The North American Experience

By The International Labour Organization
A brief history: United States cont.

A 1934 Federal law authorized indigenous communities to organize their own local elected councils (“Indian tribal government”), and to begin to resume control of some of their own internal affairs. It was left to each community to propose a “constitution” governing the size, term of office, and functions of its council, which Federal officials either approved or disapproved. Each community could also prepare its own laws, but these, too, could be rejected by Federal officials.

Most real administrative power, including the management of lands and resources within Indian Reservations, continued to be exercised by Federal government agencies until the 1960s. At that time, a national campaign to combat poverty was launched, and substantial sums of money were provided directly to Indian tribal government to establish their own programs for social development. In 1975, Congress authorized the Federal agencies responsible for Indian affairs, health, education, and economic development to transfer the administration of their programs, by contract, to tribal government. As a result of these new policies indigenous communities were able to build their own local institutions and recruit their own technical and professional employees. They also began negotiating their financial and administrative responsibilities, each year, with Federal agencies.

With this increase capacity, tribal government began exercising more control over their lands and natural resources, negotiating their own contracts for mining, logging, and other economic activities with privately owned corporations. Some of the earlier agreements were not very beneficial to the indigenous people concerned. They did not yet have enough experience with these industries to place a fair value on their own resources, or anticipate all of the environmental impact of development. They were not yet fully ready to demand partnership in the actual management of large-scale business activities. Federal officials later canceled a number of agreements signed by indigenous communities with mining companies in the 1960s, because the price paid to the communities was so low. Other contracts, such as a mining agreement between the Navajo Nation and Peabody Coal Company, resulted in conflicts within indigenous communities because some people gained jobs and good salaries, while others lost their homes and traditional way of life.

This apparent need for better technical expertise and negotiating skills convinced the leaders from 26 of the larger Indian Reservations to form the Coalition of Energy Resource Tribes (CERT) in 1975. First inspired by news reports about the Oil Producing Exporting Countries petroleum cartel. CERT aspired to controlling all coal, petroleum, and uranium produced on indigenous lands – estimated, at the time, as one third of US energy resources. As described by Marjane Ambler, in a major study of this organization, the real importance of CERT was as a shared pool of individual experts in engineering, economics, and law, which helped communities negotiate more effectively. Although CERT originally relied upon non-indigenous experts it eventually replaced them with indigenous people. When the United Nations Centre on Transnational Corporation surveyed US tribal government from 1990-1992, most of them were confident that their agreements with mining and logging companies were beneficial and fair.

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