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Harvard study: Both successes and failures dot self-governance trail

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - Greater American Indian self-governance "has been a success story for many tribes," according to a study done by Harvard University, but "failures have subjected all tribes to legislative attacks and adverse court decisions that erode the right to self-governance."

Tribal governance "has changed dramatically over the preceding three decades," according to the authors of "Native America at the New Millennium," a report by the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. But, "in spite of the progress already made, tribal governance is still a difficult endeavor plagued by funding shortfalls, inadequate infrastructure on many reservations, the vagaries of federal policy, and the continuing complexity of tribal legal status," said the report, written by a team headed by Eric Henson, Chickasaw, and Jonathan B. Taylor.

While the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 which set up the tribal council form of government remains influential on reservations, the authors claim "there remains a broad spectrum of governmental forms, including theocracies, parliamentarian systems, and direct and representative democracies."

The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, though, has helped the switch to greater independence, especially by enabling a pilot program of self-governance in 1988.

The authors define self-governance as a willingness to contract out or "compact" services that had previously been supplied by the federal government, such as health and educational services.

They point to the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, the White Mountain Apache Tribe in Arizona, and the Fond du Lac Lake Superior Band of Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin as examples of tribes that "have made great strides towards effective self-governance."

The report cites a Fond du Lac effort as "a model of innovative governmental practice." It said that the Fond du Lac Foster Care Licensing and Placement Agency, a Minnesota non-profit, "has allowed the Band to overcome the jurisdictional problems the tribe was facing in its efforts to expand its authority into neighboring communities." This effort helped the tribe "to exercise its licensing authority beyond the reservation boundaries, and thus increase the number of eligible Indian foster homes."

While not singling out failed attempts, the report notes "the Native press is filled with stories of tribes suffering from political infighting, continued economic hardship, and an unraveling of the social fabric that had previously held communities together. Those nations lacking institutions capable of effectively channeling the actions of elected officials are particularly prone to abuse, and tribal politicians backed by strong factions have the ability to exploit their offices unchecked."

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Summarizing the state of tribal-federal relations, the report said "much of the treatment of the tribes by the U.S. can be characterized as paternalistic, at best." Congress has "chronically underfunded" the main agencies that work with tribes, such as the BIA and the IHS.

And tribal recognition "has become an increasingly controversial aspect of the BIA's activities." Nevertheless, "the interactions between the tribes and the Federal Government will continue to remain central to Indian country for the foreseeable future."

Looking at the usually contentious state-tribal relations, the study concluded "not all state-tribal interactions are confrontational. New models of cooperation and dispute resolution, bolstered by some states' explicit recognition of tribes as governments, are helping alleviate some tensions without litigation."

However, states and tribes still regularly wrestle for power, the report acknowledged, and often "continue to find themselves resolving these struggles by turning to the federal court system."

But on a hopeful note, the authors pointed out that the governors of states such as New Mexico and Oregon "even have gone so far as to formulate a government-to-government approach to the tribes," similar to what the federal government has done.

In addition to state and federal relationships, the report noted that many tribes are using their sovereignty to establish relationships with international groups and governments, especially with the United Nations. Other groups include the World Bank, which recently announced a new fund for indigenous development, and the Organization of American States.

The report on self-governance, although comprehensive, is just one of the areas covered in "Native America at the New Millennium." Others include economic development and housing. The Harvard Project, a unit of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, is well-known for its series of annual awards noting best practices in tribal government.

The next set of eight awards of $10,000 apiece will be made in November in Albuquerque, N.M.Ha