Indigenous Planning and Tribal Community Development

by Ted Jojola

What we ask of America is not charity, not paternalism, even when benevolent.  We ask only that the nature of our situation be recognized and made the basis of policy and action.

›Declaration of Indian Purpose, American Indian Chicago Conference, June 20, 1961.


Nearly two generations have passed since the convocation of the mostly young, idealistic native scholars and activists at the American Indian Chicago Conference of 1961. Its purpose was to involve Indian leaders in updating the 1928 Meriam Report on the conditions and federal policies toward American Indians.  A year later, a Declaration of Purpose was presented to President John F. Kennedy in a formal White House ceremony.

One irrefutable aspect of the Chicago conference was that its deliberations consigned non-natives to a “consultancy” status.  That meant that non-natives were allowed to speak only after the native participants had recognized them.  Unlike any major academic forum, that protocol allowed the indigenous voice to preside.

When this experience was taken back to Indian Country, something truly amazing began to occur.  Rather than continue a situation where Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) paternalism had consigned native people to a passive role, a group of the young and educated activists who had witnessed the Chicago Conference began to call for reform.  Feeling that they had to wean themselves from federal control, they founded the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC).

NIYC quickly aligned itself with other civil rights movements under the banner of “Red Power” activism. Their public protests and legal actions paved the way for challenging the injustices of treaty violations and exploitative environmental policies in Indian country.  Their movement also succeeded in bringing visibility of the Indian plight to mainstream America.

The discourse that emerged from such activism led to a philosophical movement that was nurtured in a tradition of collective action.  It recast tribal community development as a history of shared actions and experiences.  This became known as an indigenous “world-view” and it not only served to unite native people, but it also served to distinguish them from the non-Indians who did not share the same collective history.  It was an effort that was not only invested in learning and scholarship, but was rooted in the articulation and sharing of experiential learning.

Like-minded native scholars and grassroots activists collaborated to take this new breed of collective action back to their communities.  For example, in 1992, a planning studio conducted under the auspices of the Community Fellows Program in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT resulted in a “postmodernist discourse” among students from “communities of color” regarding grassroots activism and culture. The result was the formulation of a new theory of action that was coined “indigenous planning.”  It called for a radical reexamination of contemporary planning practice through long-term learning, the empowerment of community voice, and the advocacy of culture and tradition.   In 1995, the movement formulated its five basic principles:

1. People thrive in community;
2. Ordinary people have all the answers;
3. People have a basic right to determine their own future;
4. Oppression continues to be a force that devastates people; and
5. The people are beautiful, already.
The Indigenous Planning Network

Another important initiative is the Indigenous Planning Network (IPN).  In a rather prophetic way, IPN had been conceived in Chicago during the American Planning Association’s (APA) 1995 conference, where planners who worked in native communities embarked on reestablishing a professional organization modeled after the defunct United Indian Planners Association (UIPA).  Influenced by the 1994 United Nations pronouncement on the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People, the Geographic Land Information Systems (GLIS) Department of the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin took the lead role in convening this “indigenous” initiative.

A newsletter called Indigenous Planning was disseminated on a periodic basis with a stated goal of  “forming a new division within the APA for native/indigenous planning.”  Since its inception, IPN has convened tribal community development panels at the annual meetings of the APA with the purpose of showcasing native planning organizations and practitioners. In addition, organizers are presently discussing the development of a “Tribal Planner’s Toolbox.” These are a series of products (including the development of a website), seen as necessary for engaging tribes in a community development process that incorporates indigenous principles into their strategic planning.

Several faculty, including myself as a representative of IPN, are collaborating with IPN on creating the academic counterpart. The collaboration is centered on a course entitled “Indigenous Planning” which brings together students from the American Indian Law Program, the Anderson School of Management, and the Community & Regional Planning program at UNM in an interdisciplinary seminar.  Recently an endowment in support of this interdisciplinary track was established to support graduate fellowships in the three respective colleges.

Indigenous Planning

Although it could be argued that the indigenous planning paradigm is a new concept, its principles are actually a reformulation of practices that have been used by “traditional” communities for millennia.  Before indigenous authority was usurped through colonial processes, tribal societies planned their communities.  Unlike the Western approach that relies principally upon regulating land use, the indigenous planning approach bases its practice on dealing with land tenure.

Land tenure is distinguished by long and sustained patterns of continuous ownership.  In indigenous communities, ownership is sustained over successive generations.  Land becomes the embodiment of collective groups whose goal is to sustain the productivity of the land for those who will inherit it.  As such, land becomes a birthright and collective stewardship is the primary mode of maintaining it.

Given a legacy of land tenure, it becomes easier to understand how traditional communities evolved distinctive world-views.  Such world-views embody values that were essential for attaining a balanced and symmetrical relationship between humankind and the natural environment.

