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Harvard forum educates on U.S./Native nations relations

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - ''The tribes have the capacity for self-governance, but the federal trust responsibility must be retained in perpetuity,'' said Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe, during a forum at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government on Feb. 5.

The forum, presented by five tribal leaders, was intended to help an international audience better understand the relationship between the federal government and the 562 Native nations. Interest was so great that the audience overflowed the lobby of the Taubman Building, took over the press risers and leaned out over the atrium railings as they found space on the upper floors.

The trial leaders stressed the growing capacity of tribal governments for self-determination as well as self-governance.

''The Bureau of Indian Affairs used to run all our programs - education, police, health care. But we are moving away from that and running those programs ourselves,'' said Diane Enos, president of the Salt River Indian Community. Allen added that taking over the programs allows the tribes to set their own priorities and create more effective programs.

Joe Garcia, president of the National Congress of American Indians, talked about how tribal leaders must be accountable and described a longstanding underlying fear that if they challenged the BIA on policies or funding the agency would cut their funding. ''But they're cutting our funds anyway,'' Garcia said.

Nonetheless, what Karen Diver, chairman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians and alumna of the Kennedy School, described as the ''specter of Congress' plenary power'' remains a concern all across Indian country, reinforced by the ways in which Indian sovereignty was compromised by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Diver talked about the necessity of building capable institutions and transparency in government at home so that people will be able to rely on the tribe. She said her tribe has been very aggressive in developing regulatory programs for enterprises on tribal lands, whether they were run by the tribe or by outside companies.

Mark Chino, chairman of the Mescalero Apache Tribe, pointed out that the Apache have always been aggressive in their relationship to the federal government. ''The Chiricahua Apache were held prisoner for 27 years by the government,'' he said. ''Many people feel that the United States owes us for that injustice, as well as for the land and minerals that we lost.''

The tension between the federal government and the tribes was clearly the theme of the evening, with several speakers noting that the tribes are becoming a significant political force locally and nationally and that a backlash was occurring in some places.

Garcia's response: ''If we make tribal governments strong and learn about the political process, then all other things - health care, education - will fall into place. Some people may fear the tribes' political power. But if they're fearful, they're fearful.''

In talking about the changes in Congress resulting from the 2006 elections, Garcia said, ''We should not leave anything to chance. Just because there has been a shift in the federal government doesn't mean that our interests will benefit. We need to educate Congress, to tell our story. And we need to focus not only on the legislators who have large Indian populations in their states; we also need to educate the 'outliers,' those who have few or no tribes in their states, because there are a lot more of them.''

Chino concurred. ''Education is so important,'' he said. ''We can't let our guard down. Many members of Congress do not have an accurate idea of what it is to be an Indian or to live on a reservation. They have misconceptions about why services are provided to Native Americans by the federal government.''

Garcia noted that the Language Preservation Act passed by Congress in December is critical in filling a gap in the No Child Left Behind Act, but it almost failed, saved only by the efforts of Indian organizations and leaders. ''It must be the Indian nations that will set the standards for Indian children,'' he said. ''If you understand who you are, where you came from, and you speak your language, then you are a whole person. If you lose the language, then you're a lost soul.''

The event was moderated by Joseph Kalt, professor at the Kennedy School and co-director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development.