The Obama administration should take advantage of the opportunity to create a new and more useful vision for Indian policy. For nearly 40 years there has not been a major presidential revision of policy in Indian affairs. In July 1970, President Nixon asked Congress to renounce termination policy and stated that Indian relations with the United States were based on treaties and nation-to-nation relations. Nixon’s presidential statements led to the self-determination policy which has been the primary policy in Indian affairs since.
President Obama should declare a new and forward-looking Indian policy, and he should set the goal of delivering this policy in the next year. The new policy should build on the achievements of the self-determination policy, which focused on greater tribal control and management of programs and federal funds. Tribal governments as we know them today are a product of the self-determination programs, which created the ability of tribal governments to assume management over BIA programs, and more generally federal programs.
Funding levels have varied over the decades, and in real money terms, funding in Indian country had significantly declined since the great society and self-determination programs of the late 1960s and ’70s. Nevertheless, the self-determination policy has entrenched and enhanced local tribal government and service delivery to tribal communities. The self-determination policy is a significant government and tribal achievement, but it does not go far enough and needs new direction and support.
Some contemporary drawbacks of the current self-determination policy is that many Indian nations and their citizens continue to suffer from high unemployment, too few college and professional school graduates, poor health, poverty, high crime rates, loss of cultural community, and too much external political, bureaucratic and cultural interference, if not control, over reservation communities. The self-determination policy has taken us in a significant direction, but it has not taken us far enough. Reservations are often not the healthiest social, cultural or political environments. Self-determination policy has enhanced the bureaucratic organization of tribal governments and has turned them into lopsided service delivery or program management organizations.
While self-determination policy enhanced tribal government control over programs, funds and personnel, and enabled more culturally relevant and sensitive use and delivery of government program resources, self-determination policy does not point the way toward the next steps – revision of tribal constitutions or recovery of tribal political and legal processes, the development of self-sustaining reservation economies that are a combination of subsistence, tribal business, and individual business enterprises. Indian communities should be healthy places to live in terms of physical and spiritual wellness, self-sufficient and sustained reservation economies, and where there is freedom to practice and support tribal cultural life and make choices about accepting contemporary cultural choices and lifestyles.
What should a new Indian policy look like? President Nixon started his policy deliberations with wide consultation with the Indian community and tribal leaders. There is currently some discussion within the National Congress of American Indians, but President Obama must take the lead and provide a series of discussion points to map out a more effective policy roadmap.
The Obama administration could create a comprehensive plan and strategy to facilitate healthy social, economic and political Indian communities alleviated from marginalization and cultural stress still experienced by many Native peoples.
Some more specific issues that should be discussed and addressed include: clarification and affirmation of the nation-to-nation relationship within the contemporary federal system; clarification and affirmation of the combination of U.S. citizen rights and indigenous rights held by Indian people; affirmation of the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; clarification of the differences and implications of civil rights versus indigenous rights; a policy focus for the development of self-sustaining economic development in consultation with tribal reservation communities; and formal recognition that reservation conditions have not been supportive of sustaining healthy social, economic and political communities, and that new policy goals will remedy those situations.
The goal of Indian policy is not assimilation, but the development of strong, self-sustaining Indian nations that are recognized in government-to-government relationships, whose citizens are committed to their tribal governments and who are wholly accepted U.S. citizens and participants in American life and government.