reserve’s Keith Chiefmoon told me that the actual population of the Kainai Reserve is about 5,000. Genuine Blackfoot business owners are very limited. Although his brother is one of the few, his business is only at home (not a shop) to sell tires, and he has gas stations along the main street of the reservation. Collectively, the five main reservations and reserves of the Blackfoot make up about 2.6 million acres (bigger than Israel and Palestine together) with some 40,000 or so Blackfoot people left, most of whom are off the reserves and reservations and almost all are of mixed ethnicity (25% ‘blood-quantum’ from a given nation is required for federal ‘recognition’ and ‘registration’ of 'Indian' nations as well as of the status and access to government allotments of each registered 'Indian'; this is statistical extermination).[2]

I stayed for two days at Montana’s Blackfeet reservation and only saw Native American employees working at casinos, gas stations, and police stations, all in relatively menial positions. Alcoholism, crime, teenage pregnancy, high-school drop-outs, and drug addiction are rampant and very evident on the reserves and reservations. These all fuel the hopelessness that is so common. Alcoholism is seen everywhere, such as when I was washing a rented car, an indigenous man leaned over and asked where I was going. I answered him and he told me which direction to go. Then he said: ‘I've already helped you, give me some money’. Often people start off early in the morning with a strong smell of alcohol. Moreover, even if there are no such ‘services’ like the unsolicited ‘directions’ I was given, panhandling is common as suddenly a young native girl surprised me by walking up to me: ‘buy gas, give me $5’. I only stayed for a very short period of time, but went through these types of interactions twice, which can only be seen as a ‘career’. If one can make a living out of this, a decent job seems unnecessary. On the other hand, if there are no decent jobs, begging becomes a way of life, survival and degradation.

4. The problems of the ‘reservation system’

During many visits to American 'Indian' reservations, I learned something about many other circumstances that I cannot discuss due to space limits. I would like to make some brief comparisons between the American and Canadian 'Indian reservation system’ with China's national autonomous region system as defined and analyzed by Chinese scholars on and from the national minorities.

There are as many as 371, some say up to 403 ratified American 'Indian' treaties with the United States federal government, and many fewer in Canada. According to Senator Daniel Inoye, Chairman of the US Senate Select Committee on 'Indian' Affairs, of the some 800 treaties, some 370 plus were ratified between the US government and first nations. The aboriginal people kept the terms of all 800 treaties, even the un-ratified ones, while the US government systematically and serially broke the terms of all 800 treaties. By international law, Article 29 of the Vienna Convention on Treaties, only sovereign nations can sign treaties. Further, each signatory nation, in signing a treaty, is recognizing the co-equal status, sovereignty, nationhood and system of government of the other treating partner[s] (that produced the government and leadership with the authority to sign the treaty binding its population to the terms of the treaty). Just as the existence and legitimacy of the People’s Republic of China and its government was a matter of facts on the ground and of international law in 1949, and not a matter of recognition or non-recognition by the US or its allies for over thirty years, so it is with any nation of people. Otherwise, any nation could do as the US and Canada have done, which is to simply deny the existence of fully sovereign, co-equal in law, and independent first ('Indian') nations with respect to their own rights to independence, self-determination, sovereignty and freedom from genocide. This is what was done to the People’s Republic of China and other nations for so many years – attempted extinction via redefinition and denial of recognition. Therefore, many American' Indians' regard and call their reservations ‘nations’ as defined under international law. But sadly, the governments of the United States and Canada call them ‘nations sui generis’ (of a special type) which does not exist in international law just as being ‘somewhat pregnant’ does not exist in medicine. In China in contrast, the various national minorities have been national minorities and not separate nations with unique rights under international law, and integral, sometimes ruling, parts of a broader Chinese civilization, for many thousands of years.

On both sides of the US and Canadian border where Blackfoot and other trans-border nations live, there are ‘tribal police’, ‘tribal courts’ and ‘tribal governments’ alongside the US and Canadian federal and state/provincial police, courts and governments. They handle local and mostly small-level crimes and reservation-based civil issues. There is no national currency on the reserves other than the dollar for use inside or outside of the reserves. There is no military force. The Blackfoot do have a traditional constitution developed at the grass-roots level, but it is still evolving. But the essential conditions and elements of the legal definition and thus rights and responsibilities of a nation under international law remain for many, but not all, 'Indian' nations (some have become national minorities).

