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The Bureau of Indian Affairs: The American Approach

Keith Howell

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      JULY/AUGUST 1989      p05  
In 1983, the President of the United States issued an American Indian policy statement reaffirming the government-to-government relationship of Indian tribes with the United States. This same policy document also expanded and developed the 1970 national Indian policy of self-determination for Indian tribes, and called for special efforts to develop reservation economies.

In bringing down this policy document, President Reagan recognized past Indian policies as having been the cornerstone of self-perpetuating bureaucracy, stifling local decision-making, thwarting Indian control of Indian resources, and promoting dependency rather than self-sufficiency.

In the 80's, the 1-plus Billion dollar budget for the Bureau of Indian Affairs has been allocated in this fashion: nearly 300-million to education; Indian Services (including social services and law enforcement), 225-million; Economic Development and Employment, 6-million; Natural Resources Development 145-million; Trust responsibilities, 50-million; Construction, 88-million; and Indian Loan Guarantee and Insurance Fund, 2-million dollars.

Other appropriations include 930-million for Indian Health Service, and about 30-million for the administration for Native Americans (a sub-department of the Department of Health and Human Services).

Nearly 1.5 million Indians, Eskimos, and Aleuts live in the U.S. These people occupy about 300 Federal Indian reservations encompassing more than 53-million acres. The largest reservation is the Navajo, which includes nearly 16-million acres stretching across four states - Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado.

The trust relationship between the United States and Indian tribes cannot be precisely defined to satisfy all it entails. For this reason, misunderstandings sometimes arise, and often parties will disagree on the extent of the trust.

But it is wrong 10 conclude that because no specific definition exists of that trust relationship that it is lacking in importance or significance. The trust is an established legal and moral obligation requiring the Unites States to protect and enhance the property and resources of Indian tribes.

Early U.S. policy was consistent with the European practice of recognizing tribes as governments with full internal sovereignty. Then, in the early 1830's, Chief Justice John Marshall further reaffirmed the nature of Indian tribes as sovereign. Two high court decisions characterized Indian tribes as dependent sovereign nations possessing all attributes of sovereignty save those which Congress had expressly limited or taken away. Marshall used the phrase "domestic dependent nations" to describe the political status of tribes. These words were a way of expressing the fact that tribes, after conquest and through treaty, had agreed to regard themselves as under the protection of the United States.

Marshall's definition acknowledged two ways in which tribal sovereignty, by 1832, has been eliminated. Firstly, by accepting the protection of the United States, tribes agreed to extinguish their external sovereignty; secondly, by treaties, and again as protected nations, tribes agreed to recognize the legislative powers of Congress over them. But even this power has its roots in mutual agreement. Tribes had consented in treaties to give Congress this power.

And, this agreement still did not extinguish tribal sovereignty. A tribe's sovereign powers can only be removed by specific, positive acts, and they can only be removed by the federal government. Powers not removed remain sovereign powers inherent, not given.

As far as internal matters are concerned, tribes are self-governing. Unless specifically limited by treaty or act of Congress, Indian self-government generally includes the following areas:

Indeed, many tribes which have never been acknowledged have maintained some form of government and tribal customs.

In the area of Indian Economic Development, Kenneth L. Smith the Wasco Indian who is Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, offered this perspective:

"It's understandable that tribal leaders have doubts and fears. The economic problems on Indian reservations are complex, diverse and severe. There clearly cannot be a single, simple solution. We can be certain, however, that President Reagan's approach has a much greater chance of success than the proven failures of the past. We know paternalism and Indian tribal dependency won't work. We know that from the experience of 200-years."

While natural resources can play a critical role in the development of economic growth, there are a number of obstacles in the path of economic development on reservations. While Indian lands are affected by many of the same factors that affect the economies of other areas, there are some factors unique to reservation lands, including the trust status of the land, the sovereign immunity of the tribe, the tribal government and the way it operates, and jurisdictional questions. And frequently the tribal government is the developer, manager, and operator of tribal enterprises, in addition to providing the normal governmental services within the boundaries of the reservation.

A major economic surge on Indian reservations across the United States was recorded beginning in 1983, with the sudden growth of bingo games. About a dozen tribes followed the lead of the Seminole Tribe in Florida, offering high-stake games with prizes amounting to thousands of dollars. Another 50 or 60 tribes initiated or expanded smaller games with success.

Court ruling made it clear that tribes on reservations are not subject to State civil and regulatory laws, which limit the scope of bingo operations in most States. In most cases, bingo does bring money into the reservation economy. It also creates jobs for tribal members. On many reservations, bingo profits are used to fund tribal social programs and other tribal governmental operations.

Kenneth Smith is a Wasco Indian from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in Oregon. He currently occupies the positions of Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. In this post, he establishes policies, directs the total operation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and deals directly on Indian Affairs with Interior Secretary William Clark and Congress. Smith says the achievements of Indian tribes and Alaska Natives in the past few years is the best argument in favour of President Reagan's Indian policy. He says "We have believed in Indian people and the Indian people are justifying that belief."

(Compiled from BIA information 1984 & 1987)