Native Nation Building TV: "Intergovernmental and Intertribal Relations"

Native Nations Institute

Guests Jaime Pinkham and Sarah Hicks focus on Native nations’ efforts to enhance their relationships with other governments as a way to advance their nation-building objectives. It details how some Native nations are forging mutually beneficial intergovernmental agreements, and chronicles the many advantages to forging similar intertribal arrangements.

Resource Type

Native Nations Institute. "Intergovernmental and Intertribal Relations" (Episode 8). Native Nation Building television/radio series. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy and the UA Channel, The University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. 2006. Television program. 

Mark St. Pierre: "Hello, friends. I'm your host, Mark St. Pierre and welcome to Native Nation Building. Contemporary Native Nations face many challenges including building effective governments, developing strong economies that fit their culture and circumstances, solving difficult social problems and balancing cultural integrity in change. Native Nation Building explores these often complex challenges in the ways Native Nations are working to overcome them as they seek to make community and economic development a reality. Don't miss Native Nation Building next."

Mark St. Pierre: "Today's show explores the importance of intertribal and intergovernmental relationships and the innovative approaches that many Native Nations are taking as they forge ahead with Nation building goals. With us today to examine these relationships are Jaime Pinkham and Sarah Hicks. Sarah Hicks, a citizen of the Native village of Ouzinkie in Alaska, is a doctoral candidate at Washington University. She also directs the National Congress of American Indians Policy Research Center where she works on a joint project with the National Conference of State Legislatures. Jaime Pinkham, a citizen of the Nez Perce Tribe, is Watershed Program Manager with the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission and Intertribal Fisheries Organization. Welcome to both of you and thanks for being with us." 

Jaime Pinkham: "Thank you."

Sarah Hicks: "Thanks."

Mark St. Pierre: "Jaime, when we talk about intergovernmental and intertribal relationships among Native Nations, what are we really talking about?"

Jaime Pinkham: "Well, Mark, I feel we're talking about creating a platform that respects the individual autonomy of the tribes or the governmental agencies that sit at the table and it's a relationship that's built upon trust and mutual respect and provides our ability to provide collective talent and wisdom and resources to overcome conflicts or to move forward on areas of mutual concern."

Mark St. Pierre: "Would you like to respond to that?"

Sarah Hicks: "Yeah, I think we're really talking about deliberate relationships between sovereign governments who are coming to the table as equals. We're looking at relationships that are across various issue areas, we're looking at relationships that are between different levels of government, different kinds of governments and even different branches of government."

Mark St. Pierre: "Sarah, what role do these relationships play in building a Native nation?"

Sarah Hicks: "Well, these kinds of relationships really provide a way for tribal governments to extend their influence beyond their boundaries. It's really a way for tribal governments to leverage their influence, to bring their voice to the table with other governments to influence the policy making that's going on outside of their boundaries."

Mark St. Pierre: "Just as a follow up, is there a concern that tribes who work with, say, state or county agencies are surrendering some sovereignty, or how does that work out?"

Sarah Hicks: "Historically, because of the government-to-government relationship between the federal government and tribal governments, that there's been a great deal of attention to this very critical important relationship. But on the other hand, as we've seen devolution, or the federal government passing resources and authority to lower levels of government, to state government, to county government, in some cases to tribal government, that I think tribes are becoming less concerned about what they're giving up, and I think they see many more opportunities to cooperate on issues of mutual concern. So they're really looking to their neighboring governments as potential partners to accomplish some of these really important jobs that local governments perform."

Mark St. Pierre: "Jaime, you seem like you want to jump in there."

Jaime Pinkham: "I don't see it as an erosion of sovereignty when we reach to other governments, and I think we're seeing more and more -- because of the capacity that tribes are building -- is we see these other governments reaching out to us. We've built the institutional capacity on resource programs, education and health care, and the other thing is that the tribes have unique access to federal resources, for example highway trust funds, which we can help rebuild or maintain infrastructures, especially in rural communities, that county governments and local municipalities depend upon, too. So I see them reaching out to us as well."

Mark St. Pierre: "You've both seen a shift in how Native nations view these relationships and their potential benefits. Historically, what began that shift in emphasis?"

Sarah Hicks: "Well, I think much of it was devolution as I was just mentioning earlier. Really in the late 1980s, we started to see more and more federal programs, environmental programs, some human service programs, community development programs that are being moved to more local levels of government, and over time the pace of devolution has increased. So throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, we've seen more and more resources really being directed at more local levels of government, and this just increases the incentive for tribal governments and state and county governments to look for these issues of mutual concern, to really bring to bear their limited resources on both sides to address issues that all governments care about."

