This Day in History: Eloquent Words on Indian Autonomy

We are good at writing eloquent words. And while we rarely achieve our highest aims, it is good to reread the eloquent words and remember our goals and aspirations.

Today we review the Final Report of the American Indian Policy Review Commission, issued 38 years ago today on May 17, 1977. The 11-member Commission consisted of three U.S. Senators, three members of the U.S. House of Representatives, and five Native representatives. Sen. James Abourezk, D-South Dakota, chaired the Commission. The two-volume final report exceeded 900 pages. Among the 206 recommendations, the Commission set the long-term objective of “the development of tribal governments into fully operational governments exercising the same powers and shouldering the same responsibilities as other local governments.”

OK, we’re not going to list all 206 recommendations, but here is an extended excerpt from the report’s lofty introduction:

It is the fortune of this generation to be the first in our long history to listen attentively to the Indians, and thereby to begin to understand what they are saying, to recognize realistically their own points of view, as a unique part of our population, and to heed their voices for the righting of wrongs, the ending of frustrations and despair, and the attainment of their needs and aspirations as Indians and as free and proud Americans.

It is generally believed, mistakenly, that the Federal Government owes the American Indian the obligation of its trusteeship because of the Indians’ poverty, or because of the Government’s wrongdoing in the past. Certainly American Indians are stricken with poverty, and without question the Government has abused the trust given it by the Indian people. But what is not generally known, nor understood, is that within the federal system the Government’s relationship with the Indian people and their sovereign rights are of the highest legal standing, established through solemn treaties, and by layers of judicial and legislative actions.

Perhaps someday in the future, the Indian people may return to the bargaining table to renegotiate and reshape those solemn agreements. But it must be done as equals, and not as one party coming, on it knees, pleading as inferiors.

For the Federal Government to continue to unilaterally break its agreement, especially to a people as unique to our history as are the Indians, would constitute moral and legal malfeasance of the highest order.  …

They [the Indians] have survived. But it has been at a great cost to them. The history of social experimentation of the Indians by those who gained mastery over their lives and fortunes resulted in decades of confusion, hopelessness, and poverty, which the Indian people have asserted could never be corrected until they themselves could again be allowed to determine their own lives and, like all free Americans, manage and control their own affairs.

Today we must ask the central question: Is the American nation—now 200 years old, and 100 full years beyond the era of the Little Big Horn — yet mature enough and secure enough to tolerate, even to encourage, within the larger culture, societies of Indian people who wish to maintain their own unique tribal governments, cultures, and religions? …

The question goes far beyond that of “restitution” for past wrongs. From the misdirected present, can the United States Government re-direct its relations with the American Indians to enable them to determine their own lives now, and in the future? The question is ringing loudly in our ears today. Nor will it be stilled — today or tomorrow — until it is answered.


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