by Rob Natelson, Electric City Weblog

Government agencies and pressure groups campaigning for more taxpayer money can create a fictitious “history” almost overnight. First, they make some claim about how something has been recognized since (whenever), and before you know it, journalists are uncritically repeating it, and it is plastered all over the Internet.

Recently I’ve seen a burst of allegations that the U.S. government assumed a treaty obligation in 1787 to provide reservation Indians with free health care. If you Google “health care treaty Indian 1787,” you will find a long list of sources – including supposedly objective news stories – making that assertion.

Here’s a sample from Montana’s Lee newspapers: “A treaty dating to 1787 requires the government to provide tribal members living on reservations with free health care.”

Now when presented with such a claim, a journalist’s crap-o-meter should start sounding like a fire alarm, because the claim is so inherently improbable.

First, the reservation system as we know it didn’t exist in 1787.

Second, the cash-strapped Confederation Congress would not have had the resources to meet such a commitment. (Remember that shortage of funds was one reason Congress called the constitutional convention.)

Third, a treaty is a bilateral document – even if the Confederation Congress had committed itself to provide health care to the Delaware tribe, for example, it wouldn’t follow that the government had committed itself to provide health care to all Indians for all time.

So I checked into the claim and found that — sure enough — it is flatly false. Here are some details:

* According to Charles Kappler’s authoritative collection of treaties between the U.S. Government and Native American tribes, there was no such treaty in 1787. In fact, 1787 was a year in which no U.S.-Indian treaties were signed at all!

* There were over 20 U.S.-Indian treaties before 1800, but none obligated the federal government to provide Indians with health care, free or otherwise.

* The last U.S.-Indian treaty was signed in 1868. Some of the later ones provided that the government would pay annuities to some Indians – but often even this term was left discretionary with the government. Neither my own search nor the Kappler index of all treaties disclosed any reference to a treaty obligation to provide free (or any) health care.

We can’t blame the myth wholly on activists and inattentive journalists, however — the U.S. Government bears some responsibility as well. The journalist who authored the story quoted above referred me to a PR webpage from the U.S. Indian Health Service.

It states: “The provision of health services to members of federally-recognized tribes grew out of the special government-to-government relationship between the federal government and Indian tribes. This relationship, established in 1787, is based on Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, and has been given form and substance by numerous treaties, laws, Supreme Court decisions, and Executive Orders.”

Now, this statement certainly does not say that any treaties created an obligation to provide free health care. But it has problems of its own.  It repeats the false 1787 date.  And by stating that the Indian-federal “relationship” has been “given form and substance” by . . . treaties,” it implies that treaties created an obligation to provide health care, although they have not.

The website refers to Article I, Section 8, a part of the Constitution that creates congressional powers (not treaty obligations). Clause 3 of that section provides in part that “The Congress shall have Power . . . to regulate Commerce . . . with the Indian tribes.” It is true that Congress claims this “Indian Commerce Clause” gives it plenary authority to regulate Indian affairs. But as I have shown elsewhere, the only authority this provision actually granted to Congress was a power to regulate trade between tribes and non-Indians.

It certainly did not confer authority to turn tribes into wards, to meddle in internal tribal affairs, or to put tribal members on the federal dole.

In private life, Rob Natelson is a long-time conservative/free market activist, but professionally he is a constitutional scholar whose meticulous studies of the Constitution’s original meaning have been repeatedly cited in U.S. Supreme Court opinions and published or cited by many top law journals (See: www.constitution.i2i.org/about/) He co-authored The Origins of the Necessary and Proper Clause (Cambridge University Press) and The Original Constitution (Tenth Amendment Center). He was a law professor for 25 years and taught constitutional law and related courses. He is the Senior Fellow in Constitutional Jurisprudence at Colorado’s Independence Institute.

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