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Let's Begin a New Era in Federal-Tribal Agreements

I often think about the big-picture ideas that would help tribal governments address the small-picture details more efficiently. The one solution that I continue to come back to is this: We need a new round of agreements with the federal government—a new take on the treaties of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Let me tell you why.

On September 17, 1987, a group of tribal leaders met in Philadelphia. They chose the date and the city for a purpose. It was the very date and city that the drafters of the U.S. Constitution finished their writing, 200 years earlier.

The tribal leaders joined together because they envisioned a new relationship between American Indian governments and the federal government. They believed the Constitution of the United States was the place to start.

Shortly after leaving Philadelphia, these same tribal leaders took their ideas to the Congress. Their ideas were simple, as most great ideas are. First, tribes should have a government-to-government relationship with the United States. Second, tribes should be able to prioritize their own programs and follow their own ways of governance. Third, the United States must keep the promises it made to tribes in exchange for land and resources and pay more than lip service to its trust responsibility. A trust responsibility means upholding, regulating and enforcing their treaty obligations.

Underlying these ideas was the Constitution. In the early days of the republic, tribes were treated as sovereigns. Treaties were made. These established the many government-to-government relationships with indigenous governments and representatives.

Treaty making ended in 1871. Our ancestors then endured allotment, termination, boarding schools, loss of our language, and—for so many of our people—a loss of hope. But for our leaders who went to Philadelphia and Washington in 1987, the United States’ relationship with the tribes remained a cornerstone of their vision for the future.

Congressman Sidney Yates, who has since passed, listened to them. He appropriated some money and recognized tribal authority over it, leading to the Tribal Self-Governance Demonstration Project. With self-governance came the rebirth of government-to-government relationships. Now nearly a quarter century has passed since the Mille Lacs Band signed its first compact under the Self-Governance Demonstration Project.

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Many of the tribal leaders who made all of this happen—Wendell Chino, Art Gahbow, Roger Jourdain, Joe DeLaCruz—are no longer with us. But their dream lives on.

Our responsibility to those leaders who came before us—and to our tribal members for the next seven generations—is to insist that our American political leaders build on these policies. It is time that the United States negotiate a new round of nation-to-nation agreements with each tribe choosing to go down this path. I believe this is the way to restore meaning to the government-to-government relationship between tribal governments and the federal government.

In order to do this right, each tribe will need one collective self-governance compact with the United States that covers every federal agency. After all, the federal trust responsibility is a government-wide responsibility. If each tribe has a single compact, all federal funds should flow through that compact. There will be one set of standards, one reporting mechanism, one timeframe, one audit, and one federal negotiator and decision-maker.

This will mean less waste of funds on bureaucracy at both the tribal and federal levels and more efficiency in delivering more programs and services to more tribal members. Truly this is a big-picture idea that would help us take care of the details of effective tribal governance.

Of course there will be challenges. We will need comprehension and support from the White House to make the federal agencies work together, something they tend not to do very well on their own. The President will have to declare that he will not tolerate federal turf wars. We will also need to overcome overlapping jurisdiction in certain House and Senate committees. And we, the tribes, must be clear, united and persistent. Like our forebearers two decades ago, we should not accept “no” as an answer.

Now is the time to start down this path. And we can be the ones to lead the way. We can be the ones to say that we will settle for nothing less than a full relationship between each tribe and the federal government.

This is our big idea—our responsibility—as sovereign governments.

Marge Anderson, Chief Executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota , has served more than 20 years in the Band’s tribal government. During her long tenure as Chief Executive, she has led the development of Grand Casino Mille Lacs and Grand Casino Hinckley and the rebuilding of the reservation through new schools, clinics, community centers, housing, a water treatment plant, and other infrastructure. Her efforts to strengthen tribal self-governance and increase American Indians’ self-sufficiency have received national recognition.