American Indian Self-Determination: What Does it Mean?

In Indian Country you often hear the word Self Determination.  It is more than just a buzz word! The term is most often used in legal and policy discussions regarding Native Americans. Here is one definition, but what does it really mean for Indian Country? Let’s discuss this.

“According to scholar Sam Cook from the 1996 publication Red Ink ( a web version can be found here ) “The term self-determination seems to have first entered the vocabulary of Indian affairs in 1966, when the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) convened to develop an agenda to counter the threat of termination policy. Termination will be remembered as the last consolidated federal effort to assimilate Indians into the mainstream of American society. Reaching its zenith in the 1950s, termination policy purported to extinguish, once and for all, the so-called trust relationship, that is, the political relationship of good faith between the federal government and the Indian tribes. Thus, it must be concluded that when the members of the NCAI evoked the term self-determination, they were asserting the right of natives to be culturally distinct as well as politically autonomous.

It can be said, then, that in the context of Indian affairs, self-determination is a tribally-derived term. By the same token, the concept of self-determination entails a totality of tribal goals. These goals can be placed in three interrelated categories: 1) tribal self-rule; 2) cultural survival; and 3) economic development. The tribal pursuit of these goals is clearly reflected in the most visible issues in Indian affairs today religious freedom and gaming, for example. But policy-makers often fail to realize the profound manner in which these goals are necessarily interrelated.”

Published by Traci L. Morris

Dr. Morris, the Director of the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University is a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma. Under her leadership, the AIPI has grown and diversified its service to Indian Country via an MOU formalizing a long-standing partnership with the Native American Finance Officers Association (NAFOA) and forming the Tribal Economic Leadership Program offering training in Tribal Economic Governance and Tribal Financial Management; access to Entrepreneurship training and tribal business support through Inno-Nations; and Economic Development Consulting; and, the formalization of the Institute via by-laws and an advisory board comprised of both internal ASU leadership and external tribal and non-tribal leadership. In her work at both ASU and prior, Morris has worked with Native American tribes; Tribal businesses; Native American non-profits; Native media makers, artists, and galleries; written a college-accredited curriculum in Native American new media; and has advocated for digital inclusion at the Federal Communications Commission and on Capitol Hill. Morris’s research and publications on Native American media and the digital divide is focused on Internet use, digital inclusion, network neutrality, digital and new media curriculums, digital inclusion and development of broadband networks in Indian Country. Her book, Native American Voices: A Reader, continues to be a primary teaching tool in colleges throughout the country. Dr. Morris is Affiliated Faculty at ASU's School for the Future of Innovation in Society, an Affiliate of ASU's Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology, a Senior Sustainability Scholar at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, President of the Board of the Phoenix Indian Center, Board member of the Arizona American Indian Chamber of Commerce, and on the Advisory Council of the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums. Formerly, Morris served member of the Advisory Board for the Department of Labor's Native American Employment and Training Council and served a two-year appointment (2014-2016 and 2010-2012) on the Federal Communications Commission's Consumer Advisory Committee. As an entrepreneur prior to her ASU appointment, Morris founded Homahota Consulting LLC, a national Native American woman-owned professional services firm working in policy analysis, telecommunications, education, and research assisting tribes in their nation-building efforts and working with Native Nations, tribal businesses and those businesses working with tribes. Morris has an M. A. and Ph.D. from the University of Arizona’s American Indian Studies, in addition to a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Colorado State University.

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