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Keel: Sovereignty and the trust responsibility – 40 years of tribal self-determination

As tribal leaders, we are all busy juggling dozens of priorities and details. On a daily basis, we are working on everything from health care and law enforcement to complex business transactions. At the same time, we are charged with protecting the fundamental rights of Indian tribes and advancing tribal sovereignty. We have made some progress this year with the Tribal Law and Order Act and the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, but sometimes we do not get the chance to connect the details of our daily work with the larger picture of federal Indian policy.

For two reasons, now is a good time for us to take stock. First, 40 years ago President Nixon issued his Special Message on Indian Affairs and established the federal policy of Tribal Self-Determination. This policy has guided federal-tribal relations for two generations without significant changes. Second, President Obama is planning to meet with tribal leaders again, and we need to be prepared to discuss the major policy questions that are appropriate for a meeting with the president. I would propose that we focus on the self-determination policy, both its successes and its limitations.

President Nixon built on decades of work from tribal leaders when he issued the self-determination statement in 1970. Reading the statement today, it is hard to find anything wrong with the words as they are written on paper. Its revolutionary vision is vibrant and remarkably durable. Rejecting the historical extremes of termination and paternalism, it established the twin pillars of modern federal Indian policy – deference to tribal autonomy and respect for the federal trust responsibility to support tribal communities.

I do not believe we need a fundamentally new federal Indian policy. Instead, the real question is how the policy has been implemented. On one hand, self-determination has been phenomenally successful. In 1970, the BIA dominated reservation life like a third world dictator. The self-determination policy fundamentally changed tribes’ relationship with the federal government. Today, federal laws and every federal agency are far more respectful of tribal authority. Tribes have vastly improved services on reservations and created hundreds of thousands of jobs. We have done the hard work of building tribal government institutions and enterprises, and we will pass this legacy to the next generation.

Together we can use this time to examine the barriers to full implementation of the self-determination policy and prepare for our future meetings with President Obama and the administration.

On the other hand, significant barriers have prevented full implementation. The Supreme Court has undermined tribal authority with devastating results for public safety, tax and revenue generation, and basic civil jurisdiction. Our largest assets, tribal lands, remain fragmented and caught in a web of stifling BIA regulations and bureaucracy. There has never been enough federal funding or other revenue to provide adequate services or develop infrastructure, and economic development has been highly uneven with many reservations remaining in great poverty. Much work remains to be done.

The National Congress of American Indians Annual Convention is coming up in mid-November in Albuquerque, N.M. On Tuesday morning, we have asked Kevin Gover, one of our most thoughtful Indian policy scholars, to provide a keynote address on the future of federal Indian policy, followed by a facilitated tribal leader discussion about our vision for the future of the self-determination policy. Our hope is that you will join us and that together we can use this time to examine the barriers to full implementation of the self-determination policy and prepare for our future meetings with President Obama and the administration. I look forward to seeing you there.

Jefferson Keel is president of the National Congress of American Indians. President Keel is the lt. governor of the Chickasaw Nation.