IF ALL THE Indian reservations in the United States could be combined into one, Indian Country would be among the richest nations in the world, measured by the opulence of its natural resources. Between 50 percent and 80 percent of all the uranium, between 5 percent and 10 percent of all the oil and gas reserves, and 30 percent of all the coal in the United States lie on Indian lands. The Navajo reservation alone produces almost as much coal as the entire state of Utah. Many tribes own rights to water whose value is dramatically expanding along with the increasing urbanization of the West. More than ninety tribes have land that is densely forested, while millions of acres of leased tribal grassland provide pasturage for ranchers, and millions of acres more are leased to farmers. Freedom from state regulation has even made some tribal lands, like the Campos’, at least potentially valuable to firms searching for places to store nuclear waste and garbage from expanding cities.
Until quite recently, the Bureau of Indian Affairs managed this vast patrimony like a private condominium. The bureau set the terms of leases for mining, grazing, and the sale of timber; it collected the fees, paid its own expenses, and distributed what remained as it thought fit to the Indians themselves. All to often, this “trust responsibility,” as it is formally called, was carried out with a slovenly disregard for tribes’ long-term interests. With a dogged persistence rooted in the bureau’s history of paternalism, the B.I.A. consistently failed to defend tribes’ water rights against the encroachment of white farmers and ranchers, while its forestry officials encouraged the widespread clear-cutting of tribal timber. Elsewhere, the bureau typically negotiated leases for the extraction of minerals for flat or fixed rates, instead of percentage royalties, which meant, for instance, that the Navajos continued to receive only ten or fifteen cents per ton for their coal even as the market price rose from two dollars per ton in the 1950s to twenty dollars per ton in the 1980s.
Federal paternalism officially came to an end in 1975 with the Indian Self-Determination Act, which called for a “transition from Federal domination of programs for and services to Indians to effective and meaningful participation by the Indian people.” In practical terms, the act laid the foundation for the eventual turning over of many federal programs to the management of tribal governments. It also enabled tribes, for the first time, to create their own resource policies and regulatory agencies. Since then, the Navajos and the Jicarillas of Arizona have established their own tribal oil and gas commissions to regulate production on their lands. The Jicarillas and the Blackfeet of Montana decided to take part in risk-sharing joint ventures with petroleum companies. The Southern Ute tribe of Colorado has set up its own oil production firm. The Colville Confederated Tribe of Washington trained a professional staff to manage timberland that provides 90 percent of the tribe’s income; logging is now done on a sustained-yield basis, which means that trees are never harvested more rapidly than they can be replaced. The Confederated Tribe of Warm Springs, in Oregon, obtained ownership of three hydroelectric dams, and now sells power to the state grid. In one of the most dramatic turnabouts of all, the Pyramid Lake Paiutes have gained what may prove to be a controlling influence over the distribution of water in much of northern Nevada.
“We’re going through a major sea change,” says A. David Lester, a Creek from Oklahoma who is the executive director of the Conference of Energy Resource Tribes, a tribally-supported organization based in Denver, which provides assistance to tribes in resource management, engineering and business development. “Especially in terms of minerals, tribes have rewritten the rules that govern their relations with the federal government and industry. Basically, the historical thrust is toward gaining land-based control—as proprietors, managers and governments in charge. Tribes are either already in the driver’s seat, or on the way.”