Native Nation Building TV: "Moving Towards Nation Building"

Native Nations Institute

Manley A. Begay, Jr. and Stephen Cornell contrast the two basic approaches to Indigenous governance -- the standard approach and the nation-building approach -- and discusses how a growing number of Native nations are moving towards nation building. It provides specific examples of how implementing the five keys to nation building bring wide-ranging benefits to Native communities.

Resource Type

Native Nations Institute. "Moving Towards Nation Building" (Episode 10). 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: "Over the last decade or so, many Indigenous nations have been moving to an approach to economic development that has been described as nation building. Today's program examines this nation-building approach to development and contrasts it with the older approach that remains pretty common today, the so-called standard approach. With me today to discuss these two approaches are Drs. Manley Begay and Stephen Cornell. Dr. Begay, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, is the Director of the Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management and Policy at the University of Arizona, where he also serves as senior lecturer in the American Indian Studies program. Dr. Cornell is the Director of the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy and a Professor of Sociology and Public Administration and Policy at the University of Arizona. Welcome, gentlemen. It's nice to have you both here today. The Native Nations Institute in its extensive research has found that there are basically two approaches to Native Nation governance. Can you describe these?"


Manley Begay: "The standard approach has been in existence probably for the better part of the 20th century, and it's really an outgrowth of [a] long-held belief that dependency is the way to go by the federal government and also by many state governments as well. And the nation-building approach is a recent phenomenon sort of borne out of the political research and stuff of the '70s. Interestingly enough, I think the roots of the standard approach is really around colonization, forced dependency, and as a result political decision-making has been very slow. Others besides those that are most effected make development decisions, and it sort of views Indigenous culture as an obstacle to development, whereas on the nation-building approach which has been recently pushed and thought of by Indigenous peoples is really rooted around the exercise of sovereignty, claiming jurisdiction, building effective political systems and institutions of self governance, using culture as a way to design political systems and also to design economic systems as well. And so it's really two very different type of approaches, and also has produced two very different types of results."


Mark St. Pierre: "Steve, when you talk about the standard approach, what are some of the inevitable outcomes?"


Stephen Cornell: "Well, I think the standard approach -- as Manley has indicated -- the results have not been very positive for Indian nations. I think you have to sort of realize that the standard approach makes an assumption, it assumes that Indigenous nations are not really capable of making major decisions for themselves, so the priorities in development are ones that are put together in Washington, D.C., put together by federal bureaucrats who are saying, 'Man, these tribes poor, we've got to do something about it, let's come up with a program to help them.' So they design a program and they fund it and they make decisions about how the program will be run and Indian Country experiences the results. But if you look at that model, it's one in which tribal priorities do not appear, bureaucratic priorities do, Washington's priorities do, federal priorities do."


Mark St. Pierre: "You could almost call that the well-intended approach."


Stephen Cornell: "It's a very well-intended approach, it's just not a very well-accomplished approach. So tribal priorities don't appear in there, tribes do not exercise real decision-making power. In many cases, what it creates is this expectation that well, 'It's up to the feds to do it for us so you get this kind of looking to the feds as the source of not just money, but ideas and suggestions and solutions, so tribes get excluded from the decision-making process, they get excluded from thinking through what kind of development they want. The result over the -- Manley said it sort of dominated the 20th century -- if you look at the 20th century in Indian Country, the performance in economic development is pretty poor."


Mark St. Pierre: "Steve, you talked about the standard model, sadly the traditional model of planning that's been used by the EDA [Economic development Adminitsration] planners that tribes hire. Give us an idea of what that process looks like."


Stephen Cornell: "Well, as we were saying, a lot of the ideas for what tribes should do tend to come out of Washington. I think very often what happens is an Indian nation, facing tough unemployment, difficult time getting people through the winter -- all the kinds of problems that we see in extremely poor rural communities -- those nations just, they've got to get something going. And so you call in the tribal planner and you tell the tribal planner to go get a grant, go find some money, go get something started. So the planner goes off and looks for whatever they can find out there, where are the federal dollars, has anybody else got anything I can apply for. You start whatever you can fund. You appoint your relatives or your political supporters to run the projects. The council micromanages the heck out of it, and everybody just prays that something will work. We think of it as this sort of six-step model for planning in the standard approach. I think we've seen a lot of that."


