Government policies and programs for American Indians change dramatically from one political administration to another. The New Deal Policy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration during the 1930s was followed by the Termination period of President Dwight D. Eisenhower during the 1950s. President Richard Nixon in 1970 set the stage for the current self-determination period, which focused on local administration of government services.
Most presidents since Nixon have repeated the basic policy of self-determination and self-government, although programming has changed and funding declined. No president since Nixon has made a major speech on Indian policy. There were no significant policy changes under the Obama administration, which only partially supported the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples passed in 2007. Since the 1970s, Democrats promised more funding of programs, while Republicans favored more local self-government while also cutting back on government funding. Most likely President Donald Trump will not offer any significant policy changes to advance indigenous rights or tribally centered economic and political growth.
If President Donald Trump were a typical Republican, he would restrain spending on federal programs for Indians and promote local tribal self-government. Trump’s campaign was clearly focused on less government. He wants to “drain the swamp.” Cuts for spending in the Department of Interior and across much of the federal establishment are meant to reallocate funds toward the military and economic infrastructure. Minority and indigenous rights institutions will be funded less and given less attention. In return, Donald Trump offers greater economic growth and greater economic opportunities.
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There is a question, however, whether minority and indigenous workers will have equal access to new jobs promised by Trump. The persistence of discrimination against minority and indigenous workers and communities is one reason for the rise of government supported indigenous rights and minority civil rights establishments. In the case of indigenous workers, many prefer to take jobs in their tribal communities, rather than working far away in urban markets. Trump’s policies offer, at best, economic opportunity and assimilation, although many indigenous workers prefer to work for tribal governments and communities.
Tribal communities have survived by increasingly working within the U.S. democracy. Tribal members, organizations, and governments regularly present their views to the Congressional committees that address Indian legislation. If tribal communities find themselves in opposition to government policies, Indian leaders and governments negotiate and make their views heard. Treaties are government-to-government relations and we would want those treaties to be upheld. There are periods when American Indian views were not well received, but persistence in legislation and the courts helps preserve the basic principles of indigenous rights and tribal governments, and cultures. If Indian nations believe they are part of the U.S. federal government system of courts, states, and tribal governments, and share its values, then working through U.S. institutions is a means to uphold and preserve an indigenous informed justice and government that is fair and productive.
Trump, his advisors, and supporters are seeking to dismantle or marginalize the civil rights and indigenous rights movements. Working through existing democratic institutions and respecting and upholding those institutions while challenging any attempts that threaten justice and fairness, may be the best long-term strategy. The process of preserving civil and indigenous rights also should preserve national democracy and fairness. Preservation of democracy should not use methods that jeopardize the institutions of democracy.
While Trump’s actions may threaten the very core of national justice and freedom, it is every citizen’s right and obligation to preserve democracy. If U.S. democracy can survive the intended or unintended threats of the Trump administration, then the United States will be truly a great nation. The U.S. will have the institutional wherewithal to serve and preserve the rights of its citizens well into the future and thereby be a light onto the rest of the world.