Permanent House Committee would help to slay the dragon of termination


The late, unlamented termination era in the federal relationship with tribes began to hit its stride following World War II. One of the intents behind the termination policy was that reservations, and along with them Indians as they have been known to American history, would cease to exist. Congress reflected that policy intent in its very organization. With a preliminary act of law in 1946, it saw to it that 1947 would be the first year under the Constitution that Congress did not dedicate specific committees to Indian concerns.

Since then, termination has failed, and a policy of self-determination has supplanted it. By 1975, the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act had codified tribal self-determination as official federal policy, and numerous acts of Congress have refined it since then.

But a funny thing has happened on the way to self-determination – namely, Indian country has refused to forget termination. The word comes up again and again, in many contexts. Some tribes and individuals consider self-determination itself a form of self-termination. The major self-governance program of Congress has been slowed by a shortfall of participating tribes. When the administration of President George W. Bush began to reorganize the BIA, one of the leading objections of tribes was that it smacked of termination. Recently, when the same administration circulated a series of proposals meant to help settle a major litigation case, the notion of limits on federal liability for mismanaged Indian assets met with the familiar chorus of “it’s termination by another name.”

It’s not hard to understand what’s happening here. On the one hand, courts and the Congress have linked tribal survival to federal policy. When survival is felt to be at stake, large-scale changes in the policy status quo that are not fully explained, understood in detail, to some considerable extent accepted and given time to grow on folks are bound to meet with suspicion and resistance.

On the other hand, self-determination is fraught with management and personal challenges that some tribes and individuals haven’t faced in full since the onset of the reservation era. Indians would have to be a race of plaster saints not to sometimes seize on the bogey man of “termination” as a way of defying someone else’s obscure plans for their future.

What it all means is that self-determination has never fully shed the shadow of its dark opposite. Sixty years after the initiation of what can be seen as one period of mirror images in Indian affairs – 30 years of termination, 30 years of self-determination – many Indians doubt, in the darkness of termination fears, what self-determination portends to offer in the clear light of day.

Someone will surely think to fault Indians for this attitude, but let’s think again. To couple the congressional history of termination/self-determination with the simultaneous history of Indian committees in Congress is to isolate the disconnection between a people and a policy.

At the advent of termination, Indian country had already adapted to many policy affronts, and set about doing so again. In the meantime, unhindered by committee representations, Congress steamrolled most tribes and (the unstated goal of termination) seized their resources.

In the Senate, after the civil unrest of the 1960s and the abovementioned landmark legislation of 1975, Indian issues began to be heard again before a Select Committee on Indian Affairs, predecessor to the permanent Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. The committee, while not winning on every issue, has served Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians exceptionally well.

But, in the House of Representatives since 1947, Indian subcommittees have not evolved a permanent standing committee. Instead, the House has made the Committee on Resources the closest thing to an Indian affairs committee in that chamber. Regularly in recent years, Indian-specific issues of the first importance have lost out to the Resource Committee’s many competing interests. Committee chairmen cherry-pick the Indian-specific issues that are most important to them, which is to say in their state; committee members address them with an eye out for the main chance in their own state. The committee has been helpful to Indians only so far as the sympathies of certain chairmen have extended.

The absence of full Indian committees in both chambers of Congress over a 60-year period has disjointed the complex issues around self-determination and kept them from the clear light of day – from the process of proposal, commentary, fact-gathering, debate, revision, negotiation, resolution and a vote that characterize the committee system at its best. Given the history of Native peoples in the American state, why should it surprise anyone that for many tribes, self-determination still wears the scarlet T? The best way to dispel it would be to bolster their confidence in the committee system at its best.

The House can establish a standing committee on Indian affairs without new law, as a part of the administrative reorganization of the new Democratic majority. To do so would be all the more fitting in that a Republican majority abolished the last Indian subcommittee of the House in 1994, and many Democrats since have expressed an intent to restore it upon regaining the majority.

What’s needed now in the House is not a subcommittee on Indian affairs but a full committee – the full light of day for a people too long denied, on an enlightened policy too long delayed.