These features and criteria are:

(1) historical and historically-recognized land base;

(2) common culture and language;

(3) common economy;

(4) common polity, systems of governance, leadership selection and common criteria for definition and recognition of members of the nation;

(5) commonly-expressed desire to remain a nation.

Thus many 'Indians' ask why any other nation has the right to determine who and what is a ‘citizen’ or ‘real member’ of another nation (e.g., in registration and ‘federal recognition’ of 'Indians' and 'tribes' and ‘blood-quantum’ requirements) especially when selective definition and recognition or non-recognition, or asserted ‘blood-quantum’ requirements, can be used, have been used, and are being used, as instruments of genocide.

A variety of benefits from government programs, not as much as in popular myths, are presented partly, it is claimed, based upon the rights and obligations of the treaties. Of course the terms of all the treaties, without exception, have been serially broken even before being signed. And many aboriginal nations, especially in Canada, do not yet have treaties, or, as with the Blackfoot and Treaty 7, they do not recognize that the Blackfoot chiefs ever signed it. The exemptions from some state and provincial taxes and ordinances on the reserves is based on a notion of limited sovereignty (quasi nationhood) which was simply asserted through conquest and in US and Canadian Supreme court decisions, and not found in international law.

But to maintain even the fiction of a treaty and limited sovereignty means that 'Indian' nations can be forced to support themselves when convenient for the federal governments, and yet be under federal control when convenient for these governments. The point is that ‘sovereignty’ is selectively defined as ‘limited’ or ‘sui generis’ and is then applied or denied selectively. 

Nagoya University researcher Mizuno Yumiko has been studying this issue for a long time, and she expounded the importance of the requirements of ‘public rights’ in her book (Mizuno 2007). Of course, American 'Indians', 'Blacks', 'Hispanics', 'Asians' and 'Caucasians' [N.B.:all racist terms] are different in some profound ways from their respective histories in America and elsewhere. Many Native Americans do not know, or have long since forgotten, the importance of autonomy and treaty-based rights. To illustrate this point, we must first introduce the 'Indian' Reservation residents and their special statuses in terms of political, national and civil rights. Some readers may ask: since 'Indians' may be seen as nations, are they also full or partial nation-states? If not, why not?

'Indians' in America and Canada today have voting rights in federal, state/provincial and local elections. They could not vote in the US as late as 1958 in Arizona, and not until 1963 in Canada. 'Indians' were summarily declared American citizens in 1924 and Canadian Citizens in 1963 with no consultation with the 'Indians' concerned. This was done to try to administratively declare indigenous nations to be citizens and national minorities of the broader sovereign settler nations, and thus asserted not to be subject to international law as both US and Canada were attacked for their own human rights records and history of genocide against indigenous nations and peoples.

There are elections at the indigenous ethnicity (nation, clan or band) levels, but they require individual membership and ‘federal recognition/registration’ which requires a 25% blood-quantum from that 'tribe' (some 'Indians' are considered ‘full-bloods’ but cannot register as they are not an estimated 25% from any one 'tribe') and many on the reservations cannot document their ‘blood-quantum’ (a biologically and scientific worthless and racist construct used for genocide historically). In the isolated rural areas, at the county and reservation level, there is large scale corruption common on the elected 'Tribal councils'. Elections are often rigged for the candidates favored by the Bureau of 'Indian' [sic] Affairs (BIA) in the US and Department of 'Indian' [sic] Affairs (DIA) in Canada. The few jobs on the reserves often go to family relations and cronies of 'tribal council' members. Even to sell a rock found on the ground to a 'non-Indian' requires a DIA or BIA permit as 'Indians' are treated as ‘wards of the state’.

The reservation and reserve systems in the US and Canada have very different origins and purposes than the autonomous region system in China. The reserves in Canada and the US are about enforced relocations, isolation, marginalization, limited but convenient forms of ‘sovereignty, assignment to marginal lands, and ultimately, assimilation into 'non-Indian' society on the margins and in menial capacities. In China, guided by Marxist policies on the national question, historical legacies and an appreciation of that history cannot just be assumed away, but rather live within and constrain the present. The myriad existing conditions of poverty that remain in China, including in the autonomous regions, severely constrain and limit the survival of the cultures of the national minorities of China. The autonomous regions are intended to take into account the reality of the uneven development and contributions of national minorities in Chinese history to preserve and draw upon indigenous cultures, while at the same time integrating them into the broader framework of China in ways that allow them to develop and participate in the overall development of China. Chinese policies differentiate progressive versus reactionary forms of nationalism. China’s policies on national minorities and autonomous regions aim at keeping those progressive forms of cultural identity and cultural preservation while controlling reactionary or socially destructive forms of ‘nationalism’, separatism or secessionism in service of foreign and domestic powers that do not mean China well. In China, unlike in the US and Canada, one can find national minorities in very responsible positions and directly represented in the Communist Party of China, the Peoples’ Congress, national and local governments, universities and schools, the arts, business and media. That is not the case in America or Canada, noting a few exceptions that do not refute but prove the rule.

