Indian Self-Determination Threatened

( – promoted by navajo)


photo credit: Aaron Huey

During the twentieth century, American Indian government policies with regard to American Indian nations changed radically several times. In the 1970s the government adopted a policy of self-determination which has proven to be the most successful approach for dealing with the wide variety of problems found on Indian reservations. Recently, however, Stephen Cornell and Joseph P. Kalt, in a recent working paper entitled “American Indian Self-Determination: The Political Economy of a Policy that Works,” have concluded:

Analysis of thousands of sponsorships of federal legislation over 1970-present, however, finds the equilibrium under challenge. In particular, since the late 1990s, Republican congressional support for policies of self-determination has fallen off sharply and has not returned. The recent change in the party control of Congress calls into question the sustainability of self-determination through self-governance as a central principle of federal Indian policy.


What Came Before:

For the first century of its existence, the United States Indian policy viewed American Indian tribes as sovereign nations and therefore negotiated treaties with them in order to obtain title to their lands. By the 1880s, American greed caught up to Indian policies. Feeling that the Indians had too much land, federal policies turned toward assimilation. The idea was simple: destroy tribal governments, break up the reservations, and have individual Indians assimilate into the American dream in the same manner as other immigrants. The result of this policy was the creation of massive poverty on Indian reservations.

By the 1920s, its was obvious to many people that federal Indian policy was a failure. With the election of Franklin Roosevelt and the implementation of the New Deal Indian policies again changed. The idea now was to have the tribes reorganize their governments as corporations and to give Indians some say in determining their future.

Following World War II, the United States turned its energies into fighting communism. Indian reservations and policies which would allow Indians to determine their own futures were deemed communistic and the federal government set out once again to destroy (terminate) Indian tribes and to “allow” Indians to assimilate like other immigrants. Indian people and their tribal governments vigorously opposed these policies.


Under the administration of President Lyndon Johnson, American Indian policy began to shift and with the formal renunciation of termination by President Richard Nixon, Indian policy formally moved away from assimilation. In asking Congress to pass a resolution repudiating termination, Nixon told Congress:

“Because termination is morally and legally unacceptable, because it produces bad practical results, and because the mere threat of termination tends to discourage greater self-sufficiency among Indian groups, I am asking the Congress to pass a new Concurrent Resolution which would expressly renounce, repudiate and repeal the termination policy as expressed in House Concurrent Resolution 108 of the 83rd Congress.”

The new Indian policy focused on Self-Determination and government-to-government relations between federal agencies, state governments and the tribes. In some respects this represented a return to the philosophies behind the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act.

The Indian Self-Determination Act was passed by Congress in 1974. The Act stipulates that Indian tribes could contract to take over programs which had previously been handled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. According to the Act, the tribes may, upon request, contract with the agencies to administer programs on their reservations. The agencies have almost no discretion to decline to enter into such contracts. Self-determination was to be a launching platform for tribal advancement and economic development.

Self-determination is ultimately about the concept of sovereignty: the right of a people to govern themselves. Indian tribes are viewed as sovereign nations by the constitution. The Supreme Court has described tribes as domestic, dependent nations, meaning that some of their aboriginal sovereignty has been given to the federal government. The Nez Perce Tribe puts it this way:

“The powers that tribes exercise today are nevertheless the same inherent sovereign powers they possessed and exercised centuries ago. We must and do recognize, however, that some of these powers exist in altered form and that others have been totally extinguished or reduced over the years.”

The era of Self-Determination over the past three decades has meant that Indian tribes have enjoyed sustained support and cooperation from the Congress and the executive branch to engage in meaningful government-to-government relations.

With regard to self-determination and economic development on Indian reservations, Self-Determination has meant that development programs are being designed and directed by Indian tribes instead of the federal government. With the new Congress this may change.  

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.