By Kim Castleberry
Scripps-McClatchy Western Service
March 15, 2005
But that's exactly what happened, said Wilkinson, who documents the advancement in a new book, "Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations." Specifically, he writes about the progress Native Americans have made since 1953, when Congress voted to sell all tribal lands.
"Indian people have achieved things that none of us would have dared to dream all those years ago," Wilkinson said. "At that time, tribes were facing a 50 percent unemployment rate, the Bureau of Indian Affairs was running reservations, and their religion and culture was totally suppressed."
Wilkinson has visited nearly 100 Indian reservations over the past 30 years, providing legal counsel for cases mainly involving land and water rights.
When he started working for the Native American Rights Fund in 1971, the Stanford Law School graduate said he didn't fully know what he was getting himself into. He said he "fell into" working on tribal and government issues when he started working for the fund, which is located in Boulder.
"At that moment everything turned to Technicolor," he said. "The cases were tremendously exciting because it was mostly work on tribal sovereignty issues, and land and water rights."
Wilkinson likens the progress made by American Indians to the civil rights and women's movements, but he warns that there is still a lot of work to be done in "beefing up" the tribal judicial system.
CU history professor Patricia Limerick, who co-founded the Center of the American West, said Wilkinson's exploration of the Indian movement's progress since the 1950s is especially poignant. She said American society focuses on the 19th century as the most devastating time for Indians, forgetting about the federal government forcing them to assimilate into mainstream society.
"The turnaround is just astonishing because it didn't look like that could ever happen," Limerick said. "The mid-20th century was an intensely miserable time for the Indians."
Wilkinson said a great majority of Indian tribes are presently staffed with governments of 300 or more employees. There are 34 tribal colleges, and more tribes are establishing elementary and secondary schools, legislatures and courts. Although unemployment still hovers around 25 percent, and progress on issues such as alcoholism and diabetes must be made, Indian people are addressing these problems on their own, he said. And that's the point.
"Outside control has never worked," Wilkinson said. "The tribal movement has a lot of complexity to it. But it's one of the most important social economic movements in post-World War II America, and they have the right to have that story told."