Nation & World

Speakers talk about the ‘renaissance’ taking place in Native nations

5 min read

Three was the magic number when the founding fathers established the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the United States government. Today, for thousands of Americans rewriting their own constitutions, there’s a fourth area of power and oversight.

The Rosebud Sioux tribe in South Dakota has an ethics board as part of its governing structure. So too, does the Yakama tribe in Washington state. Composed of tribal elders who understand the community and its values, their job, as Harvard’s Joseph Kalt explained last week (May 1), is to “wag their fingers in a very, very important and helpful way.”

“Indian Country is teaching the world this kind of lesson,” said Kalt, who praised the tribes for their insight. They are underscoring “the role of and the need for somebody who looks over those who have power and wags their finger when they get out of line.”

Kalt, Ford Foundation Professor of International Political Economy and co-director of the Harvard Project on Indian Economic Development, was part of a discussion last week with Andrew Lee, former executive director of the project, about what they deemed the “renaissance” taking place in America’s Native nations. Their research is outlined in two recent works produced by the project in collaboration with the Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy at the University of Arizona, “The State of the Native Nations: Conditions Under U.S. Policies of Self-Determination” (Oxford University Press, 2008) and “Rebuilding Nations: Strategies for Governance and Development” (University of Arizona Press, 2007).

The ethics panels are just one of the many changes taking place in hundreds of Native American communities across the country. The changes, the scholars argued during their talk at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, are a direct result of expanding self-determination and governance for many of the 562 federally recognized tribes that live on approximately 300 reservations in the United States occupying almost 50 million acres.

The history of the country’s Native American population is a tragic one marred by violence, dramatic land loss, and even the loss of tribal identity during the federal Indian termination policy of the 1950s and ’60s that disbanded tribes and sought to incorporate Americans Indians into mainstream society.

But the activist era of the 1960s and ’70s inspired the drive for sovereignty and self-rule. The efforts of civil rights supporters helped pass Congress’ 1975 Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act that ended termination practices. Though there is still a long way to go, Indian Country, Kalt and Lee asserted, is engaged in an inspiring revitalization.

“The story of Indian America is a story of resilience and right now a time of resurgence, and we wrote these books … really to try to capture that,” said Kalt.

Lee, who is a member of New York’s Seneca Tribe of Nations, described the current state of Native American nations. It’s a glass half-empty/half-full scenario he told the crowd as he detailed the findings compiled in the “State of the Native Nations,” a work that began as a 20-page memo to the Ford Foundation, but developed into a multichapter tome.

Struggles with economics, health care, and culture illustrate the Native nations’ efforts to succeed, said Lee, but they also promise a bright future. Though poverty is still rampant on many reservations and health issues like cirrhosis and diabetes occur at disturbingly high rates, for every negative, there is a positive. Lee referenced the Choctaw, the thriving Mississippi tribe that raised the life expectancy of its members from 50 to 68 by taking over its health service system from the federal government.

“[It’s] just shocking improvement. We think it has a lot to do with the tribe’s decision to say, ‘Enough is enough, we’re gonna do it our way and we’re gonna do it better.’”

Cultural diversity is another key factor in the transformation of Indian Country, noted the Kennedy School graduate. Native Americans want to be seen as part of an evolving culture, one that melds the traditions of the past with contemporary elements. It’s happening, Lee said, not only with constitutions but with the everyday. He offered the example of the students at one school creating a rap song in their native language.

“That is one of the most remarkable and beautiful things that is happening in Indian Country, tribes that are making things their own.”

The book, Lee said, demonstrates that Indian Country is on the mend.

“For every single story of despair there’s a story of hope; for every instance of fragility there’s an example of strength and resilience — and that’s what Indian Country is about today.”

The second work, “Rebuilding Native Nations,” explained Kalt, is a kind of how-to guide for tribal leaders and others involved in trying to help reshape the future of Indian Country. The work details the research and interviews conducted by Kalt and his numerous collaborators with tribes across the country that are charting their own course. It documents examples of what has worked for tribes and what hasn’t, and includes suggestions as to why some strategies are more successful than others.

Like Lee, Kalt argued for a strong cultural component.

“Culture is so important, because the design of everything from your 911 service to your police department to your constitution has a deeply cultural component to it; and to work well, our research says that the culture has to be matched to the day-to-day functioning of things.”

In the end, Kalt made his most poignant case for self-determination with the words of a tribal chairwoman from the Pacific Northwest who told him, “It used to be when something went wrong we could blame the feds, now when something goes wrong my people blame me. … And that’s the way it should be.”