New era calls for new policy direction

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The recent presidential election offers an opportunity to reconsider Indian policy. No president has made a major statement about Indian policy since 1968 and 1970. What should an Indian or indigenous policy look like in the 21st century? National policy should be a two-way street that does not just serve Indians or the goals of national policy, but rather should result in mutually beneficial strategies for the future. Policy should result in greater understanding and respect between Indians and non-Indians.

The policies of allotment, boarding schools and termination were seen by the general public and policy makers as a pathway to economic self-sufficiency and social and political inclusion within the body politic of the United States. The battles over termination resulted in the policy statements of the late 1960s and early 1970s that outline the current self-determination policy. Indians continued to want the right to maintain as well as change their cultures, governments and hold onto territory.

Much of government policy has not been based on the long-term continuity of Indian governments and communities but always saw them as merging into the mainstream. The basis of a 21st century Indian policy should recognize that Indian nations are a long-term part of the organization of the United States government and people. While Indian nations are mentioned in treaties and in the United States Constitution, Indian policy has always worked on the premise that Indian land rights, cultural rights and governments were temporary constructions.

American Indian policy has moved informally toward developing Indian governments and nations as part of the limited and shared jurisdiction of American sovereignty. Sovereignty in the United States is shared among the branches of the federal government, states, and local county and municipal governments. It is less well understood that Indian governments by treaty and Congressional statute also share a limited sovereignty with the contemporary American government. The current limited and shared sovereignty between the United States and Indian tribes over Indian country is the result of past policy, legal cases, and many years of continuing negotiation and political process. Nevertheless, Indian governments continue in a state of possible dissolution by the United States government.

Much of government policy has not been based on the long-term continuity of Indian governments and communities but always saw them as merging into the mainstream.


In principle there is the same assumption for state and local governments which are organized by agreement and for mutual benefit. Indian governments, however, often do not have the power or political access to withstand American policy, and if a tribe is dissolved, as they have been in the past, the dissolution was often over the protests of many, if not the majority of Indian community members. The usual consent to government rule was not extended to Indian communities or tribal governments. Indians are not parties to the agreements of political organization or the Constitution, but are economic and political allies by treaty and agreement. Indigenous peoples have their own traditions or principles of cultural community and government that needs to be recognized officially in law, legislation and policy.

The first principle of new Indian policy should recognize that effective and democratic government is based on rule by consent, but for American Indians that means consent from hundreds of traditions. American Indians will respond more favorably when they have recognized government powers of self-government based not on American law and policy, but on their own forms of political consensus and rights.

The goal of developing a new Indian policy should not be to create politically autonomous and legally impermeable tribal governments, but to extend the benefits of consensual politics to Indian governments and to the discussion of Indian policy. When Indian governments and communities see that they are respected, and are not transitional powers without their consent, then the basis will be formed for the long term mutually beneficial negotiations between tribal, federal, state and local governments that even now forms the American political system.