Successful Tribes Are Reshaping Governance

The problems of some Indian communities were cemented in old governmental structures, set up by the US Department of the Interior 80 years ago. Now many tribes are rewriting their rules of governance, for greater transparency.

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American Indian communities are often offered up as the gold standard of dysfunction in America. With our high rates of entrenched poverty, we top the lists of addiction, suicide and other social ills. It’s platitude that, frankly, gets tiring to hear.

We in the media like to describe the best and the worst. Admittedly, it does make for easier headline writing and more exciting copy.  Unfortunately, this love of drama often overlooks the real story, especially in Indian Country, where revolutions tend to grow quietly. 

Constitutional reform is one of those quiet revolutions sweeping Indian Country today. According to researchers from The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, the key to socio-economic development in Indian Country begins with creation of sound, effective governance. And many tribes now are actively engaged in rewriting their constitutions.

Most tribal reservation governments were designed by the U. S. Department of the Interior in the 1930s with little or no input from tribal peoples. Unwieldy and unsophisticated, the systems usually hampered citizens’ efforts to get things done, says Dr. Stephen Cornell, chairman of the University of Arizona’s Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management and Policy.

Vestiges of colonialism, these governance systems have been an obstacle to advancement, keeping tribes from making any real headway in building sustainable economies and communities.

Disclosed in private discussions over the years with friends and family, the common view is that tribal governance structures are unworkable, that politicians and bureaucrats are inept and corrupt, and — the biggest elephant in the room —  that factionalism and nepotism destroy plans for genuine progress and change.

The old style Department of Interior governance structure had no separation between politics and enterprise management, little or no means to resolve disputes and no policies of transparency in decision-making. Not surprisingly, tribal citizens have had tremendous ambivalence toward their governments and leadership. In some communities, there has been almost a refusal to hope or trust in the possibility of change.  I think this attitude accounts for the shroud of Indian ennui that permeates some reservations.

Working paper on Self-Determination (2010) by Stephen Cornell and Joseph P. Kalt

Tribal nations in the U. S. began efforts at rebuilding their governments around 1975, after the passage of the Indian Self-Determination Act, according to Manley Begay of the Navajo tribe, Faculty Chair of Native Nations Institute at the University of Arizona. He and other researchers from the Institute’s sister organization, The Harvard Project, became interested in these rebuilding efforts.

“We began gathering a lot of stories in the field, identifying critical elements that led to success,” Begay notes. “We asked ourselves: What were the successful tribes doing differently?”

The researchers found that political sovereignty played a major role in building capable governments. They also found that tribes with the greatest economic stability kept politics out of the management of tribal enterprises. They have rewritten their constitutions, encouraging transparency in government and citizen engagement.

The Native Nations Institute (NNI) has identified five components of successful nation building. According to Ian Record, NNI’s manager of educational resources, they are as follows:

  • Practical sovereignty that includes genuine self-rule
  • Effective governance institutions
  • A cultural match between a nation’s governance structure and the community’s vision of governance
  • Strategic planning that focuses on long-term outcomes
  • Good leadership

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) partnered with NNI to convene Indian Country through a series of regional intertribal forums to identify strategies to strengthen the quality of governance in tribal communities. According to NCAI,  reports from these meetings are being finalized and will be available soon.

NNI has created an eight-course series, “Rebuilding Native Nations: Strategies for Governance and Development,” available to tribes via the Internet in the form of distance learning and in CD-Rom form for those tribes with limited broadband access.  The series includes interviews with tribal leaders and citizens who have been involved in successfully rebuilding their governments.

Ian Record emphasizes that tribal citizens as well as leaders are interested in recreating their governments. “We created this course in response to this need,” he said.

Individually, the course cost is $125.00 or $600.00 for the entire eight course series.

Patty Ninham Hoeft, business committee secretary of the Oneida tribe

The series features a former colleague of mine, Patty Ninham Hoeft of the Oneida tribe, who now serves as Business Committee Secretary for her tribe in Wisconsin. A former reporter for the Green Bay Press Gazette, Patty has a keen understanding of citizens’ desire for transparency in their government. 

“There has been a lack of trust in tribal government. We are dealing with that by making sure that the processes we use are accessible to the tribal membership, “ she says.
Tribal governments, she stresses, need to be open, transparent and accessible to their citizens, just like what’s expected of cities, states and the feds.

“You shouldn’t have to fight and scream to get access to public information.”

And how is it going in Oneida, I ask?

Seal of the Oneida tribe

“Well, we don’t hear much shouting from the audience now at tribal council meetings,” she says hopefully.  “When our tribal members have questions and complaints, I tell them, ‘Come on in, look at the documentation.’”

The tribe’s financial state might not be so great these days, she admits, but the good news is that they’re sharing all the details of the bad news.

The process of nation rebuilding in Indian Country has not been a simple process; it has proven decidedly messy. 

Erma Vizenor, chair of the White Earth Nation of Minnesota, has been lauded for her work in constitutional reform for the tribe; she’s also featured in the NNI course interviews. Vizenor holds a doctoral degree from Harvard University in Administration, Planning and Social Policy. She became well known in the early ‘90s for her outspoken opposition to the notorious former White Earth Tribal Chairman Darrell “Chip” Wadena.  As former secretary-treasurer, Vizenor testified in federal court against Wadena for money laundering and other crimes; her testimony put him behind bars.

Erma Vizenor, chair of the White Earth Nation, battled against corrupt leadership and has since been a target of tribal grievances herself.

Chairman since 2004, Vizenor has been recognized for governmental reform at White Earth.  Ironically, last year she also found herself the target of some constituents who, claiming that she was disregarding their White Earth constitutional rights, were pressing to remove her from office.  The recall effort failed and she is still the tribal chair.
 
Politics is nasty business, regardless of ethnicity. Political struggle is always flawed and human.  For Indian Country, however, this struggle is slowly growing into government that represents its people.

I think Patty Hoeft Ninham says it best, “All in all, it’s healthy.”

 

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