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August 14, 2004

Indian tribes gained power by exploiting ambiguities in federal policies

Like skillful diplomats from developing nations seeking funds for their countries, entrepreneurial American Indian tribal leaders exploited ambiguities and contradictions in federal policy over the last three decades to gain new authority and access to the federal decision-making process.

In that period, many American Indian Tribes transformed themselves from being marginal social groups dominated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) into self-governing entities that deal directly with the federal agencies on a government-to-government basis, according to Erich Steinman, a University of Washington sociology doctoral student.

Steinman will describe this transformation and the emergence of tribal governments today (Aug.14) at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting at the Hilton San Francisco Hotel.

“This is still an area in transition to a more even-handed way of dealing with tribes,” Steinman said. “But the current reality is starkly different from the way it used to be with BIA paternalism and the non-attention of other federal agencies.”

Tribes have gained unprecedented access to the federal government and decision-making processes in two distinctive ways, he said

First, they claimed and received regulatory powers equivalent to a sovereign states through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and similarly receive federal funding for programs otherwise only available to state and local governments. Second, federal-tribal dealings are now conducted through government-to-government relations that are required to be respectful of tribal sovereignty. This means that the BIA and all other federal agencies are expected to consult with tribes rather than administer them.

This accumulation of power and status didn’t happen by accident, but by “tribes pushing the envelope,” Steinman said. Indian leaders looked for the smallest openings to leverage power, using such disparate events as a treaty with the Soviet Union and a budget-cutting decision by former President Ronald Reagan.

A State Department report relating to the 1975 Helsinki Accords with the Soviet Union, said the U.S. government dealt with Indian tribes on a government-to-government basis and Indian leaders used it to assert that this justified the treatment they were trying to gain, Steinman said.

Eight years later, Reagan’s 1983 American Indian policy statement rearranged the playing field. Although the intent was to slash federal funding, the statement also explicitly affirmed tribal sovereignty, the government-to-government relationship between tribes and the United States, and tribal self-government. Indian leaders seized this opportunity to promote their cause and a year later the EPA embraced the concept of tribal sovereignty, becoming the first federal agency other than the BIA to adopt a formal Indian policy.

Through 2003, the EPA had entered into more than 200 so-called treatment-as-state agreements with tribes, and other federal agencies including the Department of Energy, Department of Defense and the National Park Service have adopted similar government-to-government policies in their dealings with tribes, Steinman said.

A key figure in this effort, he said, was Joe DeLa Cruz, the former president of the Quinault Indian Nation in Washington state for nearly a quarter of a century who also served two terms as president of the National Congress of American Indians. DeLa Cruz, who died in 2000, is widely viewed as the “father of tribal self-government.”

“The entire process was a guided evolutionary process by tribal leaders,” said Steinman. “However, there is still a lack of general public understanding about tribes, who they are and the basis of their status. Today, tribal governments continue to grow and develop more sophistication. These governments are not going away and we have to learn to work with them.”

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For more information, contact Steinman at (206) 781-7673 or ewstein@u.washington.edu. He will be in San Francisco Aug. 14-17 and can be left for him at (415) 652-9254.