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Understanding State-Indigenous Relations

Published by USC Bedrosian Center on

by Jeremy Loudenback

When most people think about government in the United States, sovereign Native American governance structures are seldom considered. There are 566 federally recognized American-Indian tribal governments in the country that stretch across 27 states, including the nation’s largest states and all of the states west of the Mississippi River.  The way that these highly varied groups interact with federal, state, and local governments is highly complex, characterized by several different models of government-to-government relations. In her work on the interaction of federalism and indigenous political institutions, the Professor Laura Evans (Evans School at the University of Washington)investigates the unique issues relating to the interface between these two entities, including understanding choices of symbolic versus real power and whether collaborative governance should be a necessary component of relations between the two groups. As part of the Price School’s Consortium on Collaborative Governance Faculty Exchange Program (hosted by the Bedrosian Center), Evans explored some of the interesting questions that surround her research in a talk on September 12, “Government to Government?: Understanding State-Indigenous Relations in the US, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.”

Indian Reservations in the Continental United States

Indian Reservations in the Continental United States

At the heart of Evans’ inquiry into the process of federal-indigenous interactions is looking at the tension between autonomy and having a shared role in the governing process for tribal governments.

“Experienced knowledgeable tribal leaders [may] see a trade-off between being able to exercise government and then being able to participate in governance partnerships,” Evans said. “What are the implications of that concern? I think our first question is, are they, in fact, doing too much to sacrifice the tangible for the symbolic?”

Drawing on material gathered from her recent publication in the American Political Science Review, “Expertise and Scale of Conflict: Governments as Advocates in American Indian Politics,” Evans elucidated the unfortunate trade-off that may occur between effective governance and effective government for Native American governments. While the goal for many tribal leaders is to create a better government-to-government mechanism for the federal-tribal relationship, some goals may be better achieved through governance than sovereign government. For example, the federal government’s work with the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission brought together many different stakeholders to facilitate dialogue and technical assistance in a collaborative framework, reaping positive financial and political rewards.

“What I observed in my work is I see tribal governments working to improve their access to federal officials, to alter procedures, some ways that produce more favorable, flexible, simple, and more stable policies,” Evans said.  “Ultimately the two [government and governance] support each other and sometimes there’s not a trade-off.  Strong governance makes strong governments and vice versa.”

Evans also looked to other countries in the Anglosphere (Australia, Canada, and New Zealand) for examples of how different federal governments have interacted with indigenous communities.  Because some geographical areas of Canada lack historical treaties, there is little to structure the federal-indigenous relationship in those places.

“In large swathes of Canada, native nations have governance without sovereignty,” Evans said.  “What the Canadian courts have said, the decision from the Supreme Court, is that the Canadian government has to be engaged in a process of trying to negotiate treaties with native nations within Canada that don’t have treaties. They need to come to the table and engage in a process.”

This is a markedly different experience than in Australia, where native inhabitants were historically denied sovereignty or governing opportunities. However, with the advent of indigenous political protest and political activism in the 1960s and 1970s, the Australian government responded by taking important measures toward collaborative governance and allowing indigenous communities to form legally standing corporate bodies with some opportunities to play a role in managing local entities, social services, and land.

Overall, Evans emphasized that a strong foundation for government-governmental relations is still a powerful resource for indigenous groups and other marginalized communities, even in the absence of explicitly sovereign governments.

“In the Canadian and Australian examples, we see [how] sovereignty is pretty much off the table, but we have this chance to observe how political power on its own is an important resource for native peoples.  And so, the story of what is government maybe isn’t quite so simple as having tribal self-governments, but maybe we should appreciate more what power and elected office brings.”

Bedrosian Center