In Canada, on the reserves, there are 'tribal' councils that act like the parliament and executive branches of a government together with a separate 'tribal' court that applies versions of aboriginal and non-aboriginal law. There are restrictions against Native Americans in Canada living on the reserve participating in the local county elections that are being removed. 'Indians' living outside the reserves, where they have housing and other property rights are just like the 'non-Indian' public, have the right to vote in the county elections, but 'Indians' who are living inside the reserve did not yet have this voting right. This is a critical problem. Even with the right to vote, however, it still depends upon the ‘menu of choice’, and how, by whom, and in whose interest is that menu of ‘choice’ of candidates crafted. In this sense, political parties and ‘political pluralism’ lead to vote dispersion and dilution and thus less, not more, ‘democracy’ and real people’s choice.

In programs covered by the federal governments, such as educational budgets, educational programs, and culturally-sensitive pedagogy, the 'tribes' have some sovereignty and control. But in state or provincially controlled programs, the reserves and reservations have no real input or control over these programs administered directly by the county and state governments and not by the federal government. This may be because the native first nations only signed treaties with the federal government (and not subject to control over or by the state governments according to the US Supreme Court decisions). However, if 'reservation Indians' have any disagreements with state or county government decisions, and there are no appropriate corresponding local channels of appeal, then 'Indian tribal councils' would have to directly negotiate with the state or provincial government. For example, the teaching programs of reservation education are extremely important, but the county government is often very arbitrary in their decisions. To express dissatisfaction with these decisions, the 'Indians' have to negotiate with the state government. Because of these costly and time-delaying negotiations, the Alberta Provincial Government of Canada set up an Education Advisory Committee and Keith Chiefmoon is one of the members of the committee. He had to drive 300 kilometers many times between reservation and the provincial government. The following diagram can be used to illustrate such relationships and divided powers:

Table 1. County government and reservation government: Levels of decision making

Federal government   commissioned items State government commissioned items

County County Government has decision right

Reservation Reservation Government has decision right

This figure related to the Native American 'tribes' might seem strange. The Blackfeet reservation at Browning lies across several counties within the state of Montana, but which county is determinate or controlling in negotiations between tribal, county, and state governments? This is critical in that the US Supreme Court ‘Marshall Rulings’ ruled that 'Indian' nations are sovereign with respect to state governments (Cherokee vs. Georgia), but are of limited sovereignty under the federal government. Here is a very important point: for many years the reservations were listed under the counties of the states yet the big reservations tend to be classified in several different counties. This can be confirmed from the following three graphs.

These graphs show Montana's three largest reservations in map photos. Figure 1 shows the comparison between the Blackfoot Reservation and the Glacier County. Figure 2 shows the comparison between the Fort Peck Reservation and the Roosevelt County and other regions. Figure 3 shows the comparison between the Crow Reservation and the Bighorn County region. These figures show that on the one hand, reservations as big as a whole county have been classified as a part of other counties, and on the other hand, parts of the non-reservation areas have been classified as ‘reservation’ in the formation of a county and its borders of county or state government authority’. In this way, the result is what Table 1 illustrates about the reservation areas where the state government commissions matter: (1) reservations belonging to different counties become much more dispersed and unable to coordinate their policies; (2) respective reservation, county and state governments make decisions on matters often impacting – but without involving or negotiating with – reservation 'Indians' in the counties. Since state and provincial governments cannot make and ratify treaties, 'Indian' sovereignty is further limited by reservations and reserves falling within states and counties that have extra-Constitutional and no treaty-based means and forms of control over what are also considered ‘nations’ (and their members) within their borders.

Figure 1. Comparison between Blackfeet Reservations and Glacier County 

Note: the thick line is the boundary between Glacier County and the light tan part is reservation.