Manley Begay: "We were in southern British Columbia working with a group of First Nations and we had an executive education session and this is sort of the steps that Steve mentioned. We talked about those steps and then at the end of the presentation one elder in the back raises his hand and he says, 'I know what's wrong with that planning process'. He says, 'They should have prayed first!' Basically he was eluding to the fact that the nation-building approach is very different in terms of planning than the standard approach. There's actually forethought and there's long-term planning, rather than sort of the short, grant-type of mentality. And you're actually more proactive in thinking about how you're going to plan, rather than reacting to the agendas being set by Washington or those that you're getting the money from. And then you're setting the development agenda, not someone else. So the planning process is very different under the nation-building approach."


Mark St. Pierre: "Let me follow up with this. If tribal officials are feeling pressured out of desperation to solve immediate, crisis-type problems, they would have to be politically brave to go with the longer vision, to map out something that might take years to accomplish."


Stephen Cornell: "It's not that they shouldn't be chasing the federal dollars. From our point of view, there aren't enough federal dollars in Indian Country. There will never be enough money to compensate for what's been taken from Indigenous nations nor to take care of all the problems that are out there. You need those federal dollars and it's right to be pursuing them. The problem is with an approach to economic development that stops there, that simply is looking for where's the homerun project that's going to solve all our problems. 'Oh, man, let's go for this grant, maybe that'll solve our problems. Let's go for this one...' instead of saying, 'How do we build an environment here that can sustain long-term economic growth? How can we build an environment that will actually produce the jobs and the economic activity that fits our culture, fits what our people want and has -- as Manley says -- long-term staying power?' And if tribes manage to do both of those at once, let's find the dollars to deal with the crisis we've got today, but let's not neglect the task of building a nation that's capable of supporting its people for the long run without having to depend on Washington, D.C. That's what tribes need to be doing and it is tough. I think it's...Indian nations face terribly difficult tasks, but they've demonstrated over and over again that they can handle difficult tasks. It's going to take work, but it can happen."


Manley Begay: "And Indian nations know best what their needs are. An occasional politician that arrives on the reservation might think, 'Oh, you need a motel right there. That's a good intersection.' So he gets the money, a hotel is built there, and it doesn't work, because that's not exactly what the nation really needed and wanted at that time. It didn't fit into their scheme of things. So somebody else promotes that rather than Indian nations themselves."


Mark St. Pierre: "A lot of tribes suffer from brain drain. Do either of you want to talk about that problem and how that comes about?"


Stephen Cornell: "Yeah, I'd be glad to say something about that. I think brain drain in fact is one of the characteristics of the old way of doing economic development in Indian Country. One of the things this sort of grant mentality does, it turns tribal government into simply a grants-getting organization, and you begin to encourage an idea among tribal citizens that that's really what tribal government is about. It's a funnel. It's a funnel for jobs, money, services that come from the federal government and they land at tribal government, and tribal government distributes them out to communities and people. And so your idea of tribal government is, there's nothing particularly impressive or ambitious about it, it's just kind of a hand-out-the-goodies organization. And then you look at, let's say, young people on a reservation, the young citizens of the nation and when they imagine what they might do with their lives, are they going to think about, 'Boy, I'm going to get involved in the leadership of this nation'. But if that's all government is, what's exciting about that? When you shift to nation building, a couple of things happen. You move decision-making out of federal hands and you put it in Indigenous hands. Suddenly the burden of responsibility is on the nation itself to decide, 'What kind of future do we want? How are we going to create that future?' And it starts to get real because you feel you're in the driver's seat. You may actually be able to make that future come alive. Suddenly it's starting to get to be an interesting thing, this tribal government business, 'Hey, if we could do that...' So young people may be more likely to stick around. Plus, if you back up that decision-making power with capable government, so that if I'm a young person and I want to invest time and energy and ideas in the future of the nation, I actually have an opportunity to do that. It won't depend who I voted for in the last election or who my relatives are. We've got a more competent government than that. We've got a government that is focused on producing good things for the nation, not on just distributing goodies to friends or something like that. Then I'll begin to think it might make some sense to invest here. I might stick around because I could really build something for my family, my community, for the nation. That begins to slow down that brain drain that has young people headed off to Minneapolis or L.A. or Rapid City or Houston or someplace, and that's a critical thing for the future of Indian Country, is to retain the incredible array of talent and resourcefulness that is in tribal communities and get it working on behalf of these nations."


