There's plenty of government, but not much tribe

Edge of the Village

Posted: Sunday, October 17, 2004

By 1867, the recently formed United States had racked up a few generations of experience with indigenous cultures from the Atlantic to the Pacific and had formulated the presumption that all Native people with whom they came in contact were similar if not actually identical.

As a result, the Tlingit were labeled a tribe despite a clan-based exogamous social structure. This arbitrary categorization persisted throughout all laws affecting the Tlingit: the Organic Act, Indian Reorganization Act, Dawes Act, Statehood Act, Indian Alcohol and Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, Indian Claims Commission, Tlingit Haida Act, Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, Indian Child Welfare Act, Self-Determination and Housing Acts - dozens of laws dealing directly with Indians or indirectly with services intended to benefit tribal members whose identity is defined more prominently by their corporation than by their clan.

One of the most debilitating effects of this bureaucratic complexity is the obligation to conform to federally imposed definitions, guidelines, and codes that have created tribes in the image of their civil-service maker. Some 229 federally recognized tribes exist in Alaska. All have presidents and treasurers. All pass resolutions condemning social ills and supporting social programs. For all, seeking funding is a principal aim.

In too many cases, specialized funding has become a primary purpose as well as a measure of success. If only a few people sober up because of a sobriety program, the corporation can claim victory by citing its substance abuse budget. When the state routinely removes children from Native homes, the corporation can claim success by pointing to the millions of dollars spent on child welfare programs. When social ills escalate, the problems can be declared on the way to solution with new federal grants.

When tribal members request services, the tribal entity examines its current funding. If the program isn't funded, the tribal members are out of luck. If the program is funded, tribal members are referred to the appropriate department, where they are required to fill out standardized forms and to provide documentation. Eligibility is determined according to federal guidelines and policy, and the problem is fitted on a scale to determine the amount of need. Papers are shuffled, telephone calls often ignored, files sometimes misplaced. Program managers, likely shifted from unrelated programs that have run out of funding or become boring, communicate in fedspeak.

The organization expands as department after department and program after program are funded. Budget accounting requires that every penny be spent. No cost-consciousness exists. Indirect costs are taken off the top before direct costs are deducted. Like Native incarceration rates, Native dropout rates, and Native child removal rates, too many tribal governments just keep growing.

Like federal agencies, separate tribal entities don't often share resources. The thought of uniting efforts on any but a surface level is resisted, often because they are competing for the same funds. Like the government, each tribal entity functions in strict competitive hierarchy, adding levels of management and growing less efficient and more wasteful with each new dollar.

But not everything is like the government: In certain tribal organizations, no set compensation scale is in place; in some cases, salaries are kept secret. The hiring policy in some organizations tends toward subjective whimsy. In some organizations, personnel manuals and policy are nonexistent. Decisions are often made behind closed doors; too much information is private. In matters such as the Freedom of Information Act, some tribal organizations are unlike the federal government. In matters such as waste and red tape, however, too many tribal entities are no more than imitations of their federal creator.

We must re-establish ourselves as clans. It won't require millions of dollars, federal guidelines, or funding cycles. It will require the passion to become clans again. It will take the daring to recognize that our culture will never be healed as long as we remain corporate images of the federal government. It will take the audacity to stop identifying ourselves as members of corporations and again become members of clans.

• Ernestine Hayes is assistant professor of English at the University of Alaska Southeast.

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