As the recent government shutdown fades from memory, November, Native American Awareness Month, should turn our attention to tribal governments.  In light of the U.S. government’s utter failure to self-regulate financially last month, questions about the formation and enactment of law, federal or tribal, should be in the forefront of political commentary.

The brief shutdown revealed less about government’s inner workings than it did about our own ignorance of the grinding gears of federal administration. Apropos of our brush with administrative failure and November’s focus on tribal sovereignty and identity, I find myself reflecting on the intersection of the two issues, especially as they apply to questions of justice, an appealing umbrella term for a spectrum of crimes and correlated punishments.

Environmental regulation makes for a “hot” topic, so to speak; with the bulk of contemporary American policy having been developed in the decades between the 1970s and the year 2000, its relative newness and urgency makes it a gladiator’s arena for deciding clashes of self-governance within our own borders.  In short, it’s not all bad news with regard to the Feds. The old Uncle Sam is only mildly ailing.

Environmental justice encompasses a number of things. Most directly, it entails an equitable distribution of environmental impact, undifferentiated by race, socioeconomic status, or other ascriptive qualities. This issue is becoming increasingly important as we face the challenges of a warming planet, and Native American governments will seek an active role in addressing inevitable problems wrought by natural resource development and use.

In Colorado, concerns over water use, availability, and cleanliness dominate. In my home state, Alaska, the Alaska Native lobby pushes for oil, gas, and mineral development of the state’s riches. Their influence is combatted, albeit weakly, by environmental advocates who are in favor of ecotourism. How can we address issues where state or federal interests conflict with those of the 556 autonomous tribal nations within our boundaries? What legal recourse do Native American communities have?

The official federal policy [supports] tribal self-determination, meaning Native American tribes possess a great deal of wealth associated with potential resource development; however, problems of air, water, and earth pollution continue to dog resource use, as result of both of poor regulatory policy and commercial negligence.  A number of sources also report that, “American Indian tribes are… pressured [to develop], especially given the recent federal budget cuts in Indian allotments.”


Allowing Native American tribes to develop and manage their own natural resources is crucial to their identity as a separate political community as well as their spiritual and historical relationships to the geography underscore the importance of this independence.  However, this autonomy must necessarily be complemented by the capacity to participate in policy formation and enforcement, as issues of pollution can and will impact tribal governments.

As we celebrate Native American community and identity this month, it’s critical to consider the interactions of the straggling government in Washington D.C., but also the Native corporations and tribal governments silently fighting the good fight parallel to our wounded federal system.

Drawing equally from the language of Civil Rights and environmental activism, tribal governments continue to seek an end to inequities, be they socio-political, economic, or environmental.  Environmental regulation has been, and will continue to be, a crucial issue as we face climate change. It is a magnifying glass set to study the appearance of institutionalized racism, which Native American Awareness Month seeks to eliminate.

Institutionalized racism, that sneaky set of “political practices, cultural norms, and power structures that knowingly, or even unintentionally, affect groups of people disproportionately,” necessitates access to and scrutiny of decision-making practices of all kinds.  Like so many citizens last month, tribal governments have to come to terms with the reprehensible lack of transparency in federal administration and the frustrating outward appearance of lawlessness and stagnation.

Katie Dougherty, Guest Writer

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