Manley Begay: "Could I just add to that. As Steve was mentioning, it creates a sense of hope. When somebody else is dictating to you how you're going to live, you lose the incentive to do things for yourself. So it becomes more appropriate to just have Washington, D.C. decide for you. Or to compare to Eastern Europe. For a long time, all decisions were made in Moscow, so you'd just go to Moscow. Up in Canada, you go to Ottawa for decisions to be made, and there's less of incentive to do good things and to hope for good things because somebody else is deciding for you. So as a human being, you want to be in a decision-making position about determining for yourself what the future is going to look like. If somebody else is doing it for you, you say, 'Well, forget it.' You have less of a vested interest."


Mark St. Pierre: "Some of this seems to be buried in or attached to the original IRA [Indian Reorganization Act] constitutions which were two-year elected terms. Is this relevant to the discussion? Is the fact that many tribes operate on a two-year cycle related to the fact that they can't plan long term?"


Stephen Cornell: "If you look at those IRA constitutions, the boilerplate constitutions -- which were not Indigenous creations --those were created in the U.S. Department of the Interior for Indian nations. It was the United States saying, 'We know how you should govern yourselves. Here's the model, take it and go.' If you look at those models, they're very simple models of governance, they tend to put a whole lot of power in the hands of a tribal council, of elected officials. They make no provision for judicial functions or dispute resolution, things that tribes had enormous experience for generations in doing. It's not part of that government. The terms of office are short as you say. You get these two-year terms in many of those governments, so you get real rapid turnover in leadership, and Manley was mentioning you combine that with the federal funding cycles, and basically something's changing every year in the array of people who are working on development. So it's tough to get continuity. Now having said that, that doesn't mean everybody needs four- or five-year terms. We've seen some nations with two-year terms or even shorter, some nations where the senior people in government turn over every year. If the rules by which you govern stay the same, then you can get the kind of stability and continuity that capable governance needs. The real problem is if every two years when that administration perhaps changes, if it's a whole new ballgame, pretty soon you get people sitting there saying, 'Man, I'm heading out of here, I can't deal with this. You never know what the rules are, you never know whether you can trust the people you're working with to still be there tomorrow.' So I think, yeah, the standard model is a model that tolerates very high instability in tribal government, encourages very high instability in tribal government. That's one of the reasons why it's a pretty lousy approach to development."


Manley Begay: "And if you don't have staggered terms, it gets even worse."


Mark St. Pierre: "That's where I wanted to follow up, Manley. If you could talk a little bit about tribal governments that are operating more within the nation-building approach. What do they look like, tell us what they look like?"


Manley Begay: "As Steve was mentioning here earlier, we find that those that are operating within the nation-building approach have stability and stability in the rule of law. We find that to be quite important, because rule of law allows for the understanding that when a new administration comes in, things aren't going to change, contracts don't have to be rewritten. Rather, it creates this stability and so investors begin to feel as though, 'That's the place where I want to invest.' The Indigenous elementary school teacher says, 'I want to go there and work there because I know my investment of time, energy, education is going to be safe and that's where I want to be, and I don't have to leave elsewhere to provide a stability for my family. Rather, this is the place where I want to be.' Outside investors begin to feel as though that their investment will be safe as well because the rules don't change, it's very stable, and you get less of a conflict-of-interest situation where the court system is very stable, it provides for good rules of order, good law that's been set in place, and I think that you find economic development occurring much quicker and in a much better fashion in the long run."


