Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Winter 2000


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 20, No. 1, Winter 2000, pp. 75.


Copyright 2000 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Since the 1970s self-determination has been the dominant theme of federal Indian policy. The general concept goes back to President Woodrow Wilson's proposed principles to govern the post-World War I world. In Indian affairs it has come to mean a government-to government relationship managed largely by the federal government's contracting with tribal governments to carry out many administrative functions.

This important new work traces the development of self-determination. It has something of an "insider" perspective because George Pierre Castile, an anthropologist, served in the Indian division of President Lyndon Johnson's Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). Castile finds the first stirrings of self-determination in John Kennedy's administration, even though Kennedy did little beyond criticizing the controversial termination policies of the Eisenhower administration. His Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall searched for new directions in Indian policy but did not at the time realize the contribution of a minor structural change-decentralizing the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) by giving more authority to superintendents and . to tribes.

Udall remained in his post through the Johnson administration and became a more effective agent of change because Johnson's style encouraged bold initiatives and because Indian issues got swept up in the era's larger arena of civil rights and the war on poverty. The Great Society's Economic Opportunity Act and the subsequent Office of Economic Opportunity were designed with other minority constituencies in mind, but they became very popular on reservations, enhancing the power of tribal councils and evolving (still unintentionally) toward the self-determination concept of government-to-government relationship. Whereas Castile sees Udall as the important promoter of change, many Indians at the time did not. What some have interpreted as his being out of tune with what Indians wanted, Castile sees as Udall's trying to pacify supporters of Eisenhower's termination policies still in the Congress.

By about 1968 the idea of self-determination without termination had emerged as a clear policy alternative with considerable support. Johnson's famous message on Indian policy in the last months of his administration endorsed the concept, but without follow-up legislation the momentum was lost-though not for long. Reversing his earlier support of termination while vice president, President Richard Nixon championed the cause of self-determination by bringing Indian proponents into the White House and supporting relevant legislation. Self-determination had by this time weathered several administrations with different political agendas-testimony to its almost universal support among Indians.

This book does not differ dramatically from others in overall interpretation; rather, it offers new perspectives on details and individual roles. Some may see it as "policy history" with too little ethno-history, but it will be welcomed by scholars of federal Indian policy since it stands as the best and most comprehensive treatment of the politics behind self-determination.