Beginning in the 1950s Native peoples across the country, fed up with poverty, stereotypes, and racism, rose up and challenged an oppressive set of federal policies—termination, relocation, and state imposition of jurisdiction (P.L. 280). Their arguments against these conditions and policies were rooted in core humanitarian concerns and democratic values of freedoms of choice, rules of law, the doctrines of consent, and self-determination.
Native resistance, fueled by grassroots and urban activists and guided by brilliant and fearless leaders like Vine Deloria, Jr., Hank Adams, and Billy Frank, among others, insisted that national, state, and local lawmakers and the American public recognize and enforce the larger nation’s political, legal, and moral obligations vis-à-vis Native peoples as outlined in the diplomatic accords and in their rights as citizens of self-governing Native nations and as citizens of the U.S.
Conditions generally improved dramatically throughout Indian Country as a result of inspired Native individuals exercising individual sovereignty (or as the Haudenosaunee put it: personal liberty) in coordination with the national sovereignty being wielded with greater confidence by their governments. Numerous federal policies were introduced that finally expressed a measure of support for Native self-determination and later self-governance as well.
Of course, every Native nation, then and now still suffers from the dreaded doctrinal trilogy that I continue to refer to as DPT—Discovery, Plenary Power, and the Trust Doctrine. In short, while Native peoples today may exercise a substantial dose of self-determination/self-governance, the federal government maintains, as it has for over a century, that it holds a superior title to Native lands under the doctrine of discovery; that it can wield virtually unlimited power over indigenous nations (read as Federally Recognized Tribal Governments) whenever it chooses under the plenary power doctrine; and that as the trustee it must give its approval for virtually all major decisions made by Native governments under this sort of Trust Doctrine.
Indigenous political and legal status, therefore, is an odd and, some would say, befuddling mixture of inherent powers of self-governance that are always subject to DPT criteria and therefore operates in a most fragile state.
Our political and legal fragility is matched only by the ever-increasing diversity that is a hallmark of Native America. Diversity is evident on multiple levels: demography—565-plus federally recognized polities; reservation/urban divide—60% of Native individuals live in urban areas; organizational—several hundred single and multiple interest groups vie for funds and national attention; economic haves and have-nots—gaming nations compared to non-gaming nations; politics—Washington DC (read: institutional) Natives who operate inside the Beltway (and college campuses) and who have the inside track on programmatic dollars and government jobs; and education—elementary, middle and high school teachers, tribal college personnel, and major university academic elites (again: institutional), many of whom increasingly espouse fancy theoretical language that permeates the reams of literature they write but that has little tangible impact or positive benefit for actual Native communities.
Such diversification is a result of both natural development and outside impositions and does not easily lend itself to the kind of broader unity or pursuit of common purposes that would be of use to Native nations. In some respects, our current predicament was inevitable. But the battles we still wage, whether over internal matters as divisive and unsettling as disenrollment of bona fide citizens, or external as in the perpetual contest against DPT, do not have inevitable endings. They do, however, require that if our goal is continued maturation as polities we must fundamentally reconnect with that which has always been at the center of Native identity—our relationship to the land and the flora and fauna that spawned us, and our relationship to the nations that are the embodiment of our extended families.