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Power to the people: the North American experience of empowering indigenous communities

By Stephen Cornell - posted Friday, 1 October 2004

The United States and Canada have spent the better part of a century struggling to deal with the disastrous consequences of colonialism for the Indigenous peoples of North America, including its catastrophic impact on Indigenous health and welfare. They have tried numerous policies, from removing Indigenous people from their lands, to forced assimilation, to systematic neglect.

During all that time, only one overarching policy orientation has ever shown sustained evidence of actually improving the condition of native peoples: the policy of Indigenous self-determination and self-government - that is, a policy that puts substantive decision-making power in aboriginal hands. That policy, of recent vintage in the US and still not fully realised in Canada, has been inconsistent, and it is perennially under attack in both countries. But the bottom line remains. Shifting jurisdiction to native peoples is the only policy that has worked.

Stories are sometimes the best way to make an argument. The following stories - and there are others besides these - argue that jurisdiction matters to the daily lives of Indigenous people. It is not all that matters, but without it - in North America at least - those lives tend to be tougher, poorer and more costly to the society at large.



American Indian nations, like the Indigenous peoples of Australia, have suffered for decades from poor health. More than a century of abject poverty left its mark in high rates of infectious disease, epidemic diabetes, high mortality rates from accidents and violence, severe incidences of mental and behavioural illness, and other problems. To be sure, in recent decades, major progress has been made, in particular against infectious disease and infant mortality. But overall, Indigenous health conditions remain far behind mainstream populations.

Some of these health challenges been very difficult to address. Funding is insufficient, and certain problems - particularly behavioural ones - have proven nearly intractable. Yet in parts of the United States, American Indian nations themselves are making major advances against serious health issues. Here are some examples.

  • A few years ago, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians in the state of Michigan thought the US Indian health service paid too little attention to pressing behavioural and mental health problems. The tribe took over management of its own health care: deciding priorities, allocating resources, hiring staff, building its own clinic, and running the show. The result has been a more efficient health care system, improved outcomes, and an increase in jobs and skills. 
  • In Alaska - where the distances, as in Australia, are huge, roads often are non-existent, and native communities typically are small and often isolated - five native villages joined together to control health care and health care federal funds. They built a clinic. The results are impressive: having a local clinic has meant that residents have more frequent medical check-ups. People who had not seen a dentist in years now see one regularly and medical staff are much quicker to detect community health issues, leading to better preventive care - which saves money. Health care now is integrated into community life; before, it was something you went away for.

But health care is not the only aspect of daily life potentially transformed by jurisdictional shifts. Housing is another.


  • Another Alaskan village - New Chivak - took over control of housing from a centralised bureaucracy. Not only have village residents learned construction trades by building new homes, they have also learned design skills, producing new house designs that have better heat retention and cost significantly less per unit than the homes built by the central bureaucracy. There is now a market emerging in Alaska for the community’s house designs. As one tribal leader said, “this is hard work, but it’s our work”.

Turning to the natural environment:


Environment and natural resources

  • In New Mexico, Sandia Pueblo suffered from deteriorating water quality in the Rio Grande, a major river on which the Pueblo depend for drinking water and ceremonial purposes. In 1987, the US Congress passed legislation recognising the rights of Indian nations to develop and enforce their own water quality standards - a significant jurisdictional shift. Six years later Sandia’s standards are more stringent than those of the state of New Mexico and the Pueblo have developed their own, professional quality monitoring capability. There is not only improved water quality for Pueblo citizens - a health issue - but also improved availability of water of sufficient quality to be used in the Pueblo’s traditional religious ceremonies - a critical aspect of daily life.
  • Still in New Mexico: beginning in the 1980s, the Jicarilla Apache Tribe moved aggressively to take over wildlife management on their lands, persuading the federal government to give them control of a small funding stream. That small beginning evolved over the next decade into a top-quality fish and wildlife management programme, entirely tribally run. The tribe has developed and enforces - through its own law enforcement and court systems - one of the strictest hunting and fishing codes in the US. Not only is the tribe’s fish and wildlife operation self-supporting, it’s profitable, producing revenue used to fund other tribal programmes, and it is a source of pride for the Apache people.

There are encouraging stories about courts and public safety, too:

Courts and public safety

  • The Gila River Indian Community in Arizona, although not urban, still has many of the problems of urban life, including high crime rates and inadequate public safety services. In 1998, the Gila River tribes took over public safety on their lands. By 2003 they had doubled the number of police officers, improved police training, increased medical emergency staff, and invested in new equipment. 
  • The vast Navajo Nation, which stretches across several states in the American Southwest, in the 1980s began integrating traditional Navajo practices into the Nation’s court system. Today, Navajo common and statutory laws are the “laws of preference” in the Nation’s Supreme Court, 7 district courts, and 5 family courts, while 250 Peacemakers in the Judicial Branch’s Peacemaking Division help resolve a wide variety of individual, domestic, business, and property disputes, using traditional Navajo dispute resolution mechanisms. The Navajo Nation Court has become a pillar of strength in the Navajo community, dealing with more than 9,000 cases a year, establishing its legitimacy among both Navajos and non-Navajos, and transforming the Navajo experience of justice.
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Article edited by Margaret-Ann Williams.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

Edited and extracted from a paper given to the National Forum on Indigenous Health and the Treaty Debate: Rights, Governance and Responsibility at the University of New South Wales on September 11, 2004.

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About the Author

Stephen Cornell is Professor of Sociology and of Public Administration and Policy and Director of the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy at The University of Arizona.

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