Nation & World

Conference celebrates tribal governance

5 min read

Registrants from across the country attend panels, speeches

Imagine the map of the United States as it really is. Not 50 states, but 50 states plus 562 sovereign nations — the 562 federally recognized American Indian tribes and communities that exist within U.S. borders.

These tribal nations — where about half of the country’s 4.1 million American Indians live — are both tiny and huge. In California, one tribe of three dozen lives on 22 acres. But nearly 200,000 people live on Dinetah, the Navajo homelands that straddle Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. At almost 27,000 square miles, Dinetah is bigger than West Virginia.

Imagining that realistic map was possible at Honoring Nations, a Sept. 26-28 conference celebrating tribal governance. About 150 registrants from tribes across the country attended panels and speeches in the Taubman Building at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

The event was sponsored by the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development (HPAIED), housed within the Kennedy School’s Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy.

“Part of our mission here is to break stereotypes,” said HPAIED Director Joseph P. Kalt, Ford Foundation Professor of International Political Economy at the Kennedy School. That includes a reminder that Indian nations are complex and culturally diverse.

Since 1987, HPAIED has made a systematic study of tribal social and economic development, and has provided research and advisory services to what experts there call “Indian Country.” It collaborates with the Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management and Policy at the University of Arizona, and is affiliated with Harvard’s Native American Program, an interfaculty initiative.

The Harvard project celebrates tribal ideas that work. Every year, Honoring Nations recognizes a dozen or more innovative programs. Last year’s included a Chippewa solid waste project in Wisconsin, an Umatilla Reservation credit protection program in Oregon, and a Hopi child-care program in Arizona.

The world of American Indians is too often celebrated in simplifying myths, said Kalt. In reality, it is a place where busy people struggle with the basic issues of governance, including schools, policing, community development, taxation, water, and sewage.

Jack Lenox — a planner with the Coquille Indian Tribe in North Bend, Ore. — took notes on solid waste during one session. He explained to a visitor, “We were just talking trash.”

There was a panel on governance and another on the legal tangle of sovereignty. Others outlined innovative programs developed and tested in tribal communities. Presenters talked about a walleye recovery program in Minnesota, a watershed council in the Yukon, alternative sentencing in a Washington state tribe, and the Akwesasne Freedom School in northern New York.

The innovations “are a source of information for change” and are getting noticed around the world, said Kalt, who has received queries about Honoring Nations programs from Afghanistan, Kenya, Poland, China, and elsewhere. “The whole world is starting to thank you,” he told one panel audience. “These lessons are critical for mankind.”

Tribes — on the path to sovereignty since the activist 1960s — have come a long way from the “dependent domestic nations” derided by 19th century Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, said Carl Artman, an Oneida Indian and assistant secretary for Indian Affairs at the U.S. Department of the Interior. Calling the Harvard project “a shining example” of technical assistance to tribes, he urged tribes to keep up with governance reform, and to develop their energy resources. American tribal land, about 100 million acres, contains 30 percent of U.S. coal reserves.

Much of the conference, in panels and in side conversations, dealt with the issue of sovereignty — what it is, and how to keep it. A 1970 executive order by President Richard M. Nixon reversed decades of U.S. policy that terminated tribes, and stripped native governments of political self-determination.

The best way to protect tribal sovereignty “is to do a good job of it,” said Joseph Singer, Bussey Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and an expert in American Indian law. “And that’s what you’re all doing.” But he advised tribal nations not to make any legal appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court, where tribes have not fared well recently.

Going back to a past of federal dominance would be a disaster, attendees agreed. “Indian people know what Indian people need to survive and thrive,” said Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, an island nation of 10,000 acres north of Seattle. Tribes can manage themselves, he said, “with less money, with fewer staff, and with less fanfare” than federal agencies.

“We have to increasingly exercise our own tribal governments,” said Michael Thomas, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation in Connecticut. The tribe, whose 1666 reservation had once shrunk to less than an acre, now owns the prosperous Foxwoods Resort Casino.

“Sovereignty means equal parts of authority and responsibility,” said Thomas — and it demands transparency in tribal finances and governance. Traditional tribal values help, he added. “Most of what you need [for governance], our grandmothers taught us at 3, 4, or 5.”

Peace, unity, and strength are three traditional principles that influence decision making, said James Ransom, chief of the St. Regis Mohawk in northern New York.

“We have to go back to our original teachings to move into the future,” said Oren Lyons, chief and faith-keeper for the Onondaga Nation in central New York. “Core values are what we are going to depend on.”

Those same core values — along with Indian language and culture — will be important to reconnect younger, city-based Indians with their tribal roots, mostly though embassylike social aid centers.

“We must not leave these young people out,” said David Gipp of North Dakota, a Standing Rock Sioux and member of the Honoring Nations board of governors. “They are part of Indian Country.” In 2000, 61 percent of native peoples lived in cities or outside tribal areas, up from 38 percent in 1970.

“We’re all from somewhere,” said Patti Hibbeler of the Phoenix Indian Center, “and we want to stay connected.”