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What Is Good Native Governance?

Dina Gilio-Whitaker
4/9/14

Every few decades it seems that Indian country has new concepts that it adopts that become the backbone for how we talk about ourselves. Those concepts usually seem to be about how we frame our relationships as Indian people to the dominant society, or more specifically to the federal government. They often mirror whatever the current policy regime happens to be. For the last 40 years we have spoken in terms of self-determination and sovereignty. Now “good governance” seems to be our new buzzwords.

A few weeks ago I attended a conference on that very topic at a prominent law school. It was organized by some prominent Native law scholars and academics, people highly regarded for their brilliant work in the fields of Indian law and Native American studies. Sadly, the conference was only one day long and could easily have filled two or three days with presentations. The presenter list read like a who’s who of people that have written influential policy papers, law articles, and books on topics related to tribal governance.

But there was something that stood out about the topics they were talking about and the kind of work many of them are doing: the presentations seemed to have a heavy emphasis on economic development. How to best maximize economic development; good self-government for better economic development; attracting business to the reservations; these were the kinds of things being talked about under the umbrella of good Native governance. It was as though good Native governance means good economic development.

What was missing, it seemed to me, were any critical perspectives. Possible critical topics that could have been included: the problem of tribal disenrollment in gaming tribes; the environmental repercussions of resource extraction on reservation lands; the dangers of hydraulic fracking to reservation communities; income disparity in Indian communities. Here’s one: how about negotiating the philosophical differences between capitalism and indigenous worldviews in economic development projects?

The very nature of capitalism is its commitment to unending economic growth (which means unending resource exploitation). It doesn’t recognize limits. It is a reflection of the Western (civilized) never-ending imperative, always wanting more: more land, more growth, more money, more technology, more power. The commitment to values based on profit. This paradigm is what caused our ancestors to lose their lands and what is causing indigenous peoples in other parts of the world to lose their lands in this globalized economy. Capitalism is wrapped up in the language of civilization, disguised as the desire for a better, easier life. It is responsible for a changing climate, for increasing global poverty, human rights violations and war. It is the big trickster of our time—it is coyote in his modern day manifestation.

Capitalism as a way of life is imposed as a civilizing technique of the colonizing American government, especially during the eras of assimilation and the Indian Reorganization Act. The goals of self-government under the IRA were envisioned primarily as a business creation and management regime, tribal governments were organized as corporations. This was in response to the poverty that resulted from the miserable failure of allotment (and arguably, all the land theft and cultural disruption before that).