Jaime Pinkham: "I also see the follow up on that is some courtroom fatigue where too often we're trying to resolve our differences in the court room and when you go to court you have one winner, one loser but when you come together in exploring these relationships you try to harmonize your efforts, and while litigation and negotiations are both difficult paths to take, the difference is the outcome and the outcome is the mutual benefits. The other thing is I've really witnessed over the past 10 to 15 years this elevation of both state and federal governments in formalizing tribal policies. It's an expression of tribal relationships, so we see the cabinet levels in the state legislatures and representatives of the governor's office now reaching out and creating new relationships with Indian tribes."

Mark St. Pierre: "In regions where tribes are really a small minority of the local or general population, have these relationships in fact increased the power of tribes in regional and local politics?"

Sarah Hicks: "I would argue yes. I think that this is a vehicle for tribes to come together on the one hand in intertribal organizations. We've seen an increased growth in regional intertribal organizations, and I would say an increased strength in those organizations as well over the past couple of years. So on the one hand, tribes being able to come together to voice their collective concerns, to share their resources that they have has definitely made a difference, but I also think that on the state and county level, neighboring governments are starting to see tribes as bigger political players. Tribes are getting on the map. They're starting to realize that there are a lot of common interests with tribal governments."

Jaime Pinkham: "And I agree. I think we're seeing many cases where local governments would like to ride upon the coattails of tribal governments because of the capacity that they have at dealing with the variety of levels of issues from very local to national in nature."

Mark St. Pierre: "Just on a personal level, on a human-to-human level, do you see these relationships strengthening communication and relationships between literal neighbors of the reservations?"

Jaime Pinkham: "I think we do, because as the tribes get more active in local politics, especially you start seeing members of the tribal communities becoming on school boards and county governments and city governments, and that helps really soothe and create and foster some positive relationships. What concerns me is we see the growth of these anti-Indian, anti-sovereignty organizations, but if we could work better and have these positive examples, we can try to teach these places where this fear exists of tribal sovereignty that really there's nothing to fear but really there's an opportunity, a partnership that can really help all communities prosper and grow."

Mark St. Pierre: "That kind of leads to a logical question I guess then. How have tribes or Native Nations avoided litigation, avoided conflict in dealing with other governments?"

Sarah Hicks: "Well, I think tribes and neighboring governments have really looked to local agreements as a way to avoid litigation. As Jaime was mentioning earlier, litigation is frequently extremely time-consuming, extremely expensive, and often results in an outcome that nobody's happy with, so to the extent that tribes and states or tribes and counties or tribes and other tribes can come to the table together to negotiate agreements that work better for everybody down on the ground, that's a win-win situation. We've seen a number of examples. If you look to motor fuel taxation and tobacco taxation, there have been some great agreements in Nevada, in Nebraska, in Oklahoma, in Arizona. There have been agreements around natural resource issues, around protection of cultural issues, around human service delivery. So I think we're seeing a proliferation of these kinds of relationships across a whole range of different topic areas."

Mark St. Pierre: "Is it in the best interest of federal, state and municipal governments to cross these traditional divides and work together with Native nations?"

Jaime Pinkham: "I believe it is. If you look out west, where that sense of individuality is treasured, but as long as we remain isolated, anonymous and faceless, we will never be able to come over some of those very difficult issues out west and a lot of those issues will deal in terms of the environment, the return of wolves or the recovery of salmon, where we see divisiveness in our communities. So the best way really is to start as local as you can. It's the politics of place in crafting those relationships very locally and using that to build up the ladder to state, federal governments. Who better to resolve local issues than those of us who live there? And to take those outcomes to where we really need action passed, and whether it's at Congress or at the state legislative level."

Sarah Hicks: "I guess I just wanted to make a related point, which is that I think not only are we seeing these relationships grow in all different kinds of topic areas and really in all different places across the country, but I think we're also seeing relationships that are being built across different branches of government. So increasingly, we're seeing relationships not only with the executive branch but with the legislative branch or in some cases they're relationships with the judiciary, with training of judges around some particularly important issues to tribal communities. So I think the trend is just growing and I think increasingly we're seeing that we have so many common issues where all neighboring governments are concerned about finite resources, about protecting our environment, about serving our citizens, making sure they have the essential governmental services they need. So I think increasingly we're just seeing more opportunities for governments to come together to solve these issues at the local level."

Mark St. Pierre: "Has this caused a shift in how these governments view Native Nations they work with? In other words, the State of Washington for instance, has it created a shift positive or negative in how they view the tribes in Washington?"

