The Role of a Tribal Government: Joe Austin's Response
I’m going to submit an answer that addresses both questions. First, in order to define the roles of the tribal government in whatever area, you have to first define the goals and vision for the tribe. This entails leaders, elders, and even community members coming together and discussing where they think the tribe should be in 50 years, 100 years, 200 years, and so on. In my opinion, the discussion should center on the notion of surviving as a nation and a people. Simply put, what must we do now to ensure that our nation survives the test of time in an ever-changing world, where globalism and western influence are the dominant trends in societies around the world?
The survivability of indigenous peoples is not the same as the survivability of other nations. This is because indigenous peoples find themselves in unique situations, such as the Native Nations in the United States. In this country, the tribes are quasi-sovereign nations in one of the most powerful nations in the world. The United States federalist scheme only contemplates two sovereigns: the state and federal governments. Insert a third sovereign into the mix and you get the nonsense called federal Indian law and oppressed peoples struggling to survive in every aspect, socially, economically, and politically.
The difference between Native Nations and other nation states such as China, Japan, Mexico, Canada etc. is that the nation states have almost absolute autonomy to steer the direction of their nation. Native Nations, on the other hand, are unable to steer the direction of their nation by themselves; they are subject to the supreme control and dominion of the colonizing nation. This guardian-ward relationship, as we saw throughout history, usually resulted in the guardian deciding what is best for the Native Nation wards despite the wards’ needs, wishes, and wants. Consequently, we saw things like BIA boarding schools, termination era, SCOTUS cases stripping tribes of jurisdiction, and policies aimed at “killing the Indian, saving the man.”
Again, the federalist system never contemplated tribal sovereignty. So over the past few centuries, the states and federal government have been trying to fit us into the system. It was like a trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, Native Nations being the square peg and the federalist system being the round hole. The states and federal government took us, shaved us down (stripped Native people of their identity, culture, and language), and tried to round us out (enacted assimilationist laws and policies). And when they found out they could not fit us into the hole, they gave up and said, “We’ll just let you figure out how to fit into the hole. If you don’t want to go in the hole, then that’s fine too.” Sure, we were eventually given more autonomy but by that time, we had been shaved down and molded. We were a small bit of what we once were; we had a small fraction of what we once had, and we were left for dead. Now, we are here wondering what we should do and where we should go.
What we need to do is find the shavings (i.e. what we lost) before they are swept away by the winds of time and glue them back on to ourselves (i.e. relearn how to be and think Native again). As Raymond D. Austin, Justice Emeritus of the Navajo Nation Supreme Court, once said, “If the day ever comes when Native people start thinking like Native people again, all our problems will be solved.” This should be the overarching theme, the vision, and the central goals of tribes: revitalizing language, culture, customs, and traditions. Without those, you cease to exist as a people and a nation. You can have astounding economic development, but what is the point if in the process you lost who you are as a people? Every endeavor, every law and policy, every decision, and every thought process should be made with culture and language in mind. This is how nations are built and rebuilt.
Sometimes I think that my method of nation building may not be so much for our generation, but instead for the generations to come. Our role and the role of the tribal government right now should be to set down the path for our children and grandchildren many generations into the future. It should be a sacred path, one of song, prayer, and ceremony, everything that defines who we are. Navajo people call it the corn pollen path, tadidiin bik’e atiin. This discussion reminds me of what Black Elk once said, “Every step you take should be a prayer. If indeed every step you take is a prayer, then you will always be walking in a sacred manner.” That same logic and Native way of thinking applies to our situation now.
So, let us envision our path ahead, set it down, take the first few steps, and show the young generation how to walk in the same way. So one day, when we can no longer take any more steps, the future generations will continue on for us. And as they walk, they can look back at the path and see that it started here, during these tumultuous times. They will see that in this time of uncertainty, we thought about them, and in our minds, we knew that our survival did not rest with us as much as it did with them. Consequently, should the day ever come when they face similar hardships as us, they know what to do and what path to walk. With this forward-looking approach, i.e. the investment in the future generations, we will achieve many good things and survive the test of time. Dii bik’ehgo, diyin nihoka dine’e nidliigo naasgoo ahol’ah ("In this way, we will remain the holy earth surface people forever").
-Joseph Austin (a.k.a. The Wolf of Indian Country)