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"American Indian Tribes and Structural Racism,"

by Sherry Salway Black November/December 2008 issue of Poverty & Race

American Indian tribes and people face circumstances unique to any other racial or ethnic group in the United States. No other racial or ethnic group has as the basis of its relationship with the U.S. a legal framework of treaties, executive orders, judicial rulings and laws spanning centuries. This legal framework, developed over the past 300 years, has resulted in a system that was supposed to protect the rights and trust assets of tribes and Indian people, but in reality has created structures and systems that thwart self-determination and diminish the value of Native assets. These constraints, coupled with social and economic inequities, are the root cause of the severe problems that tribal governments face in providing the infrastructure, services and conditions necessary for healthy community development.

Analysis of the socio-economic conditions confronting tribes and Indian people today typically focuses on this unique federal Indian history and relationship. It is not often described in terms of racially-based policies and inequities, but rather a direct “[federal] nation-to-[tribal] nation” relationship, from which the federal trust responsibility is derived. Yet, one cannot overlook or undermine the racial basis of many policies of colonialism and paternalism that are the hallmarks of federal-Indian relations—and are reflected in present-day policies.

Historically and continuing into the modern era, the Indian policies of the federal government have been aimed either at dismantling tribal governments and assimilating Native people or at paternalistically isolating tribes to misappropriate their assets. By all accounts, these mixed and often misguided efforts resulted in the devastating social conditions found on many reservation communities today. Moreover, these policies left tribal governments facing a host of structural impediments that hamper their ability to fulfill their governmental responsibilities to their citizens.

At various times, the federal government has forcibly removed Native people from their homelands to reservations; divested Native people of millions of acres of valuable land filled with natural resources; required generations of Indian children to attend residential boarding schools far from their homes; passed legislation authorizing the termination of more than 100 tribal governments; forced tribal governments to adopt unfamiliar and inappropriate governance structures; and initiated a large-scale effort to relocate Native people from their tribal communities to urban areas. These policies had, as their basis, a prevailing view of the inferiority and incapability of Indian people in managing their own affairs and economic assets, and a goal of assimilation into the dominant, or “white, Anglo-Christian” culture. The lasting impact of these federal policies on tribal communities cannot be overstated.

Given these structural barriers and the resultant devastating conditions, it would be easy to let a sense of hopelessness overwhelm efforts for positive change in Native communities. Yet starting in the new era of self-determination in the 1960s and growing to the present day, tribal leaders are forging a new path to break down the pillars of structural racism that diminish opportunities for their peoples. Building strong foundations of tribal governance through systemic reform, leadership development and citizen engagement is a growing movement in American Indian communities today. Overcoming centuries of colonialism and paternalism will not be easy or quick—but the alternative cannot be considered.

Sherry Salway Black , a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, as worked more than 30 years on American Indian issues with the US Congress, the federal government and nonprofit organizations. Among the boards she sits on are the First Peoples Fund, the Policy Research Center of the National Congress of American Indians, the Hopi Education Endowment Fund, and the Harvard University's Honoring Contributions in the Governance of American Indian Nations.

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