Jaime Pinkham: "Well, I can't speak for Washington, but in Idaho when I was on Tribal Council with Nez Perce, we did sense a shift, but unfortunately the shift was going two directions. One is where we were working collectively with a local county government and a city government to provide services to the reservation, but by us being there having access to economic development funds we were able to improve the infrastructure of the City of Lewiston. On the other hand, we saw these other governments riding on this wave of concern about what sovereignty will do to a community, and so we were faced with an alliance of 22 entities from school districts to city governments to county governments who feared tribal sovereignty and what it could do, the concerns about regulation and courts and they feared this word called 'sovereignty.' Sovereignty is something that really is an expression of the health of a community. So we worked hard to try to overcome the misconception that some of these communities had and the way to do it is to try to show the positive relationships we had with other neighboring communities."

Mark St. Pierre: "In South Dakota, I think there's a tremendous fear that in negotiating with the state, for instance, about anything, you're in a sense violating your treaty, because your treaty is between the tribe and the federal government. Do you want to respond to that concern 'cause it's a powerful concern."

Sarah Hicks: "Well, and I think part of this comes from a sense or a fear that many of these protections can be eroded, that the resources, the federal trust responsibility to American Indian tribal governments can be eroded. And so out of the fear to sort of protect what we have, there's been in some cases a real resistance to developing these kinds of relationships. But I think that nationally, we've started to move in a bit of a different direction. We've started to hear in national forums, tribal leaders articulating, 'We need to make sure that the federal trust responsibility is protected. We need assurances from the federal government that increasingly tribal self determination and tribal self-governance efforts, that increasingly, intergovernmental relationships aren't in anyway affecting the federal trust responsibility.' So I think on the one hand, tribes are concerned about that and I think they are looking to ensure that those protections are in place, but on the other hand, because of again the many, many common concerns and because of the increasing resources and opportunities for collaboration at the local level, I think we're seeing tribes move in that direction."

Jaime Pinkham: "And no doubt, I sense there still is some concern in Indian Country, because you have the federal government and then tribal government, state governments and the lower governments, and there's the concern that if we work with governments below us from the states down to city governments, that it's an erosion of our treaty rights and an erosion of our sovereignty. But the thing to keep in mind is we have the sovereign choice to work with those governments only if we choose."

Sarah Hicks: "Right. And I think we are. I think Jaime's right. We're talking about deliberate relationships between sovereign governments. It's governments coming together at the same table as equals to determine the type of relationship they want to have and what that relationship will encompass. So with tribes at the driver seat, I think this is really just underscoring that this really is about tribes as governments, tribes behaving as governments."

Mark St. Pierre: "I certainly think that sends a powerful idea to those tribes that are very nervous about these kinds of things, to hear that there are tribal groups working on positive relationships with local governments. Let's turn to a totally different thing here and look at intertribal relationships. Why are a growing number of Native Nations developing relationships and ties with other tribes in their region or nationally?"

Jaime Pinkham: "I think it's built on longstanding alliances and relationships that we've always had. In the Columbia River it was the salmon that always brought us together. The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, we're focused around the salmon, so we've always had the traditional alliances. The other thing, too, is recognizing the diversity of the landscape of Indian Country with our forms of government, our languages and our economies, it's important that we begin to share our talent and also to share knowledge and wisdom. When you look at parts of the U.S. where maybe we don't have the economic strength or we don't have the political strength and we're going to rely upon our neighboring tribes, and so I think these alliances are pretty fundamental to helping to elevate the tribal voice in places like Washington, D.C."

Sarah Hicks: "Part of it's strength in numbers, the sheer fact that tribes can come together, that we do have consensus on a great many issues and that we have a stronger voice if we work together. I also think that Jaime's right, a lot of this is really just formalizing relationships that have always been there."

Mark St. Pierre: "The tribes that work together, is it important that they kind of have their own internal tribal ducks in a row, that they have an effective government?"

Jaime Pinkham: "Yeah. Again, getting back to all politics is local, yeah, you have to be well-grounded and have strong, stable political leadership and use that as the basis and build up from there."

Sarah Hicks: "There's no doubt that it's important to have a message straight from the top that says, 'These relationships are important, that we're going to do what we can to work collaboratively on issues that we can.' This isn't to say that neighboring governments can always find common ground and can always agree on solutions to joint problems, but it is to say that it's important to have a message from the leadership that articulates very clearly the intention of cooperative relationships. On the other hand, I also think it's really important that the technical folks, that the staff, that the program directors are also on board for this. In some sense, you need the message from the top, the general policy that says, 'We're going to work together.' But on the other hand, it's the technical staff, it's those folks that are actually doing the work who really have to take to heart what it means to work collaboratively, to look for those opportunities to invite the other governments to the table."

