There are 326 Native American reservations across the country with a total of approximately 1,150,000 residents, and another four million Native Americans living outside of these reservations. The Navajo Nation reservation is the largest and covers 27,413 square miles, the size of the Netherlands and Belgium combined. The Uintah and Ouray Reservation is the second largest and is 6,825 square miles large, almost seven times the size of Luxembourg. Third largest is the Tohono O’odham Nation Reservation covering 4,453 square miles, which is thirty-six Maltas and one Lichtenstein in change.
These reservations are considered “domestic dependent nations,” and are under the trust of the Department of the Interior. Native American tribes cannot freely access the massive natural resource reserves under their own land, or develop the land itself, without permission from the Department of the Interior, and so the federal government has locked them into a state of perpetual bureaucratic repression:
On Indian lands, companies must go through four federal agencies and forty-nine regulatory or administrative steps to acquire a permit to drill, compared with only four steps when drilling off reservation. . . . It is not uncommon for several years to pass before the necessary approvals are acquired to begin energy development on Indian lands—a process that takes only a few months on private lands. At any time during the energy development process, a federal agency may demand more information or shut down development activity. Development projects on Indians lands are subject to significantly more constraints than similar projects on private lands. Simply completing title search requests results in delays from the BIA. Indians have waited six years to receive title search reports that other Americans can get in a few days.
The results are grim and contribute to a variety of larger social problems. For example, native American life expectancy is 5.5 years lower than the U.S. average and a Native American poverty rate of 28.3 percent compared with the national average of 15.5 percent for 2014. On reservations, the situation is particularly dismaying:
The impact of insecure property rights can be seen on almost any reservation. Some families of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, for example, are still living with no electricity, telephone, running water, or sewer. On this reservation, the eighth largest, unemployment hovers around 80 percent and 49 percent live below the federal poverty level. The life expectancies are in the high 40s for males and the low 50s for females.
Given the bureaucratic hurdles through which tribes must jump through repeatedly, part of the solution may lie in granting true sovereignty to reservations and their residents. This movement toward decentralization of federal power could have immense benefits not only for the reservations themselves, but also for life in the rest of the U.S.
A Collection of Independent States
Potentially, these 326 federally beholden reservations could become 326 states as sovereign as Switzerland and Andorra, and federal control over natural resources in America — solidified and extended by the reservation system — would be reined in.
After all, as noted by Maura Grogan, Rebecca Morse, and April Youpee-Roll,“It appears fair to say, based on a number of reports, that Indian lands contain about 30 percent of the coal found west of the Mississippi, up to 50 percent of potential uranium reserves, and as much as 20 percent of known natural gas and oil reserves.” Moreover, as the example of Luxembourg teaches, tiny, landlocked nations are not necessarily limited by their geography. Resource managements is a key factor. While some may argue the tribes would not manage their resources well, it hardly follows that the US federal government is a more trustworthy custodian. Given that residents of the reservations themselves stand to benefit — or suffer — the most from mismanagement, handing over control to bureaucrats in Washington, DC is hardly the most reasonable option.
Moreover, as the tribes and reservations seek to manage their resources, they will also benefit other outside the reservations who can provide capital, expertise, and other resources through trade.
The political advantages of decentralization would increase as well. These new independent enclaves embedded throughout the U.S. would create governmental competition. If the regulatory and tax burdens set by these independent governments are better than those of the U.S., U.S. citizens could vote with their feet and move to Native American lands, to the extent that these new countries would chose to accept them. Furthermore, currently only about a fifth of Native Americans live on tribal lands. The newfound opportunity in these countries would likely cause an influx of part of the seventy-eight percent Native Americans living outside of reservations. As the U.S. would lose part of its tax base, U.S. states and the federal government would face pressure to lower their tax rates, rollback regulatory burdens, and lessen political repression. Some reservations might even chose to act as tax havens just as they have used their limited sovereignty in the past to offer "gambling havens" to residents living in nearby jurisdictions where gambling is illegal.
It is true that, if the option of independence were presented, some tribes would choose to maintain their current relationship with the Department of the Interior. But many might choose self-determination. The result would be a continent that is more decentralized and offers more sovereignty for minority populations.