What we can learn from Indigenous success in the USA

What we can learn from Indigenous success in the USA
  • Published Date: 20 November 2018

Many Indigenous communities in the USA have used tribal self-determination and access to land to build an economic base and deliver benefits to their people.

While the circumstances in the USA differ from both Australia and New Zealand, two US experts believe that some of the lessons learnt in the USA in recent decades can be applied here.

ANZSOG is committed to helping develop better public policy for Indigenous people and is holding a second Indigenous Affairs conference, Reimagining Public Administration: First Peoples, governance and new paradigms, at Melbourne’s Federation Square on 20-21 February 2019. 

As part of the conference’s international perspective, ANZSOG has secured two speakers from the USA: Karen Diver, the Assistant for Native American Affairs in the Obama Administration; and Dr Miriam Jorgensen, research director for the Native Nations Institute at the University of Arizona.

Both believe that the gains that tribes in the USA have made come from autonomy over their own affairs and the development of good governance structures that have their roots in Native American culture. 

Ms Diver, who was an elected tribal leader of the Fond du Lac Chippewa band in Minnesota before becoming part of the Obama administration in 2015, said that most ‘best practices’ were created in home communities, and that these are the strategies that had proven the most sustainable and effective.

“The challenge is how do you do that on a practical scale, build relationships and allow institutions to grow? How do we use the colonising state to create systems of self-determination for Indigenous peoples?” she said.

Ms Diver used her time at a tribal leader to push for major reforms around increasing the transparency in tribal government and encouraging greater citizen involvement.

This involved working to reduce the tribe’s carbon footprint – an important issue as their land is already seeing the effects of global warming.

“Things work best if you work from your internal strengths, and part of my role as the tribal leader was about building governance capacity to deal with environmental issues,” she said.

“It’s important to have these strengths because you are always pushing against other jurisdictions, which often have that western superiority complex, and building that inter-governmental relationship and understanding is important.”

Dr Jorgensen said that the USA’s experience had shown the need to shift away from policies which only recognised Indigenous individuals and to also include policies which recognised Indigenous nations and communities.

The USA has 573 federally recognised tribes, many of which have substantial control over policy making on their own lands. Dr Jorgensen said that an important turning point for the USA’s federally recognised tribes was when Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination Education Assessment Act in 1975 – a law that opened the door for tribes to take control over programs managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The devolution of control spread to other policy areas and by the mid-1980s it became clear that some tribes were pulling ahead of the pack in terms of improvements in income and employment and in socio-cultural measures including investment in language.

The evidence became overwhelming by the 1990s and told a story of how autonomy and strong tribal governance had led to economic independence and improved capacity.

Many tribes have developed strong economic bases including those which used gaming and natural resources to generate jobs and an income stream for their communities.

“When tribes call the shots success will often follow. Not always of course, and there have been some failures, but this has been the broad experience,” Dr Jorgensen said.

She said that forestry enterprises are one example of how Native nations have used their knowledge of how to manage their own land sustainably and the culture of thinking ‘seven generations’ into the future to plan a long-term investment.

“Economic independence is not a prerequisite for political independence. The research shows that once you have self-determination and governance in place, then economic opportunity takes off.”

Treaties can be a way forward in Australia

Unlike in New Zealand, the USA has no over-arching treaty with its Indigenous people. The many treaties the United States signed with individual tribes, dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, were one-sided and often signed under duress.

However Dr Jorgensen said that treaties, which are under consideration by the Victorian government, provide a way forward for Australia.

 “In terms of diversity, and the number of peoples and languages spoken, Australia is much more like the US than New Zealand. Many Australian legal scholars I have spoken to suggest that regional treaties, not a nationwide one, will be more workable,” she said.

“Recognition is one pathway to exercising responsibility and jurisdiction which brings economic opportunities. We are seeing it in a small way in Australia through Native Title recognition and Registered Aboriginal Parties (RAPs), which may have some geographical and land-based jurisdiction.”

 “The critical piece is self-determination, which leads to getting control of their own resources, which creates a virtuous cycle.”

Ms Diver said that recognising Indigenous communities through a treaty also required recognising their ties to land.

“When it comes to the treaty process in the USA, I have to give credit to our ancestors for preserving our land rights. Everything about Indigenous people is tied to our access to land, our identity and our spiritual and cultural worlds.

She said that the key to a treaty-based relationship was to ensure that Indigenous peoples’ needs were met – not sacrificed to extractive industries.

“You need to have those conversations up front as part of a treaty process,” she said.

Role of Federal Governments

Despite the gains from policies of autonomy for Native American tribes in the USA, there is still a strong role for the federal government to play.

Ms Diver said that the main achievements of her time in the Obama Administration were getting 12 federal agencies to recognise that the US Government had treaties with Indian tribes which gave them rights over natural resources and environment, and making updates to the Indian Child Welfare Act, which gives guidance to authorities about the removal of Indian children.

She said that despite the improvements in recent decades there were still major issues that the US Federal Government faced.

“One issue is that the lands are not owned outright by tribes, they are placed in trust as if we are children,” she said.

“Another is to ensure that basic services are delivered, especially in health and education, and that funding mechanisms are working.”

“We have an issue that some tribes are wealthy, others have some resources and level of control and others – mainly through issues of remoteness – have not had that the same access to economic development. How do we include them in the conversation about the depopulation of rural America?”

The Reimagining Public Administration conference will bring together academics, not-for-profits, public servants and Indigenous community representatives.

ANZSOG can provide transport and accommodation assistance for eligible delegates from the Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander or Māori community service sector and controlled organisations. Prioritisation will be given to delegates from remote locations. To apply, please complete the pdf Travel bursary application form (272 KB) and email through to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Applications are due by 5pm AEDT, Sunday 2 December 2018.