Mark St. Pierre: "This question's for Jaime. In your capacity with the Nez Perce Tribe, you've been involved in a number of intergovernmental relationships. How did that process start? Tell us how that began and what it led to."

Jaime Pinkham: "Well, let me use an example, it's a recent example. We were involved in one of the largest water adjudications in the nation, the Snake River Basin, the Snake River Basin Adjudication, and actually we had two tracks going. We had the litigation track in court, but through the McCarran Amendment we're stuck in state court. And that's not the most comfortable place for a tribe to have their issues resolved. The other option we took was to try to find a negotiated settlement and both processes were going on track. And so the Tribe decided that we needed to keep both options open and we aggressively pursued a negotiated settlement working with the State of Idaho as well as representatives of the federal government. And believe me, it took us almost eight years to get this thing through and it took a lot of hard work. And like I said earlier, both paths are difficult but the only difference is the outcome. So we were able to resolve our differences and we had to be prepared to give a little and to gain a little bit. But in the end we avoided court, we avoided a court that may have ruled against our sovereignty, a court that could have ruled against some of our treaty-reserved rights. We preserved that. Those are the core values of our community and through negotiation we were able to preserve them."

Mark St. Pierre: "For those of us that aren't familiar with the actual issue, give us a framework for what brought the conflict to be."

Jaime Pinkham: "Actually, it started when the state went after securing their reserved water rights out of the Snake River Basin and they filed claims with the federal government. Well, the tribe couldn't stand back. We had to submit our claims and our claims were based on really two fundamental principles. One is in-stream flow to protect fisheries and the second one was the consumptive uses on reservation, whether it be for residential or industrial uses. And so we went through a long process to establish our tribal water rights claims."

Mark St. Pierre: "You now work for the Columbia River Intertribal fish Commission and I understand that's an award-winning intertribal organization. How has that commission empowered its member tribes, the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama?"

Jaime Pinkham: "Actually, I see it the other way -- that they've empowered us as a real function of tribal government. We provide technical expertise, legal expertise and assistance in intergovernmental affairs, but really when you look, the real strength of our organization rests in the tribes and the capacity they've built on the fisheries front in the four tribes in the Pacific Northwest that have treaty rights on the Columbia River. So really they empower us and we act and respond to whatever directions that they want us to go to. It's a wonderful organization and I would say that we're on the cutting edge of salmon recovery in very contentious times, the fate of the salmon and subsequent fate of the four lower Snake River dams. It is a difficult issue to be dealing with, but fortunately we have four strong tribal governments that have empowered us to act on their behalf."

Mark St. Pierre: "I guess one of the things that I'm looking at, the salmon recovery, is something that has broad economic implications for the region doesn't it?"

Jaime Pinkham: "Oh, it does. The irony is that when the settlers first came out west they had the timber, the agriculture, and the salmon economies, so salmon helped get a foothold. But today you hear them speak only passionately about protecting the timber economy or the agriculture economy and we need to once again elevate the significance that the salmon economy played, not just for Indian people but for the region. And a strong salmon economy also means a strong, healthy environment."

Mark St. Pierre: "Sarah, in your work with the National Congress of American Indians, you've been exposed to many mechanisms available to develop these types of partnerships. Can you talk about how that came about and what some of those methods are?"

Sarah Hicks: "Sure. First, I think just the National Congress of American Indians is an interesting model. Our organization was founded in 1944, actually in response to attempts by the federal government to terminate American Indian tribes. So the very impetus for our organization was that tribes needed to gather together collectively to advocate against the federal policy toward termination. So the whole purpose of our organization was to bring tribes together and to represent their interests to the federal government. So that's just one model of intertribal organizations. But then I think what you're speaking more directly to is a project that the National Congress of American Indians has had with the National Conference of State Legislatures, a national organization that serves the legislators of every state in the United States so actually they serve a little over 7,000 state legislators. And in this work that NCAI has done with NCSL, we've been funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for about six years now to start to provide some targeted technical assistance to states and tribes who are interested in finding new ways to work together. So some of the models that we've looked at and shared broadly include the establishment of Indian Affairs commissions, so these are usually executive-branch offices within the state government that try to coordinate the affairs of the executive branch in relationship to tribes. Then, of course, there are a number of legislative committees. I believe there are 14 states that have 17 different legislative committees that deal specifically with tribal issues. Some deal broadly with state tribal relationships where as others deal with particular issues around the relationships so perhaps repatriation, perhaps gaming, things like that. But there certainly are quite a number of models out there where states and tribes are finding new ways to work together developing new mechanisms and developing new agreements that will sort of chart the circumstances under which these relationships should continue."

