WASHINGTON — American Indians have long argued that they can run federal programs on their reservations better than the bureaucrats. Now an Interior Department audit suggests the tribes are right.
Tribes that took over federal programs expanded reservation services, created new jobs and reported “a sense of pride and accomplishment,” according to a report by the department’s inspector general.
Tribes “established their own priorities rather than following the objectives” of federal officials, the auditors said.
Congress started allowing tribes to take over federal programs in the late 1980s amid pressure from tribes for more autonomy and heavy criticism of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, long considered one of the government’s worst-run agencies.
The programs, which include social services, education and law enforcement, had been run directly by the BIA or through contracts with tribes.
“We’ve said throughout history: How can a guy in Washington who doesn’t understand the realities of Indian life understand how the money should be spent?” Jim Kalt, a spokesman for Minnesota’s Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, said in an interview Tuesday.
Tribes that want to operate federal programs themselves negotiate with the BIA for their share of the money.
So far, 29 of the 550 federally recognized tribes have signed “self-governance” agreements with the BIA. Eleven other tribes are in negotiations with the agency.
Some tribes are not qualified or interested in taking over programs, agency officials say.
The Interior Department auditors reviewed 10 tribes that have taken over programs, including the Mille Lacs band and the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.
The tribes “generally increased the services provided to their members for essential programs … and created new programs to further benefit the tribes and individual members,” the auditors said.
Six of the tribes increased their police forces; six added judges or other court personnel; one started a veterans affairs office; and eight tribes increased their spending on housing, the report said.
The tribes are not required to keep job statistics, but one tribe, which also runs Indian Health Service programs, increased its employment of tribal members and their spouses from 89 to 147.