Posted by on Jun 22, 2012 in Uncategorized

Money to Burn

By:  Ruth Hopkins

I hate money. Yes, I know- to declare disgust for free market capitalism in the United States of America in 2012 is blasphemy- but wait. Let me tell you why.

Like most Natives, I grew up poor- but as I child I didn’t know it.  We made do.  When I was born in Fort Yates, North Dakota on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, my parents were living in a cabin with no running water on the outskirts of McLaughlin, South Dakota.  From there we moved from reservation to reservation throughout the Dakotas, living in low-income housing like everyone else.  My dad was a hard worker, but neither of my parents were college educated; not to mention my dad chose a life of service, which doesn’t pay monetarily.  We never went hungry though.  My dad was a hunter and fisherman, and we ate everything he brought home (snapping turtle soup, anyone?).  We gardened.  I also learned early how to gather everything from chokecherries, to buffaloberries, to wild onions, and timpsila.  The majority of the time we had electricity and heat, although our air conditioning was a combination of open windows and box fans.

Then, as a high school senior, I had my son.  I was baptized by the fire of financial burden overnight.   After graduation, I worked a string of low paying jobs just to get by.  Blackjack dealer.  Housekeeper.  Seamstress.  We didn’t live paycheck-to-paycheck, we lived day-to-day.  If we hadn’t been able to live with relatives, I don’t know how we would have survived.

I found a way out: Tribal college.  From there I transferred to a four year institution, where I was able to earn multiple degrees.  While the life of a college student is hardly a walk in the park, at least each day brought with it the hope of a brighter future.

Years later, I haven’t forgotten the financial hardship I experienced and I sympathize with anyone who’s still trying to maneuver their way out of an ostensibly bottomless money pit.  I hate that we as Natives were forcibly removed from the self-sufficient, sustainable economic system of our ancestors and forced to join this rat race called capitalism, wasting valuable time and energy running on the hamster wheel of consumerism.

Today, the paper chase is mandatory.  In the movie Wall Street, the character Gordon Gekko said, “Greed is good.”  Sadly, this statement has been elevated to national dogma.  You know what I’ve noticed when driving across the country?  There are churches, banks and bars, in equal measure.  Not only is greed considered good, countless millions who’ve allowed themselves to be consumed by greed have made money their God.

Mainstream society is saturated in commercialism, programming citizens to purchase goods and services, regardless of whether they need them or not, in ever-increasing amounts.  Billionaires use tax loopholes to garner record quarterly profits, while public school and transit systems crumble into disrepair.  Celebrities are hailed as kings and queens of mythic proportions because they are attractive and rich, sending the shallow message to youth that popularity and success will only occur if they bow to empty, western social mores where the pursuit of money overrides all else.

Where has the current economic system gotten us?  The U.S. is the wealthiest country on the globe, yet depression is reportedly being diagnosed at epidemic levels.  Life expectancy rates are dropping.  Levels of obesity and related illnesses like diabetes and heart disease nationally, and in Indian country, worsen.  The gap between the rich and poor continues to grow.  Our last ‘Deep Recession,’ which we haven’t completely cleared, has been reclassified by expert economists as another Great Depression. The housing market remains weak.  Unemployment rates remain high.  Western countries, and America especially, are burning through nonrenewable resources and fossil fuels at an alarming rate.  Free-market capitalism is dependent on continual growth, and the exclusion of a population segment to thrive- or as one sycophant told me, “someone has to be the ditch digger.”  We’re set up for failure.  If money is a God, he’s a trickster.

Pre-reservation era, the Oceti Sakowin had a closed economy, termed Autarky.  Such an economic system is independent and self-sustaining, allowing a community to thrive without outside aid.  It worked because we observed the traditional values of generosity and cooperation, and everyone contributed.  No one was left destitute.  Many Tribes also observed gift exchange as a means of economic development, where the voluntary exchange of gifts created and circulated wealth among members of the community.  We also bartered.

As Tribal peoples, returning to Autarky may be possible- especially in a closed community like a Native commune.  However, such a system would be difficult to implement on a national level, barring a major catastrophe that leaves mainstream society with no choice.

It’s been suggested that the U.S. should engage a hybrid model of capitalism, similar to France, England or Germany.  Such a system would create larger entitlement programs and allow for greater economic regulation, thereby providing some financial equilibrium to all members of society and guarding against extremes.  Right-wing republicans are petrified of losing deregulated, free market capitalism, so they call any sort of attempt to modify our economy ‘socialism.’  How MacCarthyesque.  Even so, there’s no denying that our economic system must evolve if the country is to stay afloat.

Alright, I’ve changed my mind.  I don’t hate money.  I hate the love of money, and the futile grind so many of our people are caught in just to get the money they need to survive.  I hate how it changes people, and how they are degraded by it.  We must remember though, money is just a tool.  We choose how we earn it and how we spend it.  We decide whether or not we let it rule us.  At this moment, we must master its use to develop our Native communities, while applying some of the Autarky practices of our ancestors, like working together for the good of the whole, sharing, and planting in and harvesting from our natural environment.  Greed is waste.  Instead, we require visionary economic development, planning, and implementation that doesn’t compromise our values.  If we have the wisdom to know the difference, prosperity will find us.

Nevertheless, I have a recurring fantasy, where I pour kerosene over a massive stack of cash and set it ablaze while we dance around it upon Mother Earth under Father Sky to the accompaniment of drums.  Its true- that scenario is impractical today, but I can’t help but think it’s a dream my ancestors would have enjoyed, and perhaps the key to our survival is found within it.   In the meantime, there’s a rumor floating that I may burn my Cobell check, because “One does not sell the Earth upon which people walk…” (Crazy Horse)  You’ll have to stay tuned to find out.

“Once I was in Victoria, and I saw a very large house. They told me it was a bank and that the white men place their money there to be taken care of, and that by and by they got it back with interest. We are Indians and we have no such bank; but when we have plenty of money or blankets, we give them away to other chiefs and people, and by and by they return them with interest, and our hearts feel good. Our way of giving is our bank.”  – Chief Maquinna, Nootka