Figure 2. Comparison between Fort Peck Reservation and Roosevelt County

Note: the thick line enclosed area is the Roosevelt County, and part of the light-tan area is the reservation.

Figure 3. Comparison between Crow Reservation and Bighorn County

Note: the thick line is the boundary of the Big Horn County, and the light brown part is the reservation.


5. Some comparisons between the Indian Reservation/Reserve systems in US and Canada with China's ethnic autonomous region system

In accordance with the central notion that nations, once established as such under international law, are equal with other nations, are the only entities legally capable of forming and keeping treaties, are sovereign and have the right not to be forcibly assimilated and subject to genocide, one could imagine that, although the Native Americans in reservations might exist as members of a separate and sovereign ‘nation state’ (as has happened with dissolutions of broader into smaller nation states in history), they could not likely be politically or economically independent or truly sovereign within the present type of system of the US or Canada. Many Native Americans have said that they cannot survive, let alone prosper within the present system, which is geared for genocide and forced assimilation under the cover of some kind of faux or ‘sovereignty’ sui generis (Pevar 1992). This situation is made worse by the fact that under the present system, there is no legal authority over non-'Indians' living on the reservations.

In the case of China, the situation is very different for the 55 national minorities of China who are not legally considered nations under international law, as throughout Chinese history, national minorities have been integrated and assimilated into a wider Chinese unified civilization, sometimes ruling powers over larger groups in ways and at scopes and depths that make international law on nations and rights of self-determination, independence, sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs not applicable to national minorities in China. The autonomous region system for national minorities in China is designed to preserve their unique cultures and local self-governance in ways that not only preserve these cultures and aid their development within broader processes of the development of China, but also to preserve some of the traditional ways (medicine, foods, clothing, the arts, etc.) from which other national groups and China as a whole can benefit. The problems and disparities that exist for national minorities in China today do not result from a government policy of intended genocide, forced assimilation or the like, but from the historical legacies of China and the myriad problems and crises that still must be balanced and addressed in China today and in the future. Without the policies and autonomous regions in China since the Liberation in 1949, the vast majority of national minorities and their cultures in China would have been lost long ago or be threatened today. [N.B.: Based on the correspondence ECOTERRA Intl. an fPcN received, this specific paragraph is heavily disputed by all representatives of indigenous nations that were contacted within China and seen as mere Chinese government propaganda spread even into the heads of foreign academics.]

In the US and Canada, government policies have decimated not preserved 'Indian' nations, the Indigenous Peoples of Canada and their cultures.

           In the US and Canada, with social and political systems different from that of China, the reservations and reserves are seen by both outsiders and insiders as places for the exploitation and destruction, not preservation and development, of Native American cultures and nations. They are surrounded, defined and continually oppressed by, as well as dependent upon, non-'Indian' government intent on their total dissolution as nations of any type, dependent and captive or not. Those traditionalists advocate total independence out of desperation, realism, and international law, and are not considered separatists or secessionists by many as one cannot ‘separate’ or ‘secede’ from a nation of which one has never been an integral part or even a marginal part. In fact, on the Canadian side, members of three of the Blackfoot reservations declared independence from Canadian and British governments on 29 November 1999 and de-listed themselves as ‘DIA-registered Indians’. This strategy, like that employed by the Irish in 1916 against Britain, has not gone far as most of the residents of the reserves are desperately poor and will lose a variety of social security benefits and programs. They are not really willing to suffer the losses that would occur under full independence. Our opinion is that this strategy is not a viable, although lawful (in international law) demand and path for the remaining 'Indian' nations at this stage of history under these conditions with the few members left to construct and run an independent nation. There is also the fact that Native Americans have more in common with the oppressed of other nationalities than with oppressors in their own ranks or in service of outside forces. There is also the fact that in no nation is the population homogeneous and without classes and factions seeking power over others. Thus the question for all nations and national minorities, 'Indians' and 'non-Indians' is: who (which class) really rules and in whose interests?

