After reading the Forbes article “Why are Indian Reservations so Poor? A Look at the Bottom 1%” by John Koppisch and Rodney Thomas’s response, which I highly encourage reading, I was struck by how the problem boiled down to the land. Koppisch observes:
Prosperity is built on property rights, and reservations often have neither. They’re a demonstration of what happens when property rights are weak or non-existent.
Property rights of reservations are held by all the members there, so no one person or entity outright owns the land. There are reasons for this, as Thomas points out. One is that the land is sacred to the natives. Says Thomas:
For many Native Americans, because of their religious convictions, Vine DeLoria argues that their identity is tied to the land, and not the history of the left/right divide (God is Red, page 61).
In other words, native Americans don’t think as we do. For that matter, neither did ancient Israel. Amazing to me are all the references to land in the Tanak. Furthermore, in a conversation on this topic with my friend Drew Scott, if natives’ identity is tied to the land, and the land they’ve been apportioned is considered scraps by what they had prior to the colonial era, then it could be that they begin to identify themselves as people deserving of only the scraps and live according to that identity. Perhaps this might be a stretch, but there might also be some truth to it.
Hence, I particularly found problematic and disturbing Koppisch reading his Forbian worldview onto the land management of the indigenous peoples. Now, in fairness, one cannot completely fault Koppisch given that he has not grown up as a native American. Yet, because he is well travelled as is stated on his profile, it is reasonable that he is responsible enough to know the cultural differences, that they matter, and that they should be respected. Koppisch’s citing of one person who agrees with him is hard to take seriously, given a number of natives that disagree.
Last year, my friend Bo Sanders completed his thesis on contextualization under Randy Woodley, a native American professor at the Seminary. The following paragraph sheds light not only on this issue but issues of biblical studies and theology:
Ray Aldred was one of those with caution for me. Ray was concerned that when most ‘white guys’ talk about context, they got two things wrong. The first was that they came from a philosophical framework. The problem is that they use philosophical vocabulary and ideas that were imported from Europe. He explained to me how that has historically been a problem in this land. The second concern was that often when white guys say ‘context’ they’ve really meant ‘society.’ They did not mean the unique aspect of a locale; they meant the human dealings that happened at that locale. They did not mean the land; they meant what happened on the land. Ray challenged me to “make sure you get down to the soil. Otherwise you’re not talking about context you’re talking about society. Theology has to engage the land.” (pp. 7–8; emphasis mine)
Society cannot be ignored, but Sanders makes a good point: the discussion of context has been too limited. Context in modern biblical studies often refers to matters dealing with culture, society, literature, worldview — all these and more, but appears to hardly ever include land. I find little references to archaeology, geography, and topography in biblical literature. Could it be that biblical exegetes and theologians have fallen into the same trap as American culture that says our way—the form-, source-, redactional-, historical-, literary-, sociological-, anthropological-critical way and so forth—is the best way? Might studies of the land also be beneficial to biblical and theological studies in ways that the above-mentioned critical methods have?
More broadly, American society more generally has surely come to a point where we have recognized our mistreatment of others. To make up for it, we believe that everyone should have various rights and freedom, and yes, these things are good. Yet, to borrow and modify an idea from my friend Nate Hill, we often take our consumerism, capitalism, and radical individualism—things which have mastered us instead of vice versa—and believe these things are the best for other people.
Neither the Forbian worldview nor the American consumeristic-capitalistic model are the answer. The answer lies in the gospel and Scriptures that teach us to be stewards, not exploiters, of the resources given to us, and this includes the land. From the biblical view, all land is God’s land and thus property rights ultimately belong to a God who gives land to be shared among humanity and the rest of creation. In this regard, the native Americans have it right.