What Is Good Native Governance?
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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