           Then, under these circumstances, what kind of ethnic autonomous system is most needed and consistent with the preservation – not destruction – of Native American national minorities or nations and their cultures? We believe that two important proposed changes need to be examined and debated in the systems in America and Canada. First, the reservation and county governments could have the same political status and be able to vote or have direct input in the tribal programs and expenditures. Secondly, 'non-Indians', or those classified as such by blood-quantum rules, living inside the reservations, could have voting rights on laws and issues affecting them while living on the reservations and that the blood-quantum rules could be abolished, to be replaced with ‘community recognition’ for tribal membership (imagine if the government of China sets the criteria and determines who and what a real Japanese is). Some 20 to 40 percent of the reservation population are classified as ‘non-Indian’ (some are community recognized but cannot meet blood-quantum requirements) and are living on the American side of the Blackfoot and Fort Peck reservations. There are also 'non-Indians' in reservation government.

           In this way, ‘Indian country’ disappears and ‘multi-ethnic autonomous regions’ appear that can address the historical legacies and unique needs of Native American national minorities and nations. This may be opposed by some First Nation activists as regressive, or even as a system of assimilation and de facto genocide, as was intended all along, but if 'Indians' and 'non-Indians' can co-exist in the same area, then to explore and build structures of the ‘coexistence’, as is the intent of the autonomous regions in China, is very important. At the same time, the maintenance of treaties with the federal governments of Canada and the US, to continue to receive recognition of the special status and history of American Indian nations is still possible and needed as the effects of history will remain for some time to come. Nationalism and ethnic identity may be progressive forces or reactionary forces. For oppressed peoples, nationalism and ethnic identity may be necessary to discover and forge bonds of identity and common purpose against their oppressors and/or to grasp the historical conditions that left them behind other groups. Nationalism and ethnocentrism in the service of oppression and imperialism or colonialism are reactionary and set back groups that employ them.

           We believe that US and Canada need to clearly modify their Constitutions to allow for and include direct participation in all levels of government, and to have representatives of the First Nations in the US and Canadian governments and legislatures as is found in China with autonomous regions and special localized and culturally-sensitive voting procedures. This program would resemble the system of China's ethnic autonomous regions. In China, the leadership of the autonomous region has a special relationship with the regional secretary of the Communist Party, and there is no direct electoral system at the autonomous prefecture level except in some very local elections for local officials. But the real issue is not simply having elections. Elections and the so-called ‘multi-party political pluralism’ mean nothing, or might be even worse than open plutocracies and dictatorships, if the ‘menu of choice’ and the candidates from multiple political parties do not, de facto in reality and not just de jure on paper, represent any real differences in policies, and if the overall social formation is dominated by the type of mode of production that needs and feeds on exploitation of national minorities as in the case of the US and Canada.

           In the autonomous regions and autonomous prefectures of China, representatives of the national minorities are from both direct popular vote and indirect (within the CPC) elections of officials. The Constitution of China recognizes the historically generated needs and concerns of national minorities while at the same time recognizing their historical roles as fellow Chinese and integral members of a broader Chinese civilization lasting thousands of years.

           In the US, some have suggested the need for other programs to expand Native American voices at the county and state level and for the establishment of something like an ‘Indian electoral district’ to expand Native American voices at state and federal level. Because 'Indians' are an extreme minority, they lack the voting power to participate in state and federal elections to produce their own elected members. It has been suggested that a small number of seats in the legislatures are set aside for them, so that Native Americans will retain one seat or some level of representation in the Houses of the Federal Parliament or Congress and the state and provincial legislatures. We believe that the Ainu people in Japan could also have this right. In fact, this resembles the Chinese system, because in China, when electing the representatives of the people who will determine the central and provincial government policies, they must seek to ensure that they elect their representatives in accordance with overall structure of the population and its 56 ethnic groups.

           In China, as in the US and Canada, many national minorities live outside of their traditional areas. In North America, with many registered 'Indians' living off the reservations in the cities, there is increasing concern about the ‘city Indians’ being able to express their opinions on issues on and off reservations that affect them, as well to prevent the loss of tribal lands stolen from relatives who died on the reserves without wills. As mentioned earlier, the reservation's unemployment rate are so high that many young people are driven to leave the reservations to wind up intoxicated and dead at young ages in the city, leaving reserves as dying villages with little hope for the young returning to manage and build on what is left. But to have aspiring Native Americans living and thriving on the cities, acquiring needed skills is also very important as in any nation.

