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 http://faculty.smu.edu/twalker/samrcook.htm ) “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.”

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