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