Indian policy for modern realities


We need an Indian policy that reflects the long-term goals and needs of Indian peoples and clarifies a future within the United States. For the last century or so, Indian policy has been the product of presidential and Congressional campaigns and policies that often did not consult Indian communities and leaders.

Indian policy should be re-established with a more contemporary understanding of the place of Native peoples within the United States. Now U.S. administrations are willing to accept limited American Indian political sovereignty, a result of considerable resistance by Indian peoples to past assimilation policies.

In the past the primary purpose of Indian policy was either quick or long-term assimilation. Most federal and state social service programs are focused on lifting people, individuals, from poverty and encouraging, even welcoming, them to join American life and economy. The majority of the American public and electorate knows little about American Indians and generally has no knowledge of the legal implications of treaties and Indian policy.

In the past Indian people have reacted to Indian policies that threatened tribal land, culture and political sovereignty. While Indian peoples have defended their basic rights, they have not taken the leadership in specifying the Indian policy and positions that would lead to economically, politically and culturally healthier Indian communities. Indian peoples need to accept that they are now living within the economic, legal and political constraints of the United States, while Americans must understand the goals and values of American Indian peoples for self-government, maintaining cultural community and need for economic participation in the market economy as collective communities.

For the last century or so, Indian policy has been the product of presidential and Congressional campaigns and policies that often did not consult Indian communities and leaders.

The basic misunderstandings, or star-crossed cultural goals and values, between American Indians and American society and government has not resulted in the healthy American Indian communities that both the American public and Indian peoples themselves want and need. Constructing a new Indian policy will require some fundamental debate and discussion between American policy makers and Indian communities. American Indians need to take the initiative in redefining Indian policy and administering Indian policy.

What are some concrete policy points that need attention? The United States should support and implement the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. American Indian tribal governments need formal recognition based on consensual approval by tribal communities, both individually and collectively. The United States has evolved a system of standing tribal governments, but does not give tribal governments formal or systematic recognition for political, economic or administrative purposes. The United States should formally recognize that most treaties with American Indian tribes established relations of alliance with the United States. American government does not recognize absolute sovereignties, and thereby American law and policy has limited tribal sovereignty to fit into the American system of checks and balances through a system of shared and limited sovereignties.

The United States should formally recognize tribal governments as part of American government, and support tribal governments through federal revenue sharing. The improved recognition and economic stability of tribal governments would greatly improve their ability to establish cooperative and beneficial government-to-government relations with federal, state and local governments.

The commerce clause in the U.S. constitution is one major form of recognition of American Indian nations, and the full rights of economic participation in the U.S. market system, at the level of state governments, should be extended to Indian nations, as was the intent of the founding fathers. Past Indian policies have resulted in an unstated dual citizenship for Indian tribal members. The United States should formally recognize the dual citizenship rights of Indian tribal members, and work to clarify and eliminate legal ambiguities. Indian policy making should not be the domain of Washington office holders, but should be democratized to include Indian governments, communities and national organizations.

Indian people need their voices, needs and values heard and implemented at the core of any humane and effective Indian policy.