The man whom it pleases a large but unpleasant minority of Americans to call their president has made little secret of his hatred for Native Americans. In the 1990s he questioned the identity of his business rivals, the Mashuntucket Pequots, declaring before Congress that “They don’t look like Indians to me.” He accused the Oneidas of building a casino as a front for organized crime. More recently he labeled one of his political adversaries, Senator Elizabeth Warren, who had (somewhat inaccurately) claimed Cherokee ancestry, as “Pocahontas” – a slur in the sense that it blurred the identities of different Indian nations together, and caricatured Native women. DJT also held a ceremony honoring Navajo/Nadene “code talkers” in front of a portrait of Andrew Jackson, perhaps the most famous Indian-hater in American history. The chief executive sees Jackson as one of his personal models, though unlike Jackson he prefers slow-motion genocide to a more complicated program of ethnic cleansing.
That, at least, seems the implication of the Trump administration’s current Native American health policies. In his recent budget proposals to Congress, the president* called for cuts to the Indian Health Service, a vital agency for people who suffer both from poverty and chronic illnesses. Earlier this month, the Trumpista Department of Health and Human Services confirmed that, after Indian leaders asked for an exemption from several state governments’ newly-imposed Medicaid work requirements, the DHHS refused. Native Americans, the department said, comprised a racial group, not sovereign entities, and deserved no preferential treatment. Since 1976 Medicaid has served as a complementary funding agency with the Indian Health Service, and restrictions on Native people’s ability to use Medicaid would place a huge, probably unsupportable, burden on the IHS. Medicaid work requirements, meanwhile, are a dumb idea to begin with – good health is a prerequisite to full-time work, not the reverse – and would pose a particularly large barrier to health care for Indians, who thanks to the isolation of reservations suffer from an unemployment rate above ten percent. The policies, taken as a whole, seem designed to deny Native Americans access to health care and condemn tens of thousands of them to early deaths. That crosses the line from callousness to murderous intent.
The DHHS declaration that Native Americans are not sovereign entities is almost equally troubling. It simply does not conform with the facts. Indigenous Americans signed 400 treaties with the United States between 1778 and 1871. In those treaties the U.S. government repeatedly affirmed Indian nations’ possession of most of the core attributes of sovereignty: defined territorial boundaries; a government-to-government relationship with a sovereign power (namely, the U.S. government); a defined national identity, with (in some cases) the ability to define who was a member of the nation; and national resources, like land or school funds or annuities (paid for with land cessions) under tribal control. These resources, let us note, included federally-provided health care. The Treaties of Medicine Lodge (1867) and Fort Laramie (1868), for instance, promised that the signatories would receive physicians and infirmaries in return for the large land cessions they made to the United States. The modern IHS, which former director Mary Smith called “the largest prepaid health system in the world — [paid for] through land and massacres” – descends from these inter-sovereign obligations.
I’ve written about the relationship between treaties and sovereignty before. Here, let me just reiterate that most independent nations have recognized these as sovereign attributes since the 1931 Montevideo Convention, and that the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed the validity of Indian treaties and Native American sovereign identity in Worcester v. Georgia (1832), Blue Jacket v. Commissioners of Johnson County (1865), Winans v. U.S. (1905), and Williams v. Lee (1959). Tribal sovereignty is not a fiction ginned up by social justice warriors. It is a juridical, legal, and constitutional reality. Even Andrew Jackson understood that point, which is one reason he signed seventy treaties with Indian nations – more than any other president – during his time in the White House.
I shudder to think what the seventh president would have made of the forty-fifth. DJT and his fascist advisor Steve Bannon see Trump as a modern-day Jackson, but the real Andrew Jackson would certainly have found DJT’s vulgar contempt for women, his hatred of immigrants, and his complicity with a hostile foreign government appalling. I dare say Old Hickory would have cut out Donald Trump’s tongue. Then he would have eaten it.