Let's Begin a New Era in Federal-Tribal Agreements

Marge Anderson

I often think about the big-picture ideas that would help tribal governments address the small-picture details more efficiently. The one solution that I continue to come back to is this: We need a new round of agreements with the federal government—a new take on the treaties of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Let me tell you why.

On September 17, 1987, a group of tribal leaders met in Philadelphia. They chose the date and the city for a purpose. It was the very date and city that the drafters of the U.S. Constitution finished their writing, 200 years earlier.

The tribal leaders joined together because they envisioned a new relationship between American Indian governments and the federal government. They believed the Constitution of the United States was the place to start.

Shortly after leaving Philadelphia, these same tribal leaders took their ideas to the Congress. Their ideas were simple, as most great ideas are. First, tribes should have a government-to-government relationship with the United States. Second, tribes should be able to prioritize their own programs and follow their own ways of governance. Third, the United States must keep the promises it made to tribes in exchange for land and resources and pay more than lip service to its trust responsibility. A trust responsibility means upholding, regulating and enforcing their treaty obligations.

Underlying these ideas was the Constitution. In the early days of the republic, tribes were treated as sovereigns. Treaties were made. These established the many government-to-government relationships with indigenous governments and representatives.

Treaty making ended in 1871. Our ancestors then endured allotment, termination, boarding schools, loss of our language, and—for so many of our people—a loss of hope. But for our leaders who went to Philadelphia and Washington in 1987, the United States’ relationship with the tribes remained a cornerstone of their vision for the future.

Congressman Sidney Yates, who has since passed, listened to them. He appropriated some money and recognized tribal authority over it, leading to the Tribal Self-Governance Demonstration Project. With self-governance came the rebirth of government-to-government relationships. Now nearly a quarter century has passed since the Mille Lacs Band signed its first compact under the Self-Governance Demonstration Project.

Many of the tribal leaders who made all of this happen—Wendell Chino, Art Gahbow, Roger Jourdain, Joe DeLaCruz—are no longer with us. But their dream lives on.

Our responsibility to those leaders who came before us—and to our tribal members for the next seven generations—is to insist that our American political leaders build on these policies. It is time that the United States negotiate a new round of nation-to-nation agreements with each tribe choosing to go down this path. I believe this is the way to restore meaning to the government-to-government relationship between tribal governments and the federal government.

In order to do this right, each tribe will need one collective self-governance compact with the United States that covers every federal agency. After all, the federal trust responsibility is a government-wide responsibility. If each tribe has a single compact, all federal funds should flow through that compact. There will be one set of standards, one reporting mechanism, one timeframe, one audit, and one federal negotiator and decision-maker.

This will mean less waste of funds on bureaucracy at both the tribal and federal levels and more efficiency in delivering more programs and services to more tribal members. Truly this is a big-picture idea that would help us take care of the details of effective tribal governance.

Of course there will be challenges. We will need comprehension and support from the White House to make the federal agencies work together, something they tend not to do very well on their own. The President will have to declare that he will not tolerate federal turf wars. We will also need to overcome overlapping jurisdiction in certain House and Senate committees. And we, the tribes, must be clear, united and persistent. Like our forebearers two decades ago, we should not accept “no” as an answer.

Now is the time to start down this path. And we can be the ones to lead the way. We can be the ones to say that we will settle for nothing less than a full relationship between each tribe and the federal government.

This is our big idea—our responsibility—as sovereign governments.

Marge Anderson, Chief Executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota , has served more than 20 years in the Band’s tribal government. During her long tenure as Chief Executive, she has led the development of Grand Casino Mille Lacs and Grand Casino Hinckley and the rebuilding of the reservation through new schools, clinics, community centers, housing, a water treatment plant, and other infrastructure. Her efforts to strengthen tribal self-governance and increase American Indians’ self-sufficiency have received national recognition.

