Opinion: Securing Tribal Self Determination

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By Mark Rolo

Thirty years ago, the U.S. Congress passed one of the most sweeping legislative acts in the history of federal-Indian policy – the Tribal Self Governance Act. The goal was to allow tribes more authority over their lands, people and affairs.

To be sure, many in Washington, then and now, believe the right to self governance was “given” to tribal nations, when in fact, according to international law, self rule is an inherent right for all nations. But there were those in Washington who finally recognized after decades of failed policies to improve life for Indians (mostly policies aimed at assimilation and cultural annihilation) paternalistic rule from Washington over tribes was not only a debacle but a national disgrace. Simply put, Washington, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was making life for the American Indian an unbearable hardship.
But has the right to have a significant say in delivery of health care services, education and other vital programs worked to the benefit of tribes?

The answer is life has improved for Indian Country since the Tribal Self Governance Act. Since even before the ink dried on treaties signed between tribes and the federal government corruption and neglect became Washington’s force of interaction with tribal nations. Meager food rations, unreliable payments to tribes by regional agents of the BIA consistently left tribal survival in limbo. Imagine, after loss of your land and access to natural resources for sustenance was cut off, standing in line at a BIA office hoping for a pound of lard and bag of flour? This was an everyday reality for tribal people.

Even more, imagine decisions made for you by a white-male-ruled-BIA in Washington? When tribes signed their treaties with the federal government many have argued that in fact, they were signing terms of surrender. The Bureau, which used be the U.S. War Department, had long reaching oversight into all Indian affairs – from imposing forms of tribal government that were in direct contradiction to traditional tribal rule to doling out pencils and paper. This form of oppression led to massive corruption and disruption within tribal governments. And through the BIA the federal government enacted a number of policies aimed at bending the will of tribal people to the point of despair – from deciding who was an Indian, to privatizing Indian land, to boarding schools, to relocation and removal, and to outlawing Indian ceremonies and banning their languages.

So, thirty years ago, Washington figured out that there was no solution to the “Indian problem.” Tribes were here to stay despite crushing political attempts to fully assimilate their people. Given the resilience of Indians it was clear to Washington that ruling from a massive castle of bureaucracy was not working. In years past, it may have seemed like an unfathomable concession, but Washington had to recognize that in order to quell unrest in Indian Country self governance was the only viable option.

The Tribal Self Governance Act allowed tribes to have a greater voice in all aspects of their affairs. Tribal self rule was finally recognized as a human right, not a political tactic. Affording tribes the right to grow their economies, build needed infrastructure, create appropriate laws that would extend civil rights to their communities, mainly through the establishment of tribal courts, and allowing tribes to manage their natural resources. More importantly, the Tribal Self Governance Act strengthened tribes’ position to hold the federal government’s feet to the fire when it came to agreed upon terms of century old treaties.

Perhaps it is in the area of healthcare that has become the biggest benefit of this legislation for tribal communities. Who better to diagnose problems and dispense healing than Indian healthcare providers? Even though Indians still have some of the worst of health conditions, there have been improvements in the delivery of critical services. In the decades to follow the Tribal Self Governance Act, would permit tribes to integrate traditional forms of healing with modern medicine. This continues to make an important change Indian health. Culturally-appropriate healthcare services are proving to be critical to all population groups in the country.

And a big score of this legislation is that it opened the doors for greater nation to nation relations with Washington. Long ago, it was common for tribes to send tribal delegations to Washington to discuss Indian Country needs. Before his assassination, President Lincoln invited a delegation of tribal leaders from the Red Cliff and Bad River Chippewa reservations. Lincoln entertained these leaders at the White House and promised to take action on overdue payments.

But not since President Clinton invited all leaders of Indian Country’s more than 550 federally recognized tribes to the White House lawn have tribal leaders sat face to face with a president. Tribes could be faulted to a large degree for not taking advantage to this protocol. For casino wealthy tribes getting action done in Washington comes in form of hiring high powered lobbyists and making huge campaign contributions. Unfortunately, this abdication of political protocol hurts all tribes. Also, taking full advantage of nation to nation relations might have helped tribes fighting against multi-national oil and mining corporations.

Tribal self rule still holds great promise for Indian Country. Coming out under the heavy hand of the BIA was pivotal. Today, the Bureau has a mission to staff its departments with Indians. This new BIA is paying closer attention to tribal needs rather than deciding what those needs are. But the BIA’s hands are tied annually given the low budget they receive from Washington.

Tribal self rule is the only viable future for tribes. Positive changes in all facets of political, social and cultural tribal life can only continue to occur if the American Indian is in charge.