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2011: What Does the New Year Hold for Indian Country?

What does the year 2011 hold for the Indian tribes? There are some signals—portents, if you will, that should be considered in assessing the immediate future in federal policy and programs.

First of all, did the takeover of the House by the Republicans, aided by a massive pseudo-populist surge called the Tea Party movement, mark the end of a lengthy Indian era and the beginning of an unfriendly Congress or even another anti-tribal backlash?

Among the people who are “going rogue” with Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement are some, perhaps many, who resent tribal sovereignty and concomitant entitlement to federal funds. The Tea Party has rallied around the issue of the federal deficit and the burgeoning national debt, and it would likely pick up on President Obama’s generous allocation of stimulus funds to the tribes.

And there are troubling signals on the Democrat side of the aisle as well. The trouncing that the Democrats suffered at the polls has left them shaky and probably not willing to risk much for the tribes in the 112th Congress. And the defeat of tribal-friendly Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., for example, may signal to some politicians in the West that friendship with the tribes should be at arm’s length at best. Further, in the waning days of the lame-duck 111th Congress, Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., sent a chilling message to the tribes with her announced intention to introduce legislation to limit them from gaining footholds for tribal casinos in areas outside the reservations. Such a signal from a leading Democrat like Feinstein, reportedly backed by Senator Harry Reid, D-Nev., might be something that would ignite a backlash among those Westerners who have long resented tribes over their sovereignty, governmental rights and jurisdictional issues. And the stereotypical Tea Party yahoo generally fits that description.

Is Feinstein’s action the first shot in a backlash against tribal sovereignty? Have tribes, especially those in California, pushed the envelope of sovereignty too far, too fast? Following the 2009 Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar, the judiciary doesn’t appear to be all that friendly any more; will this encourage more litigation challenging tribal sovereignty and unique Indian rights?

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The past two years have been a boon to the tribes. Starting with President Obama’s historic meeting with tribal leaders, it appears that direct consultation of the tribes on a government-to-government basis is finally a reality. Beyond his generous outlays of stimulus funds, his support and signing of significant legislation in the areas of law-enforcement on Indian reservations, Indian health care, and his support for and endorsement of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, are impressive. However, Obama is still criticized for failure to explicitly apologize to the Indian people for a long history of the nation’s oppression of the tribes.

Perhaps it is time for some introspection as people, as nations. Instead of demanding apologies, and fine-tuning our victimhood, we should be moving ahead on our own agendas—more appealing agendas for internal social and governmental reform, education, and economic development, especially on the Northern Plains.

Only we can do it. The answers to the problem of youth suicides, for example, are in our communities. The Indian Health Service doesn’t have the answers, nor does the BIA, or Congress or the White House. Perhaps seeing their parents, community and tribal leaders, and other should-be role models finally roll up their sleeves, spit in their hands and say, “We’re tired of this, and we’re going to do something about it,” will give suicidal youth some hope, which is gone if they commit that final act of despair.

On an intertribal level, we should be working to improve state/tribal relations. When the forces of anti-tribal backlash want to organize their battle plans, they target state governments as their most important allies. They work to exacerbate long-standing issues of controversy between the tribes and the states, or use those issues to illustrate that tribal sovereignty is not compatible with the workings of the United States. As we did in the great backlash of 1976-1977, we can educate state leaders to tribal problems and powers, and get them to work with us rather than against the tribes.

These are things we can address while we work to improve the atmosphere in Washington for Indian affairs. We shouldn’t just wring our hands and damn our fate. If we are truly sovereign nations, we must act like it.

Charles “Chuck” Trimble was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and is an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota Nation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1969, and served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-1978. He is retired and lives in Omaha, Neb. He can be contacted at His website is