Campus & Community

Harvard mulls challenges facing Native Americans

5 min read

First research symposium on Native American issues unites University researchers

Professor of Business Administration James Austin delivers opening remarks at the Native Issues Research Symposium, an event designed to promote research and scholarly work at Harvard relevant to Native Americans. (Staff photos Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard News Office)

Invoking the “Great Creator” to guide them, Native Americans and researchers examining Native American challenges convened their first-ever Harvard-wide symposium Thursday (Dec. 4), joining forces to improve Native American lives.

Called the Native Issues Research Symposium, the event’s purpose was to promote research and scholarly work at Harvard relevant to Native Americans.

Topics covered a broad range, representing research in disciplines across the University. Among the issues examined during the symposium were leadership, archaeology, cancer education, gaming compacts, resolving disputes between tribes and other governments, family life, language preservation, and the legal and economic realities of tribal sovereignty.

Joe Kalt, faculty chair of the Harvard University Native American Program and Ford Foundation Professor of International Political Economy at the Kennedy School of Government, said organizers plan to gather research presented at the symposium into a book that they hope will be the first in a series of research publications centered on Native Americans.

“We will hopefully produce the first of a steady effort that goes on for years and years,” Kalt said.

The symposium, sponsored by the Ernst Fund for Native American Studies of the Harvard University Native American Program, drew about 40 researchers from a variety of schools across Harvard, including the Kennedy School of Government, the Medical School, and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Carmen Lopez, interim executive director of the Native American Program, addresses the symposium.

Leadership key

One of the first presentations examined challenges facing Native American leaders. From questions of governance to education to cultural preservation and language loss, tribal leaders have an important role in determining the future course of different tribal groups.

That leadership has to be adaptive and responsive, according to Tim Begaye, who presented a paper he co-authored with Lecturer in Public Policy at the Kennedy School Ronald Heifetz, “Adaptive Leadership: Challenges Native Leaders Face in a Contemporary Society.”

Native American leaders have been dealing with fundamental change for hundreds of years, Begaye said. Challenges they face today include guiding the pace and direction of that continuing change.

Key to being a successful leader is understanding not just the changes, but the underlying community. The community can be extremely diverse, encompassing elders who speak only their tribal language, younger people who speak only English, as well as tribal members currently living outside the community.

Language loss is a particularly difficult problem, Begaye said. More than half of young people under 25 don’t speak their tribal language anymore, and some adults question the usefulness of even trying to teach it to their children.

“I hear parents saying, ‘I don’t need the language, it’s English-only out there,’” Begaye said.

Other challenges include loss of tribal land, loss of identity, cultural mixing, integration of Christianity with traditional beliefs, functioning with government and educational systems imposed by the federal government, and the “brain drain” from reservations.

Successful leaders, Begaye said, must have a vision based on the needs and desires of their community.

Lessons from the Pequots

Another researcher drew lessons from the financially successful Mashantucket Pequot casino in Connecticut. Gavin Clarkson, assistant professor at the University of Michigan and last year’s Reginald F. Lewis Fellow at Harvard Law School, presented the paper “Gaming Compact Negotiations (Pequot Case Study),” co-authored with Jim Sebenius, the Gordon Donaldson Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.

Clarkson outlined the circumstances surrounding the founding of the Mashantucket Pequot’s casino, Foxwoods, 10 years ago. The tribe, which had run bingo games from their eastern Connecticut reservation, asked the state to enter into negotiations for a casino, but, contrary to federal law, the state refused. The state’s refusal opened the door to a unilateral decision by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which approved the casino, only without slot machines.

The tribe and state then entered into negotiations over whether the slot machines would be allowed and the tribe offered to give the state a portion of the proceeds if it were allowed slot machines and if it were allowed to have a monopoly on casino gambling in Connecticut. The state, in the midst of a budget crisis, approved. The Pequots, in exchange, got a casino gaming monopoly and a financial windfall.

“It was a brilliant move on the part of the tribe,” Clarkson said.

Though gaming compacts are the most familiar kinds of agreements between tribes and states, many other compacts exist governing law enforcement, resource use, hunting, fishing, and other areas where tribal and state authority overlap.

The Mashantucket Pequot case, Clarkson said, has lessons beyond the arena of Indian gaming, offering an example of how a tribe can improve its own position in negotiations at the same time it worsens the state’s bargaining position.

“The framework isn’t limited to gaming compacts,” Clarkson said. “Any time you approach negotiations with the state with the mind to improve your alternative [positions] and worsen the state’s you can reach a deal favorable to the tribe.”