Although they still face many obstacles, American Indian tribes are enjoying an economic boom — beyond the casinos — and significantly improved living conditions.
That progress, according to Harvard Kennedy School Professor Joe Kalt, is due largely to the federal policies of self-determination that have been in place for nearly 40 years. They give the 564 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes within “Indian Country” governing rights similar to those of the 50 states.
Self-determination has consistently garnered bi-partisan backing from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. “It’s the only policy that has worked, and it’s been a win-win for liberals and conservatives,” says Kalt, Ford Foundation Professor of International Political Economy. But the future of that “political equilibrium” is now threatened by a decline in Republican support, Kalt argues in a new working paper, “American Indian Self-Determination: The Political Economy of a Policy that Works.”
Kalt and coauthor Stephen Cornell of the University of Arizona, who together lead the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, examined the sponsorship of congressional legislation filed on behalf of Native Americans from 1973 and 2010, looking for patterns in the sponsors’ party affiliations. During that period, there were about 350 bills aimed at improving social conditions or supporting tribal self-determination, with more than 2,500 sponsors. The authors’ analysis showed that Democrats were much more likely than Republicans to advocate for increased spending on American Indian health, education, and other social issues.
Kalt and Cornell also detected, after accounting for membership changes, a clear shift in party support for self-determination. Whereas Republicans disproportionately backed bills involving tribal self-rule from 1973 to 1998, Democrats have provided “markedly disproportionate support” for such legislation since 1999.
They speculate that the change reflects the “oft-noted evolution of the Republican Party away from its libertarian strains and toward more aggressive support for social policymaking aimed at promoting particular conservative social norms and structures.” This voting trend, along with U.S. court rulings limiting tribal authority over non-members and Republicans’ strong showing in recent elections nationally, “have put these policies of self-determination at considerable risk,” Kalt says.
In addition to presenting new research findings, the working paper traces the history of U.S.-tribal relations and the surge in Indian economic and social development since the 1990s.
Together referred to as Native Americans, American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/ ANs) are two of the three main groups of indigenous people in this country; the third is Native Hawaiians. About 4.7 million people consider themselves Native Americans, and many live on or near Indian reservations or in Alaska Native villages that range from tiny to large, rural to urban — and now, wealthy to poor.
Until passage of the 1975 Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, tribes operated under federally administered one-size-fits-all policies and programs, the authors state. The act gave AI/ANs extensive powers of internal self-government that enabled them to develop new constitutions, administer their own court systems, collect taxes, and the like. At the same time, Native Americans are subject to U.S. taxes, laws, and regulations. Kalt and Cornell note that to liberals, self-determination represents civil rights for a historically oppressed minority group; to conservatives, it means self-reliance and less federal intrusion into local government.
Building strength hasn’t been easy: Native Americans remain the poorest group in the country and face higher-than-average rates of health problems and suicide, poor housing, and other challenges. They also lack political clout, given that they make up only about 1.5 percent of the U.S. population.
Nevertheless, Kalt says, “the glass may be only half full, but it’s filling fast.” Per capita income for American Indians on reservations has grown about three times as fast as for the United States as a whole since the early 1990s, the authors write. Beyond gaming — which has been lucrative for certain tribes — they are increasingly finding success in manufacturing, tourism, retail, and other sectors. This translates into significant improvements in housing, education, health, infrastructure, and other aspects of tribal life, Kalt and Cornell note.
This is heartening news for Kalt, a 25-year observer of conditions in Indian Country. “It’s phenomenal what’s been happening,” he says. “It would be horribly unwise to reverse the progress that has been made.”
— by Debra Ruder