Indian policy is a reflection of the values, interests, and culture of the people who make it. If Indian policy is going to reflect the views and needs of tribal communities, then policy makers need to give greater attention to the needs and future strategies for making tribal communities economically, culturally and politically sustainable.
Currently, many Indian communities, national Indian organizations, and Indian leaders have access to congressional committees and have a certain degree of influence. American Indians over the past half-century have learned to present their legislative views and goals before Congress and have generated a degree of success.
In many ways, American Indian tribal leaders and organizations like the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) actively participate in American civil society, the collection of active American political organizations. Congressional committees often seek the viewpoints of tribal communities, and often those viewpoints are expressed in legislative acts.
A persistent roadblock to realizing American Indian viewpoints expressed in legislative acts are lack of funding, bureaucratic rules and regulations, and the difficulties of implementing tribal ideas and concepts. In the American system, legislative acts are administered and put into practice by civil servants from the executive branch. The translation from legislative act, to program rules and regulations, and ultimately to program delivery tends to lose the flavor and intent of the original acts and reasons for tribal communities who presented their viewpoints to Congress.
Despite the significant advances of the self-determination policy, the present modes of federal services have not changed since the 1970s. Furthermore, the self-determination policy focuses Indian self-government on assuming administration of federal programming. Tribal administration of federal programs are supportive of developing stronger tribal governments and more culturally sensitive program delivery, but does not set out a blue print for creating the politically, culturally and economically autonomous tribal communities that are envisioned across Indian country.
Government legislative and administrative policies should more actively support tribal self-government, reservation economic sustainability, and enable tribal communities to retain and foster the distinct cultural views and ways of life represented in the wide diversity of indigenous nations. Federal policies should support indigenous rights, collective and individual human rights, and acknowledge and welcome greater choice, influence, and empowerment from within tribal communities. Indian policies need to build upon the self-determination policies of contracting of government programming, but also must recognize and actively support the realization of sustainable and politically autonomous indigenous nations.
Throughout much of American history, policy makers and administrators of Indian policy have reflected the needs and interests of American society rather than tribal nations. Indian nations and their needs and futures should be placed at the center of policy making. In order to implement a more effective Indian policy, federal administrators and policy makers need to seek advice from tribal communities, understand federal law related to tribal communities, and have greater understanding of Indian history and policy. Most importantly, policy makers and administrators need to have significant contact with and understanding of Indian cultures. Each tribal culture and community may have its own vision of who they are and where they want to go in the future.
Policy makers and administrators need to have greater understanding of the range of Indian political, economic and cultural relations needs and strategies about the future. Lawyers currently dominate much of Indian policy formation and implementation, but many other cultural, economic and political policy making skills are needed.
Many agencies working with tribal communities do not collect data or information about the conditions of Indian people and communities. Without good information, it is difficult to form policies that address the right issues in the right ways. Useful policy making for Indian country requires considerable and diverse knowledge and understandings about the Indian world. We need new visions and new directions for future Indian policy, as well as more accurate, culturally informed, and community-based understandings of tribal options and well-being.