From the Rebuilding Native Nations Course Series: "Remaking the Tools of Governance: What Can Native Nations Do?"

Native Nations Institute

Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development Co-Director Stephen Cornell discusses the need for Native nations to reclaim and remake their tools of governance in order to meet the nation-building challenges they face today.


Cornell, Stephen. "Remaking the Tools of Governance: What Can Native Nations Do?" Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy. University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. 2011. Lecture.

“So this is kind of what the history of tribal government through most of the 20th century looked like, and what it means is that a lot of Indian nations ended up with governing tools of extremely limited effectiveness. If you really wanted to reshape the future of the nation, you were stuck with these tools which are controlled by the feds, funded by the feds, completely organized around social programs, don’t reflect Indigenous ideas of how authority ought to be exercised, are not sophisticated enough to deal with the contemporary challenges you face as a government. So what do you do? So what now?

Well, it seems to us that -- [and] we’ve been working on some of these issues for some time -- that this really places the challenge in front of Indigenous nations to remake those tools, to take what has been given by this history and to some extent by the U.S. government and rethink it top to bottom, rethink what the tasks of government are. What are they really about? Should tribal government really be just about administering programs? Is it just about who gets the goodies? Just about sort of which family or which factions are going to control the jobs? Are these tools, with this very peculiar history and this peculiar legacy, are these tools actually adequate to nations that are saying, ‘We want to call the shots down the road for generations to come.’ Now if you are going to build a house, one of the things you better do is be sure you got good tools. Otherwise, you’re going to have a hell of a time and you’ll end up with a house that probably isn’t very well built. And if you’re going to rebuild a nation, you better start thinking about whether you got the tools in hand that you need, otherwise you may not get there.”