Stephen Cornell: "Can I jump in and add a little piece to that which Manley reminded me of? In the standard approach, one of the other characteristics of that approach is the tribal government does everything. Now if you do that, one of the things that happens is you get a lot of political involvement in business management, because you're basically asking councilors to wear a political legislator hat for certain decisions but then take that hat off and be a business manager for other decisions, and for most of us that's tough to carry those kinds of roles and keep them straight, particularly when you're under pressure from constituents. In the nation-building model, one of the striking aspects of that model is the pulling apart of political decisions and the management of enterprises. You begin to get tribal governors, councilors, focused on certain core issues. What are the laws that we need? Do we have the appropriate governance capabilities in place? Do we have a set of policies and rules that will -- going back to the brain drain question -- keep the talented people here? Those are the kinds of things you want elected leadership to deal with, but then when the tribally owned enterprise gets going, you hope that business managers will be able to make intelligent, smart business decisions free from the kinds of political interference that the old model almost guaranteed."


Manley Begay: "The root of that type of stability creation really is around claiming jurisdiction, claiming sovereignty. Rather than having somebody else make decisions for your people, your resources, and all the issues that you deal with, you're in the decision-making position. You decide how your resources are going to be allocated, you decide how your political system is going to be developed, and it essentially marries decisions to consequences, whereas in the past, decisions were being made by other folks and you didn't have this marriage actually occurring, and as a result if somebody really messed up from outside of the tribe, they moved to Ohio or Denver or elsewhere. But for Indigenous people there's a vested interest there. You have to make good decisions to get the consequences that you want, and so that's very critical and part of that is just gaining control of the decision seat it seems to me."


Mark St. Pierre: "It seems to me that one model tends to foster confidence, growth, hope -- that sort of thing -- but I'm sure even within the nation-building approach, conflicts arise. How are conflicts resolved in either model?"


Stephen Cornell: "I think in the standard model, conflicts are resolved by firing people or the feds step in and say, 'We're yanking the grant,' or something like that. And in the nation-building model, ideally, you have some kind of mechanism that is rooted in community, custom, law, tradition so that it has respect in the community, so the people believe in it -- some mechanism that's capable of resolving disputes in a way that the various members of the community think is fair. The question is, how do you deal with those disputes and can you deal with them in ways that don't rip the society apart, so that the disagreement between these two families doesn't suddenly become or eventually become an immobilizing piece of community life where nobody can agree about anything and people are constantly at each others' throats and anything that you get is my loss and that sort of thing? So that sort of dispute-resolution mechanism -- and in many cases, it's an independent tribal court, in some cases, it might be a set of elders who have the authority and the stature to help resolve disputes, it may be traditional kinds of peacemaking approaches. There are a lot of ways to do it, but you've got to have a mechanism like that because there are bound to be disputes."


Mark St. Pierre: "And because a nation-building approach, the way you describe it, apparently draws on local culture, tradition, history, it's not a one-size-fits-all sort of situation like sadly the IRA government attempted to be. Manley, when you look at the nation-building approach, how does that affect strategic planning or strategies that tribes can develop over time?"


Manley Begay: "The strategic orientation focus in the nation-building approach way of thinking about things really allows for long-term thinking. Rather than the three to five years or 'grant mentality,' you're thinking about, 'What are my kids going to be doing 50 years from now? What kind of clothes will they be wearing? How will they be worshipping? What kind of language will they be speaking?What kind of education will they have? What kind of homes will they be living in? What kind of jobs will they have?' These are questions that must be answered by the leadership, and so [in] the nation-building model, you begin to address those questions, whereas in the standard approach somebody else is making decisions for you. It's just very short-term thinking. So as a result of the nation-building approach, you're planning for the long haul."


Mark St. Pierre: "Let's take a few minutes then to look at in your experience -- and you both have a broad experience in this -- some successes and some failures based on these two approaches."


