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Good Governance in Indian Country

Honoring Nations recognizes tribes leading the way.
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Gila River, photo by Garry Wilmore

The Gila River Indian Reservation can manage air quality alongside states.

Photo by Garry Wilmore

At a time when Americans are hearing every day that their government isn't working, it is refreshing to enter a space where excellent government is on display. Such was the case at the annual meeting of the National Congress of American Indians in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Ten examples of outstanding Indian governance were recognized at the yearly ceremony sponsored by a Harvard University project: Honoring Contributions to the Governance of American Indian Nations.

Honorees included tribes working on air quality, rural transportation, and constitutional reform.

The Gila River Indian Community [pdf] in Arizona was honored for an air quality management plan that qualifies it to be treated like a state in matters of air pollution control. Hemmed in by the expanding city of Phoenix to the north and rapid suburban development to the south, Gila River now operates as a peer with surrounding jurisdictions, able to monitor and enforce air quality standards among pollution emitters on the reservation, and to work with other jurisdictions in the airshed to improve standards.

The Citizen Potawatomi Nation of Oklahoma is the ninth largest tribe in the United States, with more than 28,000 members. A problem for the tribe is that more than half of its population lives outside the state—in Texas, California and elsewhere. The tribe has completed a 30-year reengineering of its constitution, including reforms that incorporate out-of-state tribal members into its governing structure.

The new constitution creates a 16-seat legislature, half of whose members are elected by non-reservation tribal members voting in eight off-reservation districts. Using state-of-the-art technology, the legislature meets periodically via teleconferencing. All sessions of the legislature are streamed online, so that any citizen can attend. Now able to vote in elections, tribal members are showing increased interest in tribal services, as well as a renewed interest in their heritage.

Also honored last week, for its outstanding rural transportation network, was the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) [pdf]. Located in rural Oregon, the reservation is far from most jobs, leaving those without cars little access to employment. The tribal government implemented regular bus service between the reservation and Pendleton, OR and Walla Walla in Washington State, allowing reservation residents to work beyond its borders.

These and the other seven programs honored this year join over 100 tribal initiatives that have won Honoring Nations awards in the 11 years that the program has been in operation. Past award winners have recognized:

  • wellness programs utilizing traditional cultural practices to restore to the community substance abusers, victims of domestic violence, and tribal members in trouble with the law;
  • criminal justice reforms in courts and law enforcement that solve problems related to overlapping jurisdictions between tribal and non-tribal governments;
  • language restoration and heritage preservation programs;
  • environmental protection programs, including wolf recovery in Idaho, lake fisheries restoration in Wisconsin, and elk management in Arizona.

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Other award winners have recognized successful approaches to economic development in Indian Country, such as wiring business development centers for high-speed Internet access; insulating commercial activities from political interference; and expanding farm operations while making good food available to tribal residents.

Honoring Nations is one of a family of programs in the U.S., Chile, Brazil, South Africa and elsewhere, that recognize the ongoing capacity of people to organize to solve problems through their regional and local governments. In the United States, the Innovations in American Government program, administered at Harvard, has brought to public attention successful efforts to solve problems through inspired state and local initiatives.


Michael Lipsky wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Michael is a Senior Fellow at Demos, and a member of the Board of Governors of Honoring Nations. He was a professor of Political Science at M.I.T. for 21 years.

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