Toward a New Direction in Indigenous Sovereignty*

*This editorial was originally published on Native News Network on 22 October 2013. Since that time, the Native News Network became Native News Online. During that transition, this post was lost. A proper citation of this editorial should reference its original publication date on Native News Network. Presently, Dr. Emmons is a Program Officer with the Indian Land Tenure Foundation.

Nichlas Emmons, Department of Environment and Society, Utah State University

Some scholars have identified six policy eras of federal policy toward Native peoples: treaty making, removal, allotment, reorganization, termination, and self-determination. A closer analysis of the defining policies of these eras reveal that a goal of federal policy has been to disconnect how Native peoples traditionally worked with and perceived the land and other natural resources. Because it was understood by federal officials that the land is an important component of identity, putting forth policies that would necessarily diminish the connection would serve the purpose to assist in the assimilation of Native peoples. To strengthen my argument, I provide a brief discussion over only a couple points of each era.

Treaty making involved the transfer of lands from indigenous to colonial hands. This was essential for the development of European, and then American, civilization on indigenous lands. This subtle form of conquest sought to manipulate the indigenous worldviews through a general misunderstanding of land ownership. While treaty making began as a way to benefit both colonists and Natives, it eventually became entwined with duress. Land meant proper development of an emerging nation, the eventual United States, and tribal nations were in the way of progress. Earlier treaty agreements were not viewed as permanent by Native peoples and were based on communal holding of land for the benefit of future generations. The fundamental difference in worldview laid the groundwork for further disconnecting the Native person from the land.

While some treaties ensured removal of Native peoples from some lands, removal became official policy of the United States government in 1830 with the passage of the Indian Removal Act. The removals initially targeted the peoples of the American Southeast and the Old Northwest, but the implications also would affect tribal communities west of the Mississippi River where many eastern peoples and communities were relocated. The removal of Natives from traditional lands sought to disrupt indigenous cultures, an acknowledgement that identity has much to do with the land. Taking the Native out of traditional lands meant that he must learn to work new land, thereby creating opportunities for Native peoples to abandon cultural identities and interactions of former lands for more assimilated ones.

In 1887, the General Allotment Act empowered the federal government to divide Native lands into individual parcels. One of the goals of severalty was to end communal ownership of land by Native peoples and promote individual ownership. Explicitly, the goal was to assimilate through instruction of proper land management. It was thought that allotting lands to individuals would promote absorption of the Native into dominant society, which it did not. Instead, this legislation permitted approximately 78 million acres, out of approximately 120 million, of Native lands to be lost to non-Native interests. Removing the culturally centered concept of communal ownership, which meant sustaining an indigenous future, surely would promote loss of indigenous culture. To this date, many of our nations are battling with serious land issues resulting from this legislation.

The United States Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934. As a seemingly noble piece of legislation in comparison to previous policies, Reorganization sought to increase tribal autonomy through the creation of new governance, economic, and cultural systems. Some scholars have argued that Reorganization, had it lived up to its purpose, would have worked very well at producing sovereign nations through self-determined decision-making. Unfortunately, the better provisions of Reorganization hinged on the adoption of governance systems endorsed by the United States government. In this way, the revitalization of cultural systems necessarily was limited. The federal government still promoted assimilation through boarding schools, sending back ostensibly assimilated students to Native communities to take roles in governance.

The termination of the federal relationship with Native communities started in the 1950s. This abrogation of treaty rights permitted the U.S. government to relinquish control to the states. With the federal relationship dissolving, it was thought, Native peoples will need to learn to be self-sufficient. It seemed clear that the economic and social woes of Native peoples were at least partially due to the paternal relationship with the federal government. This relationship, in turn, was important somewhat because of the desire by Native peoples to maintain indigenous cultural connections. The devolution of responsibility from the federal to the state governments accelerated Native land loss, thereby removing the person further from the land. The implications of these policies are attested by the socioeconomic conditions of terminated communities.

The official end of termination began with the implementation of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975. This policy enabled Native communities to exercise decision-making authority and develop governance systems. In self-determination policies, the ability to petition land to enter federal trust is central. Putting land in trust creates a tax incentive for Native communities to develop economically, but there are stipulations. The federal government must approve uses for trust lands before Native governments may benefit. This system serves as a structural barrier to socioeconomic development and hinders unrestricted engagement, such as community conservation and land stewardship.

This paternalistic approach to land management and indigenous affairs produces results similar to those of previous policy eras. For instance, one of the problems with current self-determination policies is also a perceived strength to those policies. The ability to put land into trust has enhanced dependence on the federal government because tribal nations and their peoples have little control over the use of land while it is in trust. Generally speaking, this lack of control hinders economic development as slow, non-existent, or some combination of the two thus creating additional, or contributing to, widespread economic and social pressures. When the need arises to put more tribal resources into addressing these socioeconomic needs, reliance and interest in more traditional aspects of culture may diminish. As we become further disconnected from our lands and cultures – a result of current self-determination policies – the colonizing goal of assimilation remains a persistent and real threat.

The next set of policy goals should be aimed at making more sovereign tribal nations. To do this, increased ownership and control over land is essential. As we have it now, sovereignty is unattainable to many because of the lack of legitimate control and the increasing dependence on the federal government. Self-determination policies are unable to live up to their potential because they contain inherent flaws. And while these flaws may be intentional, perhaps a more contemporary way to colonize, it is important to note the successes that some tribal nations have enjoyed under self-determination policies. Yet, with that in mind, the vast majority of tribal nations greatly depend on federal government resources and oversight to fund vital programming. As we move forward, we need to take a serious look at reinforcing self-determined tribal sovereignty in the 21st Century.

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