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Should Indian Nations Fear the Return of Termination Policy?

President Richard Nixon’s policy of self-determination upheld tribal and federal government relations, but is termination policy making a comeback?

If anything brings Indian nations together to rally for treaty and self-government rights, it is the threat of termination or the return of termination policy. Few Americans have a clear understanding of Native American history and policy. And few have any background in the history and legal supports for tribal self-government and the role of Indian nations within the U.S. federal system. The present administration tends to view people of color as freeloading ethnic or minority groups.

The actions to reduce federal aid and support for poor and needy citizens is often a cover for reducing support for ethnic minority groups even though most people who gain support from government programs are not minority group members. The casting of Indians as a needy ethnic group suggests that the administration does not understand Indian history and policy. Or, if it does, it is looking to abandon support for tribal government as part of the U.S. federal government based on treaties and federal statutes.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, such a position was known as termination policy, which is the severing of treaty rights and obligations between federal and tribal governments. Indian nations and allies rallied to reject termination policy during the 1950s by gathering state support to vote down acts of Congressional legislation designed to terminate specific tribal nations. Congress has power over Indian affairs and policy. Indian policy is based on the sum total of bills about Indian issues that are passed through Congress. Since 1970, American Presidents have accepted President Richard Nixon’s policy of self-determination that upheld tribal and federal government relations based on treaties. As forms of local government, tribal governments were supported by federal contracts made with a wide range of federal government agencies.


Tribal governments have for the last 50 years acted as de facto local governments over reservation and trust lands. Presidents and Congress treated Indian governments as local forms of government similar to the federal, state, and county-city governments that form the different levels of U.S. government. Through treaties and Congressional laws, American Indians enjoy limited powers of self-government. The powers of self-government do not derive from the United States, but are powers of government that are held from time immemorial before the formation of the U.S. Congress recognizes all powers of government inherent in tribal governments, as long as the powers of government are not explicitly taken away by a Congressional act.

A President can change the flow of resources and administrative purpose and policy direction, but presidents do not have the power to terminate tribal governments. Tribal governments fought against termination policy throughout the history of the United States. Indian nations resist any reduction of tribal political powers of self-government, and resist the tendency toward reduction to the status of ethnic minority group. Ethnic and racial groups do not have rights to self-government, tribal citizenship, and their rights are based on the civil rights granted within the Constitution.

Any new type of termination policy would require an explicit act of Congress. Often through the years there have been Indian termination bills offered by various members of Congress. Usually those attempts have been repudiated by the large majority of Congressional members. Tribal governments have a right to federal revenues because tribal governments manage a local form of government, acknowledged in policy, treaties, and Congressional statutes. Tribal governments strive for economic development, preservation of trust land, cultural continuity, and full freedoms within U.S. and tribal traditions.

If tribal governments are successful, they are never dismantled because they solved the problem of ethnic minority poverty. That is not their purpose. Rather, tribal governments continue and look to strive for greater cooperation with U.S. government agencies, exercise self-government, and carry on various forms of traditional cultural expression. While respecting U.S. citizenship and Constitutional rights, Indians believe that tribal rights and traditions should be preserved, respected, and supported by the United States.