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Good Native Governance for the Seven Generations


Angela Riley is Professor of Law and American Indian Studies at UCLA School of Law.

This post is part of a symposium on Ezra Rosser’s A Nation Within: Navajo Land and Economic Development. Read the rest of the posts here.


Native Nations in the United States are stronger today in many respects than they have been in the past 250 years. Despite much growth, however, tribes continue to experience the instability that comes from the ruptures of colonialism and must work to recover, rebuild, and revive the cultural lifeways that make them who they are as Indigenous Peoples. This presents a significant governance challenge for many Indian nations in the modern world. This struggle is, in many ways, at the heart of Rosser’s provocative deep dive into the remarkable experience of the Navajo Nation in A Nation Within.

Rosser identifies some of the central obstacles facing the Navajo Nation, which are likely recognizable to and shared by many nations throughout the world, Indigenous and otherwise, including concerns around housing, education, extractive industry, poverty, and environmental degradation. But Rosser’s work digs deeper to examine how the Navajo Nation has managed historically and how it continues today to manage its own identity as a nation within, an Indigenous tribe with inherent rights of sovereignty that is surrounded by a vastly different and, at times, hostile and foreign society. Thus, the Navajo peoples’ process of reconciling the Nation’s past with its present – and, most importantly, how to govern for the Nation’s future – lies at the heart of his inquiry. For anyone working in Indigenous rights today, this work is markedly timely and relevant.

Despite its Navajo-centric approach, in some sense Rosser’s book could have been written about any one of hundreds of Indian nations in the US that are facing similar challenges. What Rosser so elegantly does with A Nation Within is employ the situation of the Navajo Nation to animate broader, universal problems within Indian country: what is the proper balance between tradition and modernity? How can a tribe successfully govern using institutions imposed by a colonial power that sought to supplant traditional structures that have nevertheless endured? When should one speak and when ought one be silent? And what is sacred and untouchable versus what can be commodified so that a tribe may achieve other (traditional) goals?

What might not be so obvious to an audience less familiar with Native history is to understand precisely how contemporary Indian nations, like Navajo, found themselves in this complicated space within the project that is America. The European colonizers initially, and the United States subsequently, spent untold time, resources, and energy to remove, displace, and even destroy Native people and their cultures. The Navajo were a prime target of these policies. But in the past several decades, the United States has changed course on Indian affairs, shifting to a policy of self-determination, rather than one of destruction and assimilation. This change has further empowered Indian nations to live their sovereignty; that is, to be subject to less federal oversight, enjoy more autonomy in tribal affairs and decision-making, and to be free to devote human and fiscal resources to the revitalization of Indian cultures.

To that end, tribes have, perhaps unsurprisingly, increasingly flourished. But, as A Nation Within suggests, such growth is not always uniform or consistent across tribes. Part of Rosser’s contribution here is taking a magnifying glass to the Navajo Nation, weaving a provocative narrative of the Nation’s own struggles to flourish in the midst of both almost unfathomable resources and harsh limitations.        

To be clear, governing is messy business. Whether you are a Navajo Nation citizen voting in your next tribal election or an American watching the January 6th hearings, you know that the hard (and sometimes ugly) work of governance – and good Native governance, in particular – cannot be overstated. Rosser does not shy away from these realities. His work demonstrates the particular challenges Indian nations face in governing well after so many centuries of dispossession and oppression. Every tribe has its own story, but most in the United States are still operating under the vestiges of this shared history. The trauma is real, and it is still very alive and recent for many Native people.

If there is an answer to the problems raised by A Nation Within, it lies in tribal self-determination, which is itself fundamentally pluralistic and malleable. By its nature, it empowers Indigenous Peoples to determine their own futures and destinies based on what fits each tribes’ own value system. But self-determination is not a panacea; rather, it is a path. And it comes with weighty obligations, insofar as it requires Indian nations to determine for themselves the metes and bounds of sustainable practices according to their own cultures and communities. In breaking free from colonial bonds, it also diminishes the impacts of colonialism as a sufficient excuse for dysfunctional government in a modern world.

Notably, Indian nations have only been in a period of recovery for several decades. In fact, tribal efforts to address oppression and colonization are, by any measure, embryonic. Tribes, like Navajo, have had remarkably little time to experiment with various systems of economic development, resource management, and governmental infrastructure, among others.

At the same time, as Rosser argues, there are lessons to be learned, even from this recent history. And, with the Navajo Nation as with all self-governing, sovereign Indian nations within the United States, it up to us, as tribal people and tribal leaders, to ensure good Native governance for the preservation of our nations for the next Seven Generations.