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Report questions congressional commitment to self-determination

WASHINGTON – Congressional Democrats and Republicans have been strong advocates for Indian self-determination for decades, but change is in the air, according to a new research paper by top scholars. With the U.S. House of Representatives shifting overwhelmingly toward the GOP after the fall elections, Indians are left watching whether some disconcerting trends will continue.

The report, titled “American Indian Self-Determination: The Political Economy of a Policy that Works,” is authored by professors Stephen Cornell, of the University of Arizona, and Joseph P. Kalt, of the Harvard Kennedy School.

Like many contemporary tribal leaders and citizens, they strongly favor the federal policy of Indian self-determination, which gained steam in the 1970s after years of failed U.S. policies toward tribes and tribal citizens. Indian self-determination calls for the implementation of federal programs and assistance for programs that tribes manage, or take part in managing, such as housing services and other social and economic programs.

The policy has long been popular among Democratic and Republican lawmakers, but recent shifts in legislative ideologies may pose a risk, according to the scholars’ research.

“Analysis of thousands of sponsorships of federal legislation over 1970-present, however, finds the equilibrium under challenge. In particular, since the late 1990s, Republican congressional support for policies of self-determination has fallen off sharply and has not returned. The recent change in the party control of Congress calls into question the sustainability of self-determination through self-governance as a central principle of federal Indian policy.”

The report noted that support for Indian issues have long tended to be bi-partisan, but when it comes to actual congressional sponsorship of programs that are aimed at improving social conditions for Indians, Democrats are currently far surpassing Republicans, and have done so for much of recent decades. GOP lawmakers did better than Democrats on this measure for a short period in the early 1990s. (See Figure 7)

The general trend held up even when Democrats had less power.

“The policy of self-determination reflects a political equilibrium which has held for four decades and which has withstood various shifts in the party control of Congress and the White House,” wrote the authors. “While Republicans have provided relatively weak support for social spending on Indian issues when compared to Democrats, both parties’ representatives have generally been supportive of self-determination and local self-rule for tribes.”

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Tribal self-determination took strong root through the dedicated work of Republican President Richard Nixon and his staff, a point the authors made in their paper. And it was Republican President Gerald Ford who signed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act into law in 1975.

The authors conclude the report with an ominous portrait: “As we look to the future, there are signs of instability in the support for self-determination. The rising economic and political clout of Indian nations is often seen as threats at the local level to non-Indian governments. Although beyond the scope of this study, this is raising inter-jurisdictional conflicts, often resulting in litigation.

“The general trend of outcomes in the U.S. courts has been a reigning in, rather than an expansion, of tribal sovereignty over the last 15 to 20 years.

“In Congress, too, there are signs of change. Most particularly, the oft-noted evolution of the Republican Party away from its libertarian strains and toward more aggressive support for social policymaking aimed at promoting particular conservative social norms and structures is suggesting a trend away from the Indian self-government movement. We might well predict that the next change to Republican control of the U.S. Congress will signal an end to policies of self-determination.”

If the current Congress outwardly halts self-determination policies and programs, it would be in conflict with decades of federal American Indian policy in the United States that has been aimed at promoting self-determination through self-governance by federally recognized tribes.

It would have huge ramifications for tribes, likely negative, as the authors said the policy “has proven to be the only policy that has worked to make significant progress in reversing otherwise distressed social, cultural and economic conditions in Native communities.”

Many Native Americans believe that educating the current batch of Congress members on the history of tribal self-determination and the strong impacts it has had on helping tribes become independent economic entities is crucial in the months and years to come.

The full report is online.