Off the rez

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National Review's John Miller has a piece in the Wall Street Journal today advocating the abolition of Indian reservations. He makes a strong argument.

Reservations are, as he says, "collectivist enclaves in a capitalist society." Indians living on reservations don't own land and hence can't raise capital by mortgaging their property. He could have added that they are unable to accumulate wealth, as the large majority of Americans do over their lifetimes, by owning residential real estate. Indian reservations are the most impoverished part of America, with high rates of single parenthood and crime. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has been one of the government's worst bureaucracies for many years.

The argument for reservations is that they enable Indians to preserve their ethnic identity. But there are other ways to let people who wish to do so do this. About 15 percent of the people in Alaska are Alaska Natives, but Alaska has no reservations. Instead, there are 12 regional and 2,200 village Native corporations that have an entitlement to mineral rights and various other royalties off the land they claimed under the Alaska Native Claims Act of 1971. Seventy percent of profits are pooled among all the corporations, so that windfalls are spread among all the corporations. Corporations are governed not by winner-take-all political elections, as in Lower 48 reservations, but by corporate boards elected by cumulative voting by shareholders.

This means that a minority that has special concerns can cumulate its vote and elect a board member. Cumulative voting gives the corporations' managers an incentive to pay heed to minorities as well as the majority, and in turn it tends to provide continuity of management. Alaska Natives can in effect choose between aboriginal (subsistence hunting and fishing) and capitalist (working in Anchorage or in the North Slope oil fields) ways of life. And they have a form of wealth in their corporate shares.

Sen. Ted Stevens played a key role in passing the Alaska Native Claims Act and has taken an active interest in Native issues ever since. Stevens is often pilloried for the pork that he brings to Alaska. But he deserves credit for helping to establish a better alternative to the Indian reservation system.

Alas, Hawaii's Sen. Daniel Akaka has a Native Hawaiian sovereignty bill that would give Native Hawaiians a status much closer to that of reservation Indians. I have written about this before. Senator Stevens is supporting this out of the traditional solidarity of the Alaska and Hawaii delegations. (Senator Akaka and his Hawaii colleague Daniel Inouye both voted to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, though almost all other Senate Democrats voted against it.) Senator Akaka's bill was supposed to come up last September but was set aside after Hurricane Katrina; I haven't heard whether it's scheduled to come to the floor now. This may be Akaka's last year in the Senate; it seems he's going to be challenged in the Democratic primary by 2nd District Rep. Ed Case.