by Miriam Jorgensen (ed). Tuscon: University of Arizona Press 2007. 384pp. Cloth. $40.00. ISBN: 9780816524211. Paper. $20.00. 9780816524235.

Reviewed by Ronald Steiner, Department of Political Science, Chapman University. Email: Steiner [at]


The chapters in REBUILDING NATIVE NATIONS are a product of the Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy (NNI) at the University of Arizona and the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. These collaborating programs study and promote self-determination, self-governance, and development for Native nations. The Harvard Project conducts research and provides advisory services and executive education, with the goal of understanding the conditions under which self-determined development is achieved among American Indian nations. NNI’s particular focus is on nation building, or “nation re-building” and involves comprehensive, professional training and development programs, including tribal executive education, entrepreneur training, policy analysis and accessible research on governance and development in Indian Country, and work with Indigenous groups on strategic and organizational development. As reflected throughout this edited volume, NNI believes that re-building Native nations through the construction of effective institutions of self-government that meet their unique needs and priorities is the only path to successful and sustainable development in Indian Country.

REBUILDING NATIVE NATIONS is something of a companion volume to THE STATE OF THE NATIVE NATIONS: CONDITIONS UNDER U.S. POLICIES OF SELF-DETERMINATION, published by Oxford University Press for the Harvard Project, which is also a multi-author volume featuring some of the same experts. Both books offer comprehensive, interdisciplinary examinations on current conditions and trends in Indian Country. THE STATE OF NATIVE NATIONS featured short summaries of the current state of knowledge regarding tribal governance, land and natural resources, and economic and social development, to arts and culture, the large off-reservation Native population, and federal Indian policy. Unlike the current volume, the earlier book also contained first-person companion essays so as to more fully include the personal perspectives of noted native figures.

Based on their experience studying and working with native nations, Miriam Jorgenson and her NNI colleagues believe that five elements are critical in successful nation building:

  1. Sovereignty. Native nations which seize and exercise self-governing power show significantly increased prospects for sustainable economic development.
  2. Capable governing institutions. Sustainable development therefore requires native nations to put in place effective dispute-resolution mechanisms and build capable bureaucracies, which necessitate [*657] insulation from the internal politics of the nation.
  3. Cultural match. Effective institutions tend to be respectful of indigenous conceptions of authority, even where they include some degree of innovation.
  4. A strategic orientation. Success in developing governing institutions and economic development programs will come when native nations approach these tasks with a long-term commitment to building a society that works, rather than as a quick fix based on funding that happens to be available.
  5. Leadership. Successful native nations tend to rely, at least initially, on a group of individuals who recognize the need for fundamental change in the way things are done and can bring the community along with them in building that future.

The introductory chapters provide a theoretically rich academic overview, while the core of the book is a series of discrete how-to guides for specific strategies for governance and community and economic development. These substantive chapters provide guidelines for governance structures and constitutional reform, plans for building justice systems and promoting both nation-owned enterprises and citizen entrepreneurs, as well as outlines for developing better and more mutually respectful relationships with non-Native governments.

The substantive discussion of nuts-and-bolts reform begins with a call for “rebuilding the foundations” of native governments, initiated by Stephen Cornell’s explorations of how colonial legacies continue to infect the standard approach to governance, and how indigenous solutions that draw from the past can point the way forward. This will often mean, according to an article by the Harvard Project’s Joseph P, Kalt, re-writing tribal constitutions as a first step in rejecting the faux sovereignty imposed on tribes in favor of new provisions that reflect a better cultural match, and which draw from recent learning gleaned from successful tribes. Critical to that constitutional restructuring is an independent and politically insulated system of courts and dispute resolution mechanisms, discussed in a chapter by Joseph Thomas Flies-Away and others, and, as discussed by Cornell and Jorgenson, a re-constructed tribal bureaucracy that focuses on “getting things done for the nation” rather than serving the narrower interests of the faction in power.

The book gets even more hands-on when it turns its attention to economic development issues. Kenneth Grant and Jonathan Taylor discuss successful and less successful strategies for improving the prospects of tribally-owned enterprises, with the key strategy being to monitor carefully the boundary between business and politics. When a tribal council member’s brother-in-law gets fired for poor performance from a job with a tribally-owned business, is the business sufficiently insulated from the politics of personality that the dismissal will stick? If not, experience suggests trouble ahead. Another economic development strategy is discussed by Cornell, Jorgenson, and others in a chapter on encouraging entrepreneurship among tribal members, both on and off the reservation. Thus, the NNI has partnered with the First Nations Development Institute and others in seeking to implement matched saving [*658] account programs in native communities, supported by financial education, credit counseling, and home buyer education programs, in an attempt to extend the benefits of wealth building to low-income individuals and families.

A chapter by Alyce S. Adams, Andrew J. Lee, and Michael Lipsky, and one by Sarah L. Hicks discuss specific features of successful governance, including the establishment of internal services and programs that really meet the needs of tribal members and reservation residents, as well as external, intergovernmental relations in which the native nations unequivocally project expressions of tribal sovereignty. For example, NNI has substantial research and experience with the various forms intergovernmental co-management agreements into which tribes in North America have entered to improve resource stewardship, so native nations can learn what models exist, and which are best suited to their own circumstances.

The book ends with another set of more theoretical chapters that explore the examples of individual successful leaders and ask why some nations manage to “seize the future” while others do not. In these chapters, Begay, Cornell, Jorgenson, Kalt, and others explore the themes for which the NNI and Harvard Project were initiated: what has research and experience taught us that can be of immediate and specific application to native people trying to survive and thrive among dominant settler societies that do not always have the tribes’ best interests at heart.

This book is a must-have for any scholar or teacher serious about really understanding the prospects for political and economic development among native nations. Few people are better situated than its contributors to discuss with both theoretical sophistication and practical experience the real situation of indigenous peoples.

A small caveat: like many who work in Indian Country, NNI walks a precarious political line in its work, and this difficult situation is reflected in the examples used in the text. Many of the success stories are drawn from the current experience of indigenous nations with representation on its advisory council. Perhaps that is not surprising; NNI would want to have successful indigenous leaders on its board. Its examples of failure and bad models, however, are presented with pseudonyms or drawn from the safe reaches of the past. Thus, while many indigenous leaders are duly celebrated for successful innovations, few current native leaders will suffer any embarrassment from this otherwise concrete and specific book. To its credit, NNI is in the trenches getting itself deeply involved in the daily lives of native nations – and it may be a telling commentary on the state of Native America that even they have to pull their punches.

Henson, Eric C., Jonathan B. Taylor, Catherine E.A. Curtis, Stephen Cornell, Kenneth W. Grant, Miriam R. Jorgensen, Joseph P. Kalt, and Andrew J. Lee. 2007. THE STATE OF THE NATIVE NATIONS: CONDITIONS UNDER U.S. POLICIES OF SELF-DETERMINATION, Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. New York: Oxford University Press.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Ronald Steiner.