Because it is experientially based, there is a certain tolerance for change.  As collective societies extended their territories, they would border on other cultural groups.  And when they interacted with other societies, they experienced new ideas and adapted them. This goes contrary to the notion of invention. Rather, change is a process of transformation. Transformation was tempered by the need to assure the community that new ideas were mindful of the past, cognizant of the present, and suitable for the future.

To distinguish Western planning practice from indigenous traditions is absolutely critical. Land use as applied in traditional Western planning practice is both temporal and corporal. It serves to give form and shape to communities by upholding the privileges associated with private property rights. Land use becomes the embodiment of the individual, who develops it with the primary intent of raising its capital valuation. When it is maximized, then it is resold. There is little incentive to hold land as property longer than necessary, especially if it “loses value.” This behavior leads to “slash-and-burn economics” and a reactive mode of community development.

One can surmise, therefore, how such behavior comes in conflict with indigenous tribal community development values. One such arena is Indian gaming. For a few lucky tribes, Indian gaming has become a panacea that has not only resulted in breaking loose from the cycle of dependency on treaty reparations, but has given a renewed ability for tribal governments to make decisions for themselves. At the same time, it has forced tribal governments to adapt new models of management and embark on strategic planning.

This is a change from the comprehensive planning model, which was championed on Indian reservations in the early 60s and 70s by the US Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). Many of these well-meaning comprehensive tribal planning approaches fell out of favor principally because they narrowed tribal governments to choosing enterprises within their meager resource base. The process essentially left the tribal governments feeling bankrupt and impoverished. It was only after a few gaming tribes received windfall profits that they began to craft vision statements with the intent of economic diversification. And when the resource base did not exist on their lands, tribes expanded their resource base by acquiring more land and private industries. In that manner, strategic planning unwittingly hastened the transformation of Indian policy away from paternalism and toward self-determination.

It remains to be seen, however, if planning strategies will be confined to capital investment. Simply “putting more eggs into the basket” does not necessarily resolve the enormous social and political problems which contemporary tribes face.  In particular, will strategic planning, of itself, return tribes to doctrines that incorporate vestiges of their world-views? This remains to be seen.

Yet there are indications of some unifying ideological factors within contemporary Indian planning practice. These might serve as the foundation of a long-overdue paradigm shift toward indigenous planning. Although the following tenets are by no means definitive, they are offered as a way to begin reconstructing the past and present towards a future of indigenous planning. They are:

First›indigenous people are not minorities. The territories of indigenous people are characterized by a social and cultural geography where it is the outsider or non-native who is a minority. Indigenous communities and lands exist where the presence of outsiders and non-natives is almost non-existent. As long as indigenous communities continue to unconsciously ply the notion that their power is insolvent because they are demographic majorities, the collective will continue to be marginalized and made to appear invisible and insignificant.

Second›the essence of indigenous scholarship is native self. True indigenous scholars and activists do not suffer from cultural amnesia! In the spirit of idealism, indigenous people adapt their ideas from experience. As proven time and again, indigenous people excel in the process of deconstruction as characterized by reflection and introspection. Indigenous planners are not afraid to be a part of their own community research and the role of the expert is tempered by the collective experience.

Third›indigenous voices need no translation. Rather, indigenous people are educated and trained in the best of traditional and Western traditions. Their voice is neither revisionist nor elitist. Instead, it empowers the collective mind by challenging those who attain their expertise solely through individualism and privilege. Native people are poised to take their rightful role as enablers of their own communities. This is accomplished by mutual respect, participatory styles of consensus making, and the adherence to traditional protocols.

Fourth›the indigenous planning process is informed by the indigenous world-view. Central to this world-view are values associated with territory, land tenure, and stewardship. It represents a philosophical construction of humankind’s relationship to the natural world and is demarcated by territories that balance human needs with ecologically viable and sustainable development. A world-view is endowed with ideals that integrate the past and present, and projects itself into the future.

In summary, this is an interesting time in the contemporary dealings of indigenous communities. Many generations have passed since colonial practices began to infringe upon indigenous rights and self-reliance. In indigenous communities, an understanding of the traditional world-view has been lost,  fragmented, or secularized. In spite of this, indigenous people have always held on to the basic belief that their collective responsibility is to become the principal stewards of the land.

As long as they are able to sustain their territories, then the values associated with land tenure should allow them to harbor a sense of identity. On the other hand, it will rest upon the ability of each respective collective society to bring clarity and cohesion to its planning process through its timeless world-view.  This is both the essence and challenge of indigenous planning.

Ted Jojola, PhD, is a Professor in the Masters Program in Community & Regional Planning, School of Architecture and Planning, University of New Mexico.  He was Director of Native American Studies from 1980 to 1996.

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