In 1975, the U.S. Congress passed, and President Gerald Ford signed, the Indian Self-Determination Act, which should have been a landmark of progress in relations between native and non-native Americans, and the Federal Government that rules and serves them both.
The concept of the law was simple: instead of having the Bureau of Indian Affairs run almost every aspect of government for Native Americans, the responsibility for such basics as education, housing, law enforcement, forest management, and road maintenance was handed back to the tribes, nations, pueblos and people of Native America. Imagine that! Real self-government for Native Americans, — and only 199 years after the Declaration of Independence put in that claim for the rest of us.
But, in the real world, the second part of the Indian Self-Determination Act mattered as much as the self-governance part. This was the part where Congress said it would provide the money for the Native Americans to pay for the services for which they were now being given responsibility.
But you know how Congress is, it didn’t take long to show that they money they was providing wasn’t enough to pay for the service responsibilities they had relinquished to the Indians.
The result was what the Governor of Zuni Pueblo Val Panteah called, “a financial death spiral. The BIA blamed Congress. Congress blamed the president. And we were stuck in the middle.”
To Native Americans, the Indian Self-Determination Act was becoming another landmark along a centuries long trail of broken promises. So, in 1990, the Ramah Navajo Chapter and Zuni Pueblo in NM, and the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota sued the Federal Government, and 22 years later, in 2012, the Supreme Court, by a five to four vote, upheld the Native Americans’ claims, and just last month, representatives of close to 700 Indian communities and the Federal Government settled on $940 million as what was owed to pay for decades of under-funded services.