Stephen Cornell: "There are a lot of stories out there, because the nation-building approach is not something we came up with. It's something that Indian nations came up with, and I think since really for about 30 years now, since the mid 1970s, we've begun to see a growing number of Indian nations who are taking control of their own affairs, putting in place capable governments and beginning to think very strategically as Manley described and accomplish things. One of the nations that I like to talk about is the Citizen Potawatomi Nation in Oklahoma. In the mid 1970s, that Nation had -- today it's a very large nation, more than 20,000 citizens. In the 1970s, they had a tiny land base and almost no money in the bank. They had some ideas. How do we get people to come and invest here so we can create some jobs for our citizens? And the young tribal council member went out to talk to business people around Oklahoma and say to them, 'Hey, you should come and invest in our community. We're good people, we'll give you some tax breaks, come build with us.' And some of these business people, their response was, 'Well, okay, that all sounds real interesting, but let's say I get into a dispute with somebody on the reservation or with the tribe itself. Have you got a court system that I can depend on?' 'No, we don't have a court system.' 'Okay. And how do I know that the promises that you're making to me to help get me to work with you are going to be respected if when the administration changes. Can I count on the rule of law?' 'Well, we haven't really thought that part through.' Eventually this council member came back to the nation and said, 'We've got some political work to do. We've got some governance work to do before we're going to be successful at pulling these people here.' They did that work. It took a long time. They did it piece by piece. They built a capable set of governing institutions and they began to get the kind of investment they were after, not just from outsiders, from their own people. It's a nation that has taken enormous strides by kind of seizing control of its own destiny and then doing the hard work to put the institutions in place that could support what they wanted to do."


Mark St. Pierre: "Manley, what's one of your favorite stories? What would you like the viewers to hear?"


Manley Begay: "Some of my favorite stories really is around Indian nations actually grabbing hold of sovereignty and moving forward, sort of the first piece of the puzzle in the nation-building approach. There seems to be these defining moments where things just change from the standard approach to the nation-building approach. Some of the nations did it very smoothly and in a calculated fashion, as Steve just mentioned: Citizen Potawatomi. Some Indian nations, you had near violence. For instance, like at Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation. When gaming was first being initiated, you found two opposing views of whether that nation should have gaming or not, which led to essentially the closure of a road into the casino and you basically had a standoff which forced negotiation to occur. And at that moment in time things began to change. The Indian nation began to think about themselves as truly a sovereign entity with all the rights and responsibilities of a nation, and there are a number of stories throughout Indian Country about this where Indian women would go into the Bureau of Indian Affairs office and literally threw the superintendent out. And at that moment things began to change. It's not unlike Lech Walesa in Poland saying to the Soviet Union, 'We're going to do things our way.' It's not unlike Nelson Mandela in South Africa saying, 'No more Apartheid, it's got to stop here.' And there are a number of these stories out in Indian Country like that."


Mark St. Pierre: "Let's look at First Nations in Canada. What are some examples of First Nations that have gone through a similar process? Steve?"


Stephen Cornell: "There's actually a lot happening in Canada right now with First Nations. I can think of a couple of the interesting ones to us. The Meadow Lake Tribal Council in Saskatchewan is a group of nine First Nations, some Dine, some Cree, who first got together to try to do economic development together. They realized that if they started doing development planning as a single group of nations they would get more leverage and be able to do better. Today, they're beginning to build political institutions at that same tribal council level. The Ktunaxa Tribal Council in British Columbia -- that's five First Nations and they're doing kinds...building the kinds of governing institutions that we're talking about at the tribal council level where these five First Nations are cooperating. Right now, they're involved in trying to design a government that will support their long-term strategic goals for preservation of the land, preservation of their culture, development of enough prosperity and productivity to support their community. So it's happening in a lot of different places, and if we had the time we could give you quite a list."


Mark St. Pierre: "Well, it's pretty apparent that Native nations that want a successful future have to invest tremendous time and effort into those issues, and I want to thank our two guests today, Dr. Manley Begay and Dr. Stephen Cornell, for appearing on this edition of Native Nation Building. This is 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."


Related Resources


Guests Joseph P. Kalt and Sophie Pierre explore the evidence that strong Native nations require strong foundations, which necessarily require the development of effective, internally created constitutions (whether written or unwritten). It examines the impacts a constitution has on the people it…


Guests Eddie Brown and Karen Diver discuss tribal program and service delivery across Indian Country. They examine the unproductive ways services and programs have been administered in many Native communities in the past, and the innovative mechanisms and approaches some Native nations are…


Guests Robert A. Williams, Jr. and Robert Yazzie discuss the importance of having sound rules of law and justice systems, and examine their implications for effective governance and sustainable economic development. They explore these issues and their role in creating a productive environment that…