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Anniversary of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act

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Felix Cohen noted that, “[f]rom the earliest years of the Republic the Indian tribes have been recognized as “distinct, independent political communities’” (Cohen 1941, 122). Despite the early nation-to-nation relations between tribal nations and the United States, self-determination was not codified. After termination policies of the 1950s were put in place, many tribal nations and organizations lost over three million acres of tribal lands and their legal standing. Termination is generally acknowledged to be a policy failure; “[n]ative[s] … often returned to their communities to avoid staggering levels of unemployment and poverty.”  “Although some Natives … chose to move off reservations to urban areas, fifty percent returned home to their families and reservations within five years because of a lack of job opportunities, education, and social services.” Activists, grassroots groups, and tribes started working to establish self-determination in law; local communities wanted to direct their own social programs and manage their own land.

In Ada Deer’s biography, Making a Difference, she talked about working to reverse the disastrous Menominee Termination Act and to get the Menominee Restoration Act passed in December 1973. The Menominee were the first tribal nation to have tribal sovereignty restored to them from the prior termination policy of the federal government. On January 4, 1975, Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, Pub. L. No. 93-638, 88 Stat. 2203 (ISDEAA) which reversed the termination policy for all tribal nations. Termination took away land and forced tribal citizens off reservations and into cities. The Indian Self-Determination Act recognized tribal sovereignty and gave funds for tribal programs.

                Tribal Sovereignty. Photo by Flickr user Ian Sane [taken on January 28, 2017]. Used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY NC-ND 2.0 DEED).

With the passing of the act, tribal governments and organizations can exercise sovereign powers, make laws and a judicial system; manage their own economies and natural resources; and provide and manage education, health, housing, public safety, and cultural programs. It has been a successful policy; Strommer and Osborne noted, “Expanded and refined in subsequent legislation in 1994 and 2000, the Self-Governance Policy has proven so successful that today over 50% of all federal Indian programs are carried out by tribes rather than federal agencies.”

In the case of Ada Deer and the Menominee tribe, under termination policies their logging industry declined, when the Menominee regained control of their forestlands via the restoration act, their forests became a model for sustainable forestry and silviculture. Self-determination provided many similar successes with other tribal nations, such as the many language revitalization programs that are a top priority for tribes today. The ISDEAA has helped with programs and services for urban Natives as well. “Nonprofit urban Indian community centers that are funded through a variety of sources seek to serve urban Indians” (Henson, 2008, 351). Centers like these (e.g., Minneapolis American Indian Center, United Indians of All Tribes Foundation) provide services to natives far from their tribal areas.

As the Indian Health Service noted, “Tribal leaders and members are in the best position to understand the health care needs and priorities of their communities,” and this is equally true of the other key societal functions that tribal nations and organizations manage. “Tribes around the country are investing in their ability to get things done for their citizens, in ways previously rendered impossible by federal paternalism, red tape, off-reservation special interests, and a lack of resources. Importantly, these investments account for a growing number of tribal successes…” (Henson, 2008, 10). As the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act continues into its fifth decade, tribal nations continue to build their governments and services to help their citizens thrive.

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