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tdevers's picture
Your thoughts are aligned with a lot of the problems we see with our youth as far their role in tribal governance and identity. Their role as tribal members seems to have taken the role of fully embracing (and not recognizing) that capitalism is the driving factor in their identities and decisions.
tdevers
Dogsbody's picture
The problem with dismissing capitalism is that it exists when trade takes place at any level. Whether trading skins for stone tools or dollars for a new pick-up capitalism is essentially trade on mutually agreed terms. Granted capitalism must and should be regulated, it still allows the parties engaged to determine the fair trade without a third party setting the value of labor. Past history world wide shows evidence that some culture will dominate another or others. Those peoples who manage to make use of the dominate culture best also manage to maintain some vestige of their own culture and even influence the dominant one. Those who attempt to keep separate from that dominate culture gain little, and often disappear altogether. Lapps, Celts, and a few others are examples. The American Nations have provided much influence, direct and indirect, on the dominate culture. But perhaps not enough. We could wish for more, but the several Nations will only do so by further including themselves in the mainstream. And I doubt it will be easy.
Dogsbody
Mary Aurelia Johns's picture
Good Tribal Governance should not be about Good Economic Development. As you stated it should be more about how tribes are governing their nation. Economic Development is only a small part of governance. Leadership is more about the quality of life their members are having. It always appears that Indian Country is at the mercy of whatever new trend is being passed around at the national conferences and by those Indians who are involved in developing national policy. Your mentioning Self-determination and Sovereignty are excellent examples of two important models. They provided the guidance during dangerous times, (that is before Indian Gaming took over center stage) and kept our leaders focused on what was important for their tribal membership. Now that economic development is linked to good tribal governance you no longer hear about education, health care, poverty, infant mortality, high suicide rates, etc. The United Nations uses the infant mortality of a nation to determine how well its government is doing. When was the last time NCAI had infant mortality on their agenda, low reading levels of Indian students or the loss of Indian babies to state social services? These are areas Indian Leaders need to be concentrating on because Indian children are the future. When making money is the priority it is our children who suffer. One last thought – when did law schools become business schools who now produce economic development experts. I thought this was an area for MBA’s to be creating policy. How is it that the attorneys are always the expert in everything that happens in Indian Country? Mary Lee Johns, Lakota
Mary Aurelia Johns
Mary Aurelia Johns's picture
Good Tribal Governance should not be about Good Economic Development. As you stated it should be more about how tribes are governing their nations. Economic Development is only a small part of governance (usually dealing with regulations). Leadership is more about what quality of life of they are creating for their membership. It always appears that Indian Country is at the mercy of whatever new trend is being passed around at the national conferences and by those who are involved in developing national policy. Your mentioning Self-determination and Sovereignty are excellent examples of two important models. They provided the guidance during dangerous times, (that is before Indian Gaming took over center stage) and kept our leaders focused on what was important for their membership. Now that economic development is linked to good tribal governance you no longer hear about education, health care, infant mortality, high suicide rates, etc. The United Nations uses the infant mortality of a nation to determine how well its government is doing. When was the last time NCAI had infant mortality on their agenda, low reading scores of Indian students or the loss of Indian babies to state social services? These are areas Indian Leaders need to be concentrating on because Indian children are the future. When making money is the top priority it is our children who suffer. One last thought - when did law schools become business schools who now produce economic development experts. I thought this was an area for MBS's who are the subject matter experts. They should be writing policy... how is it that the attorneys are always the subject matter experts in everything that happens in Indian Country?
Mary Aurelia Johns
davidche-weilee's picture
Dear Dina, I feel very blessed to enjoy reading your convincing article. I agree with your point and positively support your argument—that is, good Native governance is not equal to good economic development. In this article, you tended to distinguish mainstream economic development from tribal economically sustainable development. The sustainability is the core value of indigenous peoples, such as American Indians. I assume that you tried to warn that any introduction of non-indigenous-based economic paradigms to indigenous tribes should be careful not to completely embrace the model of the contemporary economic development because indigenous peoples do not share too much the notion of economic development with mainstream society or nation-states. The concept of capitalism derives from the Western (civilized or non-indigenous) worlds. In many indigenous worlds, the economic worldview is essentially different from many non-indigenous worlds. Indigenous peoples highly value the balance of and peaceful result of the trade, rather than endless exploitation. Indigenous economic policies that affect the preservation of indigenous lands, territories, and natural resources are often enacted without consulting indigenous worldviews that are vital to form a healthy indigenous ecology. Although you did not specifically argue what you mean good Native governance, by your essay I would automatically come to argue for an indigenously responsive economic policy. We must have to base our standpoint on indigenous voices and cultural knowledge into economic development policies. The concrete way is to share the policy decision making process with indigenous peoples and, sincerely and substantially, integrate indigenous cultural perspectives into final program. Indigenous peoples should have the best position to define their success of economic development for their tribes. Sincerely, Che-Wei Lee
davidche-weilee
derrico's picture
Good work! So important to critique the latest fads of analysis (or supposed analysis; sometimes more like propaganda). As for the commenter who said "capitalism…exists when trade takes place at any level," that is flat wrong. The history of economics makes clear that trade exists (and existed long before) without the profit-making and maximizing features of capitalism.
derrico