Assessing the past and future of self-determination
The self-determination policy is a period of major social movement among tribal leaders, communities and activists. It is a period characterized by an increase of Native self-identity, community mobilization, cultural revival, uneven economic development and greater national attention to tribal sovereignty. Since the 1980s, congressional funding, legal support in the courts and administrative policy have not been as favorable as they were in the late 1960s and ;70s. Self-determination policy was generated by tribal actions and is still in formulation. Tribal communities have a central role to play in the future direction of self-determination policy.
The expression ''self-determination'' is an outgrowth of the movement to impede termination policy during the 1960s. In some ways, self-termination policy is a way of articulating and reaffirming tribal government powers and community cultures. If left to the policy-makers of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations during the late 1940s and '50s, Indians would have become full citizens of the United States and reservations would now be artifacts of the past.
Indian communities and leaders led the opposition to termination policy and formulated an alternative policy leading eventually to self-determination. At the 1961 American Indian Chicago Conference, Indian leaders and community members met to formulate a statement outlining the conditions of their people. As chair of the steering committee, D'Arcy McNickle, a Cree and Salish-Kootenai adopted member at the Flathead Reservation, authored a new Indian policy titled ''Declaration of Indian Purpose,'' which proposed solutions to many of the problems.
McNickle was an anthropologist by profession and worked with John Collier, commissioner of Indian Affairs, during the New Deal era in the 1930s. He brought many unrealized ideas from the New Deal, but now aided with mobilized national Indian organizations and groups looking for an alternative to termination policy. The discussions and reports of the Chicago Conference were presented in 1962 to President John F. Kennedy in the White House by the members of the National Congress of American Indians. Indian activists, community members and program leaders lobbied Congress in the summer of 1964, and gained inclusion of tribal governments as program clients for Community Action Programs and the Office of Economic Opportunity. Their efforts opened the door for tribal governments to direct funding with many federal agencies, bypassing the BIA.
In 1968, President Johnson, in consultation with Indian leaders, formulated in a special policy statement to Congress, ''The Forgotten American,'' in which he grafted anti-poverty programs and advocated individual and tribal policy choices. He used the expression ''self-determination,'' but it was not central to his presentation. President Nixon's special policy statement to Congress in 1970 was again formulated from recent tribal experiences in tribal program management and based on extensive consultation with tribal leaders. Nixon suggested that Congress officially end termination policy, and encouraged tribal governments to take greater management of programs and funding. Sen. James Abourezk, D-S.D., having lived on the Pine Ridge reservation, moved many self-determination hearings and reports through Congress. He also worked for passage of The Self-Determination and Education Act of 1975.
The self-determination and anti-poverty programs funneled funds to and engendered greater empowerment for tribal governments. In most reservation communities, the tribal governments as we know them today were formed as a result of these policies of the 1960s and '70s. Tribal governments started working directly with many federal agencies, and funds were made available directly to tribal communities. While many tribes had formed Indian Reorganization Act constitutional governments since the New Deal era, or created bylaws, most tribal governments had few independent resources and were dependent administratively and economically on the Office of Indian Affairs.
During the 1960s and '70s, tribal governments began to control economic and bureaucratic resources under BIA and federal agency funding guidelines. Many tribal governments rapidly expanded and became major distributors of social services and federal program benefits. The self-determination policy led to more local tribal management of federal programs within the constraints of federal rules and regulations. Tribal governments began to operate like local and state entities in the management of federal funding but generally remained dependent on federal funding, since few tribes, except those with significant natural resources, were generating autonomous economic resources.
Self-determination, as a federal policy, meant the administration of federal programs with federal funding. For many tribes, local management and control of resources led to the more effective and culturally sensitive delivery of services to tribal members. Nevertheless, without significant autonomous resources generated from a tribally managed reservation economy, most tribal communities remained dependent and federal funding and administrative resources.
For the most part, tribal communities do not object to tribal government integration into federal government programming, but know that dependency on federal resources limits cultural and community strategies. Decisions, goals and processes of implementation often do not originate in the tribal communities, and therefore often are not good fits for tribal aspirations for cultural and political autonomy and community renewal.
Further restraints to self-determination arose in the 1980s and later, owing to increasingly conservative and less favorable court cases and declining federal budgets, as well as less favorable attention to Indian affairs by U.S. presidents. The self-determination policy has many legal, political, legislative and bureaucratic constraints. The hope for further renewing tribal communities lies in mobilization and activism.
We commend those communities that are working to develop culturally informed solutions to economic development, political autonomy and democratic and consensual relations with the U.S. government. The future of self-determination policy will consist of give-and-take with federal and international policies, but its most creative and sustained means will rely upon the aspirations, work and visions of the tribal communities and leaders.