ASHEVILLE, N.C. - Scholars who have developed a deep understanding of Native culture from time spent working and studying among the nation's Indians are often well-suited to carry dispatches from Indian country to share with the larger world. From such a group of individuals comes ''The State of the Native Nations: Conditions under U.S. Policies of Self-Determination,'' an encompassing and thoroughly researched work examining the contemporary status of U.S. Native communities.
Ambitious in scope and thematic in organization, the book's sections include tribes as nations (including government, jurisdiction and federal/state/international relationships with tribes); assets and economy (lands, economic development, gaming, natural resources and environment); social development (education, health, family, housing and public safety); and culture, arts and media. A final section pays attention to the special status of Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and urban Indians.
As the subtitle suggests, the authors stress tribes' successes and challenges in exercising their rights under the current federal policy of self-determination, effectively arguing that - armed with growing authority and routinely exercising sovereignty - tribes are actively engaged in nation building. A main intent of the volume, however, is to serve as an introduction to contemporary Native communities. The book includes short stories from Indian country that specifically focus on main points in the larger text (a profile of the Cherokee National Youth Choir accompanies a chapter on culture, for example). First-person essays by American Indians deliver a real-time glimpse into the lively and active intellectual debates occurring across Indian country today.
The work is a collective effort of nine principal authors (including two American Indians) working as part of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, housed within Harvard University's school of government, that systematically and comparatively studies social, economic and political conditions on American Indian reservations. A ''sounding board'' of 14 American Indians reviewed the work, with many of them also contributing essays. In the face of a scarcity of data on American Indians and Alaska Natives, the principal authors (many of whom are expert in Indian economic development) have shown remarkable zeal in compiling fresh sources to support their work, including federal, state and tribal information; court documents; interviews; and more. Unusual for such a work, the book makes excellent use of quantitative data, using studies and especially information from the 2000 Census to excellent effect in illustrating the disparity between Native and other U.S. populations in terms of the economy, health and education.
Culture, as the authors themselves admit, is a slippery concept that is difficult to capture with words, yet they have managed to convey a very real difference between Native and other populations through numbers - which back everything from an anomalous rise in welfare cases among Minnesota tribes to the health of Native languages among larger tribes. The data is especially strong in chapters on gaming and health, and allows conclusions that socioeconomic conditions are rising for tribes with and without gaming operations (although faster for the former) and that the health of American Indians in some instances is improving.
While there is much about Indian country as a whole, the authors discern between different tribes, reminding readers that ''one could not have spoken with any accuracy of 'Indian culture' at the time of European contact, and one cannot speak with any accuracy of such a single 'Indian culture' today.'' With so broad a focus, however, there do exist overly generalized statements, such as ''the ties of history, culture, identity, family, and place are strong across Indian Country.''
The Indian essays buoy the book, providing a personal and much-needed Native perspective and voice, often countering the book's overall polite tone with blunt assessment. In an analysis of sovereignty, for instance, W. Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe, reprimands tribes that refuse to assume management of their own programs under the Indian Self-Determination Act, reminding them that the U.S. government will never live up to its treaty commitments, and that believing it will ''doesn't enhance the welfare of our communities.''
Its statistical achievements aside, the book is light on analysis. Despite this, or because of it, it introduces many compelling ideas, raising questions then leaving the reader to ponder: What, if anything, is it costing Indian country that tribes compete with each other for casino dominance and revenue? What are the repercussions for all tribes when some fail to successfully govern themselves? Does it help us understand Native populations more thoroughly when we consider them in the context of other minorities?
Perhaps the most interesting concept of all is the nature of intertribal ties. According to Allen, ''Our communities are tied together through common challenges.'' Hartman H. Lomawaima, Hopi, director of the Arizona State Museum, writes that Native groups express cultural commonality ''in moments when [they] wrap their arms around significant social change.'' One might argue that what ties tribes together is their multitude of binding, tangled connections with the federal government.
There will be many an instructor of Indian studies thankful for the appearance of this book. With its historical overviews, current data and multiple perspectives, it lends itself beautifully as a text for classes on Indian law, sovereignty, history and more. It guides readers into Indian country, giving them enough information to familiarize themselves with key issues while at the same time to encouraging them to independently explore the terrain.
Jill Ingram is a freelance writer and graduate student in history with a focus on Cherokee studies at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C. Contact her at email@example.com.