Book Review: ‘The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians’

A necessary read to understand the current crisis in Native American communities
TIMEDecember 28, 2021

The Trail of Tears began and ended nearly 200 years ago. History looks at it as the exemplification of a people felled by war, disease, ignored treaties, and the destruction of its culture by internal and external forces. The Indian Nations and the American Republic (as well as Canada) proved incapable of coexistence, and as a result, the Indian removal effort began in the 1830s. There are more than 550 federally recognized Indian nations and more than 300 reservations left to them. You would be hard-pressed to articulate that as consolation.

But that is a time gone by. The Trail of Tears has been over for a long time. The Indian Tribes now coexist as sovereign nations within the republic. If popular culture, social activists, and the media are to be our guides, the only troubles currently facing the Native American population involve retelling the Native American story, changing the names of certain professional sports teams, and the advancement of sensitivity training. Naomi Schaefer Riley makes it clear that those issues pale in comparison to the real problems facing these nations, and unfortunately the federal government again plays a large role in sustaining those problems.

In her book “The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians,” she details the countless issues that have turned these sovereign nations into “what amounts to a third world country within our borders,” despite them residing in the most prosperous country on earth. Riley wrote her book in investigative journalistic form by conducting countless interviews, breaking down the numbers, and presenting the problems—along with potential solutions—to the public in an easily digestible way.

Some of the Problems

The federal government with its land agreements, creation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), and the institution of a demoralizing welfare system, have created what Riley rightly calls “The New Trail of Tears.” Ironically enough, one of the major issues involves land. The author points out that Native Americans suffer from what is called “dead capital.” She writes that Indians “may possess a certain amount of land on paper, but they can’t put it to use by selling it, buying more to take advantage of economies of scale, or borrowing against it.” The issue comes down to what American citizens plainly see as property rights.

But the federal government, though a major player, is only part of the problem. Many of the troubles facing these tribes are from internal causes.

Riley takes the reader on a grim journey through many of these nations currently being ravaged by violence, drug abuse, and suicide. The statistics aren’t merely staggering—they’re heartbreaking. And they’re due, among other reasons, to ineffective justice systems, abysmal education, high unemployment, and extensive poverty. Without making the proper and very necessary changes, these nations are destined to remain in such abject conditions.

Changing What’s Necessary

The fact is that both the federal government and the tribal nations are working hand-in-hand—incidentally or purposefully—to continue the trend. These tribes are provided hundreds of millions of dollars annually by the federal government, but the BIA, along with the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), has become prominent in the realm of financial mismanagement and corruption. When it comes to government agencies, they’re hardly anomalies.

Riley makes the case that the notion that Americans should continue to provide financial assistance to these nations because of the past misses the point. In fact, she says the idea of guilt is part of the problem.

“There’s so much guilt about racism, about what was done to these communities in the past, that they don’t want to shine a light on crimes taking place now,” the author writes.

As is often the case, the idea of throwing money at the problem and taking to social media or the news cameras to highlight one’s solidarity is considered a path to absolution, and often reelection. The problem isn’t financial, as Riley points out, but managerial. The problem isn’t about awareness of the past, but accountability in the present. Until Americans and Natives alike writhe out of their social paralysis, the course can only remain on the current “Trail of Tears.”

A few items that need to be reassessed are the relationships between the federal government and Indian nations, Native Americans and their property, and the tribal councils and their people. Riley provides in-depth detail on all three.

A Book of Great Importance

The author states that the book isn’t “a comprehensive history of the American Indians or even a complete picture of American Indians today.” But what it provides is that “light” that citizens—whether American or Native American—need in order to obtain a perspective on what is happening now.

This book is of the utmost importance and a necessary read to understand the current crisis in the Native American communities. It’s a book that should be read and referenced until the proper changes are instituted. Perhaps consider purchasing a copy for your political representative.

“The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians”
By Naomi Schaefer Riley
Encounter Books, 2016, 232 pages

Dustin Bass
Dustin Bass is the co-host of The Sons of History podcast and an author.