           Although for many Native Americans living in the cities, their ‘origins’ are on the reservation, and they have been engaged in activities related to exercising their right to vote in the reservation elections and affairs, asking them to care about the reservation elections is still very difficult. It would be better to enable them to focus on the opinions and demands of the state and federal governments in their immediate living situations as Native Americans, and to ensure that their votes reflect the views of Native Americans in the cities with their own unique off-reservation needs. This also may persuade them to leave the reserve. Such an intent may conflict with their ‘strengthening the Indian nation’ which requires special ‘ties to the land’. But we still think that rather than trying to achieve ‘nation’s independence’, priority should be given to the urgent survival imperatives and immediate basic needs of everyday life, since only people staying alive can preserve and build a nation.

           Of course, there are very different histories and conditions when comparisons are made between North American Natives and national minorities in China. The period of ‘takeover’ and ‘conquest’ of national minorities by the United States and Canadian Governments cannot be compared with China. For example, the great-grandfather of Keith Chiefmoon, one of the Blackfoot Chiefs, Red Cloud, was alleged to have signed Treaty 7 with General MacLeod in 1877. Keith Chiefmoon is still using this memory, and the reality today under the Canadian and US governments regarded as genocidal by many including Chiefmoon, as the basis to work on the independence of the Blackfoot nation. Their argument is that they do not face the ‘choice’ of independence or assimilation as national minorities, but only the ‘choice’ between ‘independence’ and total extinction (physical and cultural) as the real intent of ‘assimilation’.

           We, as many others, including some Blackfoot activists, believe that history should not be ignored. At the same time, American Indians also need to face the actual situation in terms of the ‘choice’ of assimilation or extinction as individuals and in terms of what can be saved of their own nations and cultures. With respect to the future of Native Americans, research of China's ethnic autonomous system has provided a good example for comparison. 


This research was supported by the funding of the JSPS[MSOffice10] Asian Core Program.

Notes on contributors:

Hiroshi Onishi is professor of economics at the Keio University, Tokyo, Japan, professor emeritus of Kyoto University, vice chairman of the World Association for Political Economy, and vice president of the Institute for Fundamental Political Economy. His current research mainly focuses on mathematical modeling of Historical Materialism based on his deep understanding on the occurrence, rise and decline of capitalism. This understanding has been published in a monograph soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, entitled ‘Socialism’ as Pre-capitalism and Socialism as Post-capitalism, which has been translated and published in Russia in 1994, in Korea in 1999, and in China in 2002.

James M Craven, Blackfoot name Omahkohkiaaiipooyii, is professor of economics and geography at Clark College , Washington State, USA. He has published on political economy, international law on genocide and nation, economic geography and imperialism.


Bunko, Asahi. 1993. Holy spirit. [City of the publisher]. Dennis Banks.

Kirkey, Sharon. 2011. More than half the drinking water on Canada's first nation reserves poses a ‘significant risk’ to the people who use them, according to Canada's interim auditor general. Postmedia News. June 9

Limerick, Patricia, 1998. The Legacy of Conquest: the Unbroken Past of the American West. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Nagoyadaigakushuppankai. 2007. Between the Indian and civil. [City of the publisher]. Yumiko Mizuno.

Pevar, Stephen. 1992. The Rights of Indians and TribesACLU Handbook Series. 2nd ed. Carbondale, IL,: Southern Illinois University Press.[MSOffice12] 

* Corresponding author. Email:

[1] The 1855 Lame Bull Treaty was signed by chiefs and governments of the Blackfoot bands from both sides of the border recognizing a sovereign Blackfoot nation existing across the border of both nations capable of signing and keeping treaties with another nation.

[2] ‘Set the blood-quantum at one quarter, hold to it as a rigid definition of Indians, let intermarriage proceed, and eventually Indians will be defined out of existence. when that happens, the federal government will be finally freed from its persistent Indian problem’ (U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, quoted from Limerick, Patricia, 1998. The Legacy of Conquest: the Unbroken Past of the American West, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, p. 338).



James Craven - Tenured Professor (Retired) Visiting Professor/Consultant Economics and Geography - Economics Department, Clark College, Vancouver, USA

Hiroshi Onishi - Faculty of Economics, Keio University, Tokyo, Japan

Translated by Jia Craven

With some additional editing by fPcN for this publication of the study - mainy to change or highlight racist, derogatory terms, that unfortunately still are dictated by not (yet) revised USAmerican or Canadian legislation. We are almost 20 years into the new Millennium and these racist laws hav still not been vetted, which shows clearly the the intention by The Powers That Be to further denigrate Native Americans just continues. This must end.