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Harvard Indian Project gives a hand to sovereignty

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - Hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away from any major reservation, Harvard University's prestigious John F. Kennedy School of Government is rapidly becoming a bastion of the struggle for tribal sovereignty.

The new red-brick campus of the Kennedy School, tucked in a corner of the teeming, twisted streets of this Ivy League metropolis, is home to the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, a 13-year-old effort to figure out why some tribes are success stories, and others aren't.

The professors who run the project now think they have an answer.

The key, says co-director Joseph P. Kalt, is well-designed tribal government. Leaving aside the handful of casino bonanzas, he says that the tribes with thriving economies are likely to be those with stable business laws, non-political, fair-minded court systems and constitutions that match the traditional tribal culture.

One of the project's studies, he says, shows the presence of an independent judiciary alone accounts for a 5 percent improvement in the unemployment rate.

The nations that had their acts together, like the White Mountain Apaches of east-central Arizona and the Choctaws of central Mississippi, were the economic anchors of their regions, Professor Kalt wrote in an important paper on tribal sovereignty. His co-author and project co-founder Stephen Cornell is now director of the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy at the University of Arizona.

But, they note, other tribes plagued by instability and federally imposed institutions that didn't fit their traditions produced a depressing list of failures.

These findings have changed the thrust of the project from economic development to what the professors call "Nation-building."

"We found that capable institutions of self-government were an essential ingredient for building nations," said Andrew Lee, Seneca, program director. Good institutions go beyond promoting jobs, Lee said. Tribes have to show they can govern themselves to protect the gains of the 30-year struggle for sovereignty.

Lee runs an off-shoot of the project designed to highlight tribal successes - Honoring Contributions in the Governance of American Indian Nations. It is, in itself, a surprising success story.

The Harvard Project launched it in September 1998 as an experiment, but response was so heavy that it was upgraded to a full-scale program, Lee said.

By April, "Honoring Nations" had received 60 applications from more than 40 Indian governments in 21 states.

"Honoring Nations" was modeled after governmental "best practices" programs already in place in Brazil, the United States and the Philippines. It is supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation.

One of the project's conclusions may be surprising to some advocates of tribal reform. Although he supports the movement to replace the much criticized structures imposed by the "Indian New Deal" in the mid-'30s, Kalt warns it's not enough simply to copy the three-branch U.S. constitution.

What's needed, he says, is a "cultural match" between modern institutions and tribal tradition.

"Tribes that historically had a system of great centralization with a strong single chieftain," he said, do better with the single-body form of government than tribes with a "more horizontal" tradition. He offers the contrast of the White Mountain Apache Tribe of Arizona and the Oglala Lakota Tribe of Pine Ridge, both with centralized structures imposed by the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.

The Apache, he says, are "comfortable" with the powerful executive and have one of the country's most successful records of tribal enterprises. But the record of failure at Pine Ridge, he says, is "long and depressing."

Unlike the Apache, Kalt said Lakota culture had little match with the IRA structure, so "the virtually identical institutions of governance at Pine Ridge ... have little legitimacy with the Lakota people.

"Indeed," he wrote in the sovereignty paper, "traditional Lakota government was a highly sophisticated system, complete with its own separation of powers, checks and balances, and clear division of authority. What's more, it worked."

The project actually designed such a constitution for the Crow Tribe in Montana but he says it foundered amid in-fighting by tribal factions.

As for governments spanning two or more tribes forced together by reservation policies, such as the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho of Oklahoma or the Shoshone and Arapaho of Wind River in Wyoming, Kalt suggests the parliamentary system with a strong independent judiciary.

"You need some sense of fairness," he said.

These constitutional debates are bound to become more prominent in Indian country, Kalt says. Tribal reform, he agrees, looks like the next phase of the sovereignty struggle.

The Harvard Project hopes to be a valuable resource in this movement. It offers free research services and "executive education sessions" to individual tribes and leaders to discuss its findings. Lee said Kennedy School graduate students are required to write policy studies in place of master's theses. So far they have written about 200 project reports on Indian governance, often at the request of tribal leaders.

"Basically, they're acting as free policy consultants," he said.

A list of these reports is now available through the Harvard Project Internet web site (www.ksg.harvard.edu/hpaied), and, Lee said, eventually the full texts will be available on-line.

For now, Project leaders can be reached at Harvard at (617) 495-1338 and at the University of Arizona at (520) 621-7189.