Mark St. Pierre: "What I understand, it seems to me from what you're saying that the general climate is improving for the positive. Would that be your..."

Sarah Hicks: "I think so. If you look at some of the work that NCAI has done over the past year, we've been working up in Alaska with the previous administration there to sign a government-to-government agreement with the tribes in Alaska. That was the Millennium Agreement. We've seen similar types of agreements in a variety of other states. We've seen an increased number of Native legislators. I think that's a big sign that Native people think it's worth investing in the state system. We've seen increased number of bills that address tribal issues in state legislatures. So I think across the board we're seeing various indicators that tribes are moving in this direction. And again, not that this is a panacea. We don't think this is the be-all-and-end-all, that this is the solution for everything. Certainly tribal governments and neighboring governments will have very different views on some things in large part because of tribal cultures and tribal values may differ substantially from other governments. But on the other hand, it makes a lot of sense to look at issues that we can agree on and I think we are definitely moving in that direction."

Mark St. Pierre: "Let's turn now to some success stories. I know both of you have tremendous involvement in a wide range of these kinds of relationship building and conflict resolution. Give us some ideas of some of the successes in the country that are based on this new energy."

Jaime Pinkham: "Some of the things that we've worked on back home in Nez Perce country and looking at issues that were once conflict that had now come into a cooperative relationship, and one was when we were looking at protecting our traditional foods and medicines and the federal government had a plan to spray herbicides and it was to take out noxious weeds. And then we protested that so in turn the federal government and the state worked with us to develop a new method of controlling noxious weeds that would safeguard our traditional foods and medicines. So we started a bio-control center, so I think that was one where we took conflict and turned it into something that was positive and actually is providing resources, non-pesticide options to control noxious weeds in the Pacific Northwest."

Mark St. Pierre: "Sarah?"

Sarah Hicks: "I guess there are a couple that I can think of. One is that in 1998, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation signed an agreement with the Narragansett Tribe that would actually allow for tribal members to be hired by the state department of transportation to monitor some of the progress that was being made on developing highways, to be there when human remains or cultural artifacts were found so that there would be tribal members on site to try to make sure that those things were protected and they were addressed in a way that was appropriate to the tribe. So there are some examples like that. There are examples around federal subsidies to tribes to deal with foster care and adoption. Right now the federal funding flow is only to states, but we've seen some progress such that there are 71 tribal state agreements in 13 different states that allow these federal funds that are so urgently needed to deal with child welfare issues in tribal communities, to allow these funds to flow through the state to the tribes and in many cases there are other administrative funds and there are training funds that go with these so we are seeing I think...Jaime's pointing out some examples, and I'm talking about a couple others, and we're seeing that really this isn't relegated to just one domain, that we're actually seeing these kinds of efforts in a variety of different topic areas."

Mark St. Pierre: "I know in the fishing industry in the northwest that there have been arguments about water flow in terms of the revitalization of salmon in those rivers and they've required very complicated agreements. Can you tell us a bit about some of those?"

Jaime Pinkham: "Well, yeah, some of them are complex agreements where we have to work with a variety of people. If you look at the river system, it's a river of life. Not just human life, but an economic life, and a wonderful example is where the Confederate Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation have reached beyond...we can talk about [intergovernmental] relationships and intertribal relationships, but also there's the importance of creating private sector relationships, and the Umatilla Tribe has a wonderful example of that where they were concerned that the irrigators were pulling water out of the life-giving river as they were trying to return salmon to the Umatilla River. So they worked with the local irrigators to do a water exchange to keep water within the river system. So they took what were traditional adversaries and now they've become allies in salmon recovery. So we see those kinds of agreements at play. And I'm hoping we'll see more and more of those. The salmon issue is not going to be resolved overnight and you've got so many players in the game from utilities to irrigation to recreation interests and the long-seated tribal interest that is there, and we need to continue to reach out and build more of these relationships. And you see the tribes who are taking the lead on running fish hatcheries and working with federal government on land restoration to kind of restore the habitat that is important to these species, so the relationships are really building out in the northwest."

Mark St. Pierre: "We want to give a heartfelt thanks to Sarah Hicks and Jaime Pinkham for appearing on today's edition of Native Nation Building, a program of the Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management and Policy at the University of Arizona. To learn more about Native Nation building and the issues discussed here today, please visit the Native Nations Institute's website at Thank you for joining us and please tune in for the next edition of Native Nation Building."

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