In Loco Parentis

In 1972, when I was 16, I took a drive across America with my good friend Tom “Toby” Sherwood (peace be upon him). Toby was the older brother of Evelyn, a girl I had been orbiting, and although he was a few years older — at 21, he had just emerged from Harvard with a political-science degree — I was a precocious lad who seemed older than my years, and we formed a close friendship that lasted until his untimely death in 2003.

Riding in Toby’s VW bug, we made our way, along a highly indirect path, to California. Along the way we stopped off in South Dakota to visit Toby’s college friend Jay Davis, who was (and is) a politically active sort. That summer the presidential campaign was in full swing, and Jay was working for the campaign of South Dakota’s senator, George McGovern, who would ultimately be crushed in the general election by Richard Nixon. (We actually stayed in Mr. McGovern’s apartment in Mitchell, SD, which was being used as sort of a crash pad by the campaign staff; the McGoverns were on the road or in Washington.)

Among the names that kept coming up was that of Jim Abourezk, who was at the time one of South Dakota’s delegates to the House of Representatives, and who that fall was elected to represent his home state in the Senate. He was always spoken of in reverential terms by the campaign staffers, and although I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to politics back then, I always noticed when his name came up in later years.

So I noticed when Mr. Abourezk had a letter published in the Times today. In it he argues for the re-establishment of buffer zones around Indian reservations within which it is illegal to sell alcoholic beverages. I reproduce it below in its entirety:

Sioux Falls, S.D.

SINCE taking office, President Obama has overturned several of George W. Bush’s executive orders. I would like to recommend he also overturn one of Theodore Roosevelt’s.

Fourteen years after the Great Sioux Reservation was established in western South Dakota in 1868, President Chester Arthur issued an executive order creating a 50-square-mile buffer zone on its southern edge, in Nebraska. This was meant to prevent renegade whites from selling guns, knives and alcohol to Indians living on the reservation.

The buffer zone was ratified as law when Congress divided the Great Sioux Reservation into smaller units in 1889. But when Roosevelt became president, the liquor industry convinced him that the buffer zone should be abolished, which he did through an executive order in 1904. This move was, however, illegitimate from the start, because an act of Congress cannot legally be reversed by an executive order.

Today, the tiny Nebraska hamlet of Whiteclay has four liquor stores, ostensibly to serve its population of 24, but really more for the bootleggers and alcoholics living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, just across the border. The result has been murders, spouse beatings, child abuse, thefts and other undesirable consequences of the free flow of alcohol into the reservation.

In 2000, I asked the Clinton administration to overturn Roosevelt’s illegal order, but was unable to get anyone’s attention. In 2001, I asked Vice President Dick Cheney to do the same, but he referred the matter to the White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, who decided that bringing back the buffer zone would, as he wrote me in a letter, take land away from white landowners. In fact, overturning the Roosevelt order would not transfer any land titles, but would merely give jurisdiction over the buffer zone to the Oglala Sioux tribe, automatically making alcohol sales illegal.

President Obama could right a century of wrongs by re-establishing the buffer zone. It would alleviate the overwhelming social ills that result from easy access to alcohol, and help end the violence tribal members too often visit on each other and on their families.

Mr. Abourezk is a former chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, and I have no doubt that he knows whereof he speaks, and that restoring the buffer might indeed go a long way toward reducing the incidence of the social afflictions he describes. What is striking to me, though, is the degree of paternalism expressed here, the bluntness of the assumption of diminished responsibility on the part of the inhabitants of the reservation, as though they were children, or pets. It is characteristic of the political Left to assume such a role generally — they know, better than we, what’s good for us — but this is surprising in its candor.

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  1. jack says

    I’m not sure I agree with your final comment in general, and with regard to Indian affairs in particular it is not necessarily true either. I think a great number of Progressives today hold a non-interference doctrine with respect to Native peoples: Native peoples have the right to self-determination. I certainly do. In fact, on every gambling on indian reservation propositions in California I have been quite chagrined since I hold I have no place in deciding what Natives can and can’t do on their national lands.

    Native peoples are classified as domestic-nations, a kind of contradiction which has in effect allowed the U.S. government to treat Native peoples as foreign states when it needs to, and as members of U.S. society when it desires so. Either way, these peoples have lost out. Progressives and conservatives both, in their desire to “better the Indian peoples” or “to civilize them” or to “integrate them into U.S. society” have been disastrous.

    Conservatives, I might add, spend as much time as liberals (a great deal of time) telling others how they should live, how they should act, and how they should think. That only liberals do that is, like the similar myth about activist judges, is a conservative myth, one that serves to reinforce the notion of the separateness (and rightness) of the conservative identity. Liberals have their own myths (e.g. the racist conservative).

    Posted July 17, 2009 at 5:58 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Well, Jack, this is a Progressive initiative to protect Indians from themselves, by restricting economic activity not inside the reservations, but in US territory adjacent to the reservations. Nobody is talking about interference within the reservations.

    Your last paragraph deserves a response, but I’m still at work, so it will have to wait.

    Posted July 17, 2009 at 6:23 pm | Permalink