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The New Trust: Shaping America’s New Federal Trust Responsibility

Change is in the air in Indian country as we continue to evolve from the damage and consequences caused by years of failed federal Indian policies. As deplorable as U.S. history was during these years for Indian country, it remains a part of U.S. history most often untold and it continues to have contemporary significance in U.S.-Tribal relations.

The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 (ISDEAA) and the Tribal Self-Governance Act of 1994 (SG) have provided us with the policy framework that has supported and promoted the idea of empowerment rather than one which destroys. An honest assessment of ISDEAA and SG recognizes the tremendous benefit that they have had in supporting our efforts to rebuild our tribal nations- rebuilding to the strong and powerful nations that we were prior to colonialism.

However, ISDEAA and SG still fall short in terms of realizing full sovereign authority. As such, a new policy framework and understanding of the trust relationship is necessary; one that offers greater acknowledgement, protection, and promotion of our inherent sovereign authority and independence. Further, it must recognize that the execution and fulfillment of the trust responsibility is a legal and sacred responsibility. It should never be viewed through partisan lenses and/or become lost in the politics of Washington D.C. The U.S. should be held accountable for doing what is just and right, rather than only as a response to our growing political might.

It is evident that the current trust model is inadequate, riddled with conflicts of interest, and systemically flawed. At its core, it still fosters and promotes paternalism and the notion that the United States holds plenary authority over Indian country. It is commonly understood by Indian country scholars that the current trust model is built upon two propositions: (1) that we are incompetent, and (2) that Indian tribes, as political institutions separate from the United States, would soon disappear. Both of these propositions are clearly incorrect, but they are still at the center of the current trust model.

There are many potential components to building a stronger trust model, but it must be rebuilt upon a foundation of full recognition and respect for our inherent sovereign authority. It must move away from federal oversight and achieve a greater level of tribal autonomy and control as we are our own greatest agents of change. It must be built upon dependence on tribal law. It must remove barriers and create opportunity which in turn diminishes dependent behavior and positions us to independently prosper. It must fully promote and protect our sovereignty in recognition that there are efforts determined to destroy it. It must elevate the U.S.-Tribal relationship to a level that reflects the honor and respect that it deserves. It must never view and/or execute on the trust responsibility in an arbitrary and discretionary manner. Finally, the trust responsibility must no longer be ambiguous and must be redefined by Indian Country in a manner that reflects our values and expectations.

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These are not revolutionary ideas. They are evolutionary ideas which recognize that a new trust framework is necessary for Indian country to evolve in a manner that provides us with the opportunity to realize our full potential. America must no longer live in fear of Indian country success. Stronger tribal nations correlate to a stronger America. It is time to move beyond these fears and recognize that Indian country success is mutually beneficial to us all. It is time for America to no longer walk in front of us, rather, walk beside us with respect for each other’s sovereign authority. It is time that Indian country finally be granted the justice it rightfully deserves.

The Obama Administration and Congress have demonstrated the ability, at times, to work together in a bi-partisan manner for the benefit of Indian country. However, while there are examples to hold up as successes, much more is necessary. All three branches of government must more consistently uphold and fulfill their responsibilities as trust agents of the United States.

So how must this next trust era be shaped? While I don’t propose to have all the answers, as a start, it must be built upon a greater level of trust; a trust in us that we know best for our people and our communities; a trust in us that recognizes that we are highly competent, sophisticated, and able to manage our own affairs.

America, when you can demonstrate a greater trust in us, we can then trust in you. Then, and only then, can we move beyond the failures and atrocities of the past and coexist in an environment of mutual respect and support for one another as intended by the Creator.

Kitcki A. Carroll is a citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribe of Oklahoma and serves as Executive Director for United South and Eastern Tribes, Inc.