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When Should Recognition of Self-Government Begin?

The BIA has published draft revisions of regulations governing the process by which federally non-recognized Indian communities can gain recognition.

After long discussion the Bureau of Indian Affairs has published draft revisions of regulations governing the process by which federally non-recognized Indian communities can gain recognition. A major suggested revision is to change the date for recognition of self-government and community continuity to 1934.

A common complaint about the current recognition rules is that U.S. policy toward Indians generally has focused on assimilation and discouragement of self-government or cultural and community continuity. Therefore, historical biases tend toward Indian disappearance as communities or nations. Federal policies from the very first Civilization Acts in the 1790s addressed the situation of Indians as one of teaching Indians how to farm, education in English, and incorporating Indians as individual families and citizens of the United States. The early policy of the United States did not foresee Indians as nations, but ultimately as individual citizens.

Indian resistance to early voluntary assimilation programs led to removal policies, starting voluntarily in 1803, and then more forcibly in 1830. By 1871, the federal government no longer treated with Indians, and entered into a policy of assimilation through boarding school education and land allotment. Indian policy was ultimately aimed at dismantling Indian reservations turning Indians into U.S. citizen farmers. The large transfers of land to U.S. government control and marginalization of Indians to small, often non-economically useful land, further limited the possibilities of Indian tribes to maintain sustainable economies, or community and self-government in their accustomed ways.

Indian policy, from the early 1800s to 1970 revolved around policy debates about the speed by which Indians could assimilate. There were two points of view held mainly by non-Indian policy makers. Some policy makers thought Indians could make the transition to independent and self-sustaining small farmers in a short period of no more than a decade. Others, however, thought Indians would take longer to assimilate, perhaps a generation or two to transition to U.S. citizenship and culture.

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During the period before 1970, Indians were subject to strong forces of assimilation and termination, and U.S. policy did not uphold permanent recognition of Indian self-governing nations. As late as 1968, Stewart Udall, Secretary of the Interior, before a Congressional Committee admitted that the Johnson-Kennedy administration’s Indian policy was a slow form of assimilation.

The suggested new regulations for federal recognition take into account the period when Indian policy explicitly discouraged tribal self-government, but want to start the period of recognition in 1934 with the Indian Reorganization Act. The new regulations argue that the Indian New Deal fostered constitutional government, mixed blood tribal recognition, the end of allotment policy, and other encouragements of self-government. The Indian New Deal encouraged greater Indian participation in Indian administration processes, but Congress committees already by the late 1930s were turning toward early patterns of termination policy.

The Depression economy, World War II, Bureau of Indian Affairs administrative control, and lack of funding all discouraged self-determination among Indian nations. At the end of World War II President Truman rejected the Indian New Deal and adopted policies that fostered termination during the later 1940s and early 1950s. Termination policies were carried out more explicitly by Congress during the Eisenhower administration.

The history of Indian policy better supports change in Indian policy toward self-determination starting with President Nixon’s Self-Determination Policy statement of July 1970. Self-Determination Policy upheld treaties as the basis of government-to-government relations, and ended termination policy in the early 1970s. The movement toward contemporary recognition of Indian tribes starts in 1977 with a report from the Indian Policy Review Commission. Given the argument that the date when U.S. Indian policy started to foster Indian self-government and recognition as a fair starting point for non-federally recognized Indian nations to demonstrate their community continuity and self-government, then the year to start evaluating the evidence should not be 1934, but rather 1970, if not 1977.