Making a Difference: The Federal Policy of Indian Tribal Self-Determination and Self-Governance

In 1970, President Nixon sent to the Congress a Message on Indian Affairs which represented the most innovative and far reaching approach to change in the field of Indian affairs since so-called “Indian New Deal” in the Roosevelt Administration.
The centerpiece of the Nixon Indian policy was the proposal to permit tribes to contract with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Service to operate services for their members (social services, law enforcement, road construction and maintenance, resource development, health care, etc.) These services classically had been provided on Indian reservations by federal employees working under the direction of federal officials in Washington. Indeed, the Nixon proposal was to require these programs to be turned over to tribes to operate within 120 days of a tribal request.

I got involved at the early stage of this new policy when I was assigned by a non-profit organization, the Association on American Indian Affairs, to represent the Miccosukee Tribe in Florida in negotiating a contract with the BIA to run all BIA services for the Miccosukees. This was before the Message had even gone to Congress and five years before the Indian Self-Determination Act, which gave Congressional sanction to the policy, was enacted in 1975. I believed, nevertheless, that there was no legal impediment to such a BIA contract with the Miccosukees. The Nixon proposal was needed to take away the discretion of the BIA to refuse to contract, not merely to authorize a contract. What was unprecedented about the Miccosukee proposal was not that it was a contract for BIA funded services, but that it covered substantially all BIA services provided locally and would lead to the abolition of the BIA Miccosukee Agency. Most of the functions of the BIA reservation superintendent would be turned over to the elected tribal chairman, Buffalo Tiger.