Associated Press
Hillary Clinton is seen here in April 2016 after securing victory over Bernie Sanders in New York's Democratic primary race.

Clinton, Democrats and Strengthening Indian Policy

Duane Champagne

If Hillary Clinton became president she would have a great opportunity to strengthen Indian policy. Her current policy statements, however, do not suggest she will introduce any significant improvements in Indian policy. If elected president, Clinton promises to support funding for improving: American Indian health, education, tribal colleges and universities, safety and justice, environmental protection, economic opportunity for youth, support for Indian veterans, combating violence against Indian women, combating drug and alcohol addictions, and other efforts to improve life and economy in Indian country.

The Obama administration offered a similar bundle of programs support. Democrats have been offering improvement programs since the Roosevelt New Deal during the 1930s. While most Indian communities are grateful for needed programs, Indian communities continue to have distressing social and economic issues. Consequently, while economic and social aid are necessary, there has not been a significantly innovative statement by a president on Indian policy since Richard Nixon’s Self-Determination Policy was outlined in July of 1970. Many old Indian leaders believe that the best time for tribal government support was during the 1970s when Nixon was president, and democrats controlled the house and senate.

Democrats offered programing for economically marginalized and minority communities, but they have not been in the forefront of the Indian self-determination movement. Roosevelt, Kennedy and Johnson administration programs aimed at moving people out of poverty and removing economic and discriminatory obstacles for persons aspiring to the middle class. The Obama administration followed in the Kennedy-Johnson tradition, and a Hillary Clinton administration promises to do much of the same.

The Truman administration offered outright tribal termination, while the Kennedy-Johnson Great Society programs offered a slow form of termination through an invitation to assimilate into the American middle class. What Democrats have not done as well as Nixon was address the self-determination issues of tribal communities based on treaties another agreements. Since the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, all the presidents have paid lip service to self-determination policy. In the 1970s, Congress repudiated termination.

Self-Determination policy has its limitations. It offered tribal governments the opportunity to control and manage resources through subcontracts for government programs, although the contracts put financial and administrative constraints on tribal administration. Nevertheless, many tribal governments took the self-determination policy as a means to assume more management of their own affairs.

Indigenous Peoples around the world and in the U.S. focus on obtaining greater self-government, maintenance of culture, and management of their own land and economic resources. American Indians are willing to work with national governments, and want respectful, cooperative, and productive relations. National programs that focus on individual opportunity and supports are welcome, nevertheless Indian peoples prefer their own forms of government, the freedom to address solutions to their problems in their own way, and management of their own resources.

Clinton supports government-to-government relations, trust responsibility, and the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Here is where significant new policies might be created. Trust responsibility should be interpreted as more than preserving Indian nations on reservation land that the national government considers its own land. Colonial trust responsibility meant the sovereign had the responsibility to look after the best interests of their subjects, in this case Indian nations. A high level of moral trust responsibility toward Indigenous Peoples is the standard that 21st century nation states, and the U.S., should adopt. The fulfillment of the U.N. Declaration is left to nation states.

The U.S. government in discussion with Indian nations should interpret how the Declaration can be realized in the United States. U.S. policy should do all that is legal and moral to promote sustained continuity and empowerment of tribal governments that will enable tribal nations to make choices about how they will engage markets and national political relations. Indian policy should focus on strengthening tribal governments as central to implementing a focused and revitalized self-determination policy.

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