Posted by on Mar 30, 2012 in Uncategorized

Iyuhcan Tanka (Thinking Big)

By:  Wizipan Garriott

I’ve spent the majority of my professional career fighting battles in Indian law and policy/politics.  Most of these battles have taken place in hostile territory, meaning that legal and political issues are defined by federal Indian law.  The U.S. Congress makes the laws, federal courts interpret the laws, and federal employees (yes- me not too long ago) must carry out the laws.  It is an inescapable reality that the most pro tribal federal employee (what I strived to be), and even the greatest tribal advocate or tribal chairman, must work within the framework of federal Indian law and policy.  As long as we accept and rely upon federal dollars, we will be beholden to these laws; but, who’s to say this framework can’t be changed in fundamental ways.

Every week tribal advocates and leaders from Florida to Alaska travel to Washington, D.C. to meet with federal officials in the Administration and Congress.  Almost always, it is to make the case to the federal government that it needs to live up to its trust and treaty responsibilities to tribal nations: tribal programs are underfunded; laws, regulations, or policies need to be changed, and; federal programs need to be run better.  What is often so disheartening is that we end up fighting for scraps, and make little changes.  As long as we operate in this system we will not see real change.  As is, it is designed to fail.

Fundamental paradigm change is extremely difficult, especially in large and storied organizations and institutions.  Think about it:

    • 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, plus 6 non-voting members


    • 100 U.S. Senators


    • 15 federal departments, employing about 2 million civilian federal employees


    • 565 federally recognized tribes


    • There are some 250 member tribes of the National Congress of American Indians, plus more than a dozen regional organizations like the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association and United South and Eastern Tribes

So how do we get movement at all?  Keep it simple.

Any paradigm shift or change starts with basic, yet big, ideas.  The European Enlightenment of the 18th Century started with a movement away from church dogma, the embrace of reason, and the promotion of widespread dissemination of knowledge.   The Enlightenment sparked the American revolution and the adoption in Western thought and philosophy of basic human rights (though only for a few).  The American Indian Movement began with the notion that Indians should be treated fairly by Minneapolis police.  The Civil Rights Movement started with the idea that African Americans should have the same rights as White Americans.  The Ft. Laramie Treaty came about because the Lakota and other tribes believed that the land they had lived on for thousands of years was theirs.  The entire Westward expansion of the United States was almost halted in the early 1800s because a Shawnee name Tecumseh thought it might be a good idea for tribal nations to band together to protect themselves.  Women only gained the right to vote in U.S. elections in 1920, and only because of the efforts of the women’s suffrage movement to gain the same rights as men.  Yes, there were many other factors present in each of these movements and to narrow each to one idea is a bit reductionist- but, let’s not lose the forest by looking at the individual trees – that is, the current view and approach of the federal Indian law and policy paradigm.

A perfect example is the everlasting battle for more funding for Indian programs going on at this very moment.  It is a basic fact that the federal government does not live up to its treaty and trust obligations.  Congress is holding hearings on the 2013 budget and tribal leaders are testifying about the dire need for more funding.  We can’t escape this basic truth, no matter the sugar coating, the euphemisms, or excuses.  In general, Indian programs are funded at about 25% to 50% of need.  At the same time, Congress is fighting an internal battle about the very role and size of government.  The extremist Tea Party wants to basically cut government in half, do away with regulations protecting the environment, and protect individual rights at the expense of group rights and our children’s future.  The end result is that Indian country will consider it a win if we get modest increases to our budget and slight decreases will be considered a stalemate.  We need to change our measurement and scale for success.

The structure of most Indian programs are the result of the Nixon Administration’s  1970s policies, called self-determination.  The policy of self-determination was a major change at the time, as it brought about the end of the government’s previous policy of termination, whereby tribes were fighting for their very existence.  At the time, it was a radical idea that tribes possessed the right to exist, and that tribes could administer their own programs better than federal employees.  Imagine that!  However, we’ve been in that paradigm about 40 years now.  It might be a good idea to start putting forward some new ideas.

A recent Last Real Indians article by Julia Good Fox talked about the need to establish a national Indian political platform.  Julia could not be more right.  In the coming months, I’d like to suggest a few planks for Indian country to stand on, as well as some non-political recommendations.  If we do not begin pushing for fundamental changes, nothing will happen.  It is time for Indian country to begin putting forward some basic, simple, big ideas.