While the democratization of credit was going forward to the great benefit
of U.S. tribes, as described in the first of two installments on the Bill
Clinton presidency, the administration embarked on a campaign of economic
globalization abroad, beginning almost immediately after President Clinton
took office following the 1992 elections. Its contemporary architects were
a handful of economists and financiers led by Treasury Secretary Robert
Rubin and his number two at Treasury, Lawrence Summers. President Clinton
took an active part in promoting globalization, and of course signed off on
it as policy.
The word was supposed to stand for a series of "structural adjustments,"
administered from Washington, to developing-country economies. These
adjustments, all tending toward free trade and unfettered markets as the
saying went, were supposed to expand the global market for trade goods
through enhanced capital flows into countries made safe for investment;
this expansion in turn was supposed to spark economic growth in developing
countries, which would supply a demand in these new markets that developed
economies could not by themselves fulfill. Thus, economic growth in
developing countries would outpace that of already developed countries,
reducing the prosperity gulf between them and making for a safer, more
At the time, it was hard to hear a critical voice on the subject. The most
esteemed universities, the most influential scholars and executives, the
most visible public servants and the most reputable publishing houses all
got on the bandwagon. By contrast with the polished presentations of the
pro-globalization crowd, opponents came across as ragtag, left-fringe,
politically radical, socially rude and just plain young (read: more
enthusiastic than knowledgeable). A high point of presidential humor had to
be the time Clinton scolded some 50,000 of them for tearing up Seattle a
bit during a World Trade Organization meeting there.
Only globalization die-hards scold them now. Globalization turns out to
have been a way for wealthy countries to deny other ones the trade
protections and subsidies that nourish prospering economies, while prying
open those trading markets most advantageous to the developed West. The
almost holy doctrine of free and unfettered markets turns out to have been
a way for wealthy nations to get around competition with
government-assisted trade in nations that were a threat, otherwise, to
follow the historic path of Western economies (trade protections,
subsidies) to prosperity.
In brief, globalization was a gold mine for U.S. business interests and
financiers, but a stumbling block of giant proportions for developing
economies in a succession of countries, from Mexico to Southeast Asia,
Brazil to Russia, Argentina to Venezuela, and points between. Perhaps most
fateful of all globalization's crimes in the fullness of time, it also
managed to undermine Russia's first real chance at democracy in 300 years.
International Native peoples suffered as much as anyone from globalization,
dropping off the priority list of governments under financial duress. If
there's a silver lining to globalization, it may turn out to be that a
number of Native peoples have reacted to it by forcing a say in the
governance of their own countries, with some success; while others have
sought to transcend national governments complicit in globalization by
turning to international forums.
U.S. tribes can be forgiven if they missed much of the drama globalization
caused their fellow Native peoples. For them, the 1990s under Clinton were
salad days indeed. Nothing is ever perfect and federal funding is never
enough, and so it has been said that Clinton's presentation of tribal
issues was better for Indians than his budgets. It's a criticism his
standing in Indian country will certainly survive, for his primary
Indian-specific decisions stand with Nixon's among the modern presidents.
Clinton's use of executive orders and memoranda on behalf of tribes was a
defining strategy. Knowing full well that radical departures in Indian
policy would be almost impossible to push through a Republican-majority
Congress, Clinton adapted executive directives to Indian-specific purposes.
Conservatives fulminated over what they considered an end-run around the
legislative process; but many presidents have done as much. Only Clinton
has done it so dedicatedly for tribes.
His most celebrated Indian-specific memorandum, of April 29, 1994, was
entitled "Government-to-Government Relationship with Native American Tribal
Governments" - and that is what it demanded from all executive leadership
within federal departments and agencies. From then on, they would have to
coordinate and cooperate with tribal governments before taking actions that
affected them, something tribes had advocated for years. Clinton's
memorandum established it as government policy. Presidential executive
directives do not have the force of law and can be canceled or ignored by
successor presidents. But the directive built a momentum within the
government for tribal consultation that wouldn't be exhausted until a
couple of years after Clinton left office.
In other executive directives, Clinton ordered the accommodation of Native
practices at sacred sites on federal lands while also protecting the
physical integrity of the sites, curtailed the targeting of tribal lands
for excessive environmental degradation from federal activities, and
improved the participation of tribal colleges in federal programs -
including language and cultural programs.
Tribal identity has always depended in part on language and culture, and in
equal part on land and resources. In Alaska, where Alaska Native villages
have been spared treaties and the reservation system, the critical
resources are called subsistence - provisions of food, clothing, building
material and medicine that are taken from the land. Shopping for them in
stores also goes on, obviously, but without subsistence provisioning it's
not clear how many human communities would be viable in the vast and
forbidding Alaskan geography. Without doubt, Alaska Native cultural
identity as we've known it would vanish clean away without the hunting,
fishing and gathering traditions passed along through generations.
That was the threat during the Clinton presidency. A lawsuit far too
complicated to recount here had brought the state of Alaska to the brink of
managing federal waterways in the state. After countless turns in the
long-running case, the state legislature came within a vote of launching
the process that would have led to state assumption of authority over
federal waterways in Alaska. Alaska Natives were almost unanimously opposed
to that, on grounds the state would disrupt salmon fishing and the Native
traditions that go with it. Already inland salmon fishing had been shut
down in previous years, and duplicitous fish-counts in other years had only
increased Alaska Native distrust for the state. Notwithstanding complaints
that even federal waterways management was more than sovereign villages
should have to accept, Alaska Natives greatly preferred it to state
In all this, the Clinton administration, which had not sought the court
struggle, never flinched, wavered, or equivocated in its support for Alaska
Natives. Eventually, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt announced the federal
government would assume control of federal waterways in the state.
Subsistence fishing would go on, and with it Alaska Native culture.
Finally in the Clinton years, Indian housing began to get the remedies
Indian housing authorities had sought - with increasing desperation it
should be noted, as the Indian population rose and housing stock decayed.
The Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act got its
start among tribal housing authorities and relied finally on bi-partisan
support in Congress. But it had a friend in the Department of Housing and
Urban Development and the White House. When it passed Congress to become
law in 1996, NAHASDA replaced separate Indian housing assistance programs
with single block grants that housing authorities could deploy flexibly, to
match local conditions and leverage other resources. It was a textbook
example of cooperation between tribes and the federal government in
forwarding the goal of tribal self-determination.
In its reaction to the Indian Trust Management Reform Act of 1994, the
Clinton administration wrote a textbook to the contrary-how not to respond
to Indian-specific legislation. Clinton and company can't be faulted for
the poor trust funds management practices developed at Interior and the BIA
over 100 years or so. They can't even be convincingly faulted for resisting
early reforms that went beyond the mandate of the 1994 law. But with a
revolution at hand in the relationship of the federal bureaucracy to its
supposed beneficiaries, the Clinton administration could not cast off the
long-held liberal assumption that protecting Indians from everyone outside
the federal realm is the first priority. Interior Secretary Babbitt played
the town clown before successive committees of Congress, advocating known
folly in software expenditures meant to fix the computerized trust
accounting system. These follies got major funding from Congress primarily
because lawmakers who knew better didn't want to vote "against Indians" in
an election year. But when George W. Bush succeeded Clinton in the
presidency, his emphasis on accountability made the trust reform debacle a
poster-child for throwing bad money after good. In the Clinton legacy, that
counts for an opportunity lost.