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Exit, voice and self-determination in Indian policy

When the United States offered full citizenship to American Indians through termination policy in the 1950s, the government was asking tribal members to abandon collective tribal indigenous rights and powers. Under international pressures for better treatment of American Indians, the U.S. government wanted to offer American Indians access to American life and economy. Life on impoverished reservations was considered a form of second class-citizenship by President Truman.

The trade-off between national citizenship and tribal rights has been offered to many indigenous peoples around the world. In the United States, most tribal members preferred to retain tribal communities, rights, and powers, but were willing to accept and exercise the rights of full national citizenship. Termination policy threatened to abrogate treaties and indigenous rights, and tribal communities.

Tribal communities continue to struggle to secure and preserve greater powers and exercise of self-government.

Tribal communities had to make strategic choices. One strategy was to exit the situation by withdrawing from the federal government system. Few tribal leaders discussed this option. Most tribal communities wanted to reclaim U.S. commitments to tribal powers of self-government. When treaties are abrogated by one nation, then the treaty parties are no longer obligated to fulfill their agreements. Termination policy abrogated treaties, and in theory, tribes were then not obligated to comply with their end of the treaties. The option to exit from treaty agreements was not generally discussed.

Sometimes activists during the 1960s and 1970s advocated appealing to the international arena for redress, and in some ways that strategy met with some success with the adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Most tribal people, however, did not want to exit from U.S. jurisdiction and were willing to become full citizens, but not at the price of forfeiting tribal rights and powers.

Tribal leaders and communities demonstrated loyalty to the United States, and sought legislative and political solutions in opposition to the threat of termination policy. Tribal leaders gathered political allies, and lobbied members of congress and senators. In the end, tribal leaders and national organizations, like the National Congress of American Indians, pulled together an alliance of tribes and states that blocked and eventually supported repeal of termination policy.

Tribal communities, however, did not want a return to Washington-centered policy positions, which were generally based on either short-term or long-term termination plans. A major difference between New Deal Indian policy and Self-Determination policy was that tribal communities were mobilized and pursued new directions in Indian policy. Tribal communities wanted their indigenous rights recognized, termination policy repudiated, and treaties upheld.

Tribal communities wanted to recover local reservation governance. The federal government supported tribal governance powers in a limited way through the subcontracting mechanisms of Public Law 93-638, and the Self Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975. Tribal governments acquired greater local control over administration of government programs, and those limited powers were enabled through the 638 process.

The trade-off between national citizenship and tribal rights has been offered to many indigenous peoples around the world.

The goal of self-determination, however, was not fully realized from the 638 contracting process. Some self-determination goals were to secure political rights to self-government, develop greater economic sustainability and autonomy, and provide protection and exercise of cultural ways.

Considerable progress has been made in the past 40 years. Tribal communities continue to struggle to secure and preserve greater powers and exercise of self-government. The policy of self-determination has slowly been redefined and extended for tribal communities. For several past decades, government agencies have not been at the forefront of defining Indian policy. Tribal communities and leaders are continually reinterpreting and extending the practice and goals of self-determination.

Often tribal visions of tribal self-determination extend beyond government policy understandings and limits. Nevertheless, since the termination period, the Indian community has pushed the boundaries of Indian policy in many directions beyond the subcontracting of federal programs.

Further developments in extending and re-interpreting Indian self-determination and Indian policy most likely will come from the efforts of tribal communities and leaders, while government policy will play a reactive, if not a constraining, role.