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iimaccountholder's picture
I share your thoughts, feelings and frustrations. Yes, we do need new agreements because our federal Indian Laws are outdated. Courts cannot make good decisions for Indians against the government for this reason. Again, we need protection from our own federal protector. During the Cobell lawsuit or the trust reform era, we should have learned how the government grossly failed to protect our property and money. In court documents we can now read the amount of human and cultural damage accumulated in silent federal termination policies. Regardless of legal clauses in the Treaties, Constitution, Presidential Indian Priorities, White House Indian Initiatives, Federal Indian Trust Policies, Indian Affairs regulations or political speeches, they still lack legal substance in Court. The Cobell Settlement is not what the Cobell lawsuit wanted. The broken trust system was not fixed and accounting of our trust funds was never done. An accurate accounting of our trust funds is incomplete and will always be because the govt cannot find a beginning balance. The Office of Special Trustee cannot fix the broken trust system and the government lied to a federal Judge and said they did fix it. The District and Court of Appeals both said the U.S. failed in its federal trust duties to American Indians. Since then the message from the U.S. is this; we will keep the Cobell in court forever, or until you run out of money or you die. Instead we were given hush money. Judge Lamberth’s very honest and candid court opinions of the governments’ treatment of Indians got him removed of this case. Since then two other Judge’s were assigned only to end the Cobell and not settle according to the lawsuit. If you read Lamberth’s opinions and other court documents, you will see how evil the government was, is and how they will be in the future. We need protection from the federal government. Many Tribal leaders have responded to many new federal policies only to find out many later are failures due to inadequate federal funding. Lamberth told the government in Court that inadequate federal budgets are not an excuse to carry out their federal trust duties honorably. Unfortunately, that will continue because there is no Indian Trust policy that will hold up in court due to failed federal policy. Tribes are not involved in the budgets of all federal Indian programs and especially not involved in the year end reviews if these programs worked properly or not. Tribes were not involved in trust reform budgets and we shouldn’t have to have a national or tribal citizens’ movement to be involved. If we had true Indian Trust policy it should be automatic that Tribal appointees be involved and not federal Indian employees. Ms. Cobell’s lawsuit gave us so much information to create a national plan of a federal Indian Trust Policy that we all agree to. This is would a living agreement that would make us truly a Nation within a Nation with genuine sovereignty and treaty sensitive. In order for this to survive, the U.S. should be compelled by all Tribes to create a Department of Indian Affairs. The U.S. created the Department of Commerce and Treasury so why not a DIA? This would place us on a more equal plane with the government and still abide by the Separations of Powers Doctrine. The U.S. always hides behind this doctrine with their Indian problem. But the main thing here is protection from government’s eternal evil and then we can protect our own tribal assets. In the trust reform era, the government won’t even recommend to us that the Indian Preference law is outdated and should be updated. This would enhance our chances of trust reform. Instead, they hire insensitive non-Indians in Indian positions to figure out a solution for our federal problems. Placing OST in charge of our trust reform is like putting Al Qaeda in charge of our National Security. Tribes filing lawsuits against the government is our only way to seek relief and justice but maybe not getting it. If the Courts have to make decisions against the government with weak, unspecific federal policy then no decisions in our favor will ever happen. In my opinion, that’s why the U.S. will never fix the Indian problem. They know that and we don’t. If there ever is another Individual Indian class action lawsuit, Tribal or National Tribal lawsuit against the government, banding together is required or else we won’t win. The broken trust in question is the same for Tribes and Individual Indian so why act like separate Indians. Ms. Cobell and her legal team deserve all what they ask for. Fighting the U.S. is not an easy task and it is expensive. Again, I thank each one of them and pray for Ms. Elouise in a full and healthy recovery. Thomas M. Wabnum Prairie Band Potawatomi IIMAccountholder@comcast.net BIA/OST retired Former Budget Analyst Former Tribal Councilman Former Federal Program Relocation survivor Former Indian Boarding School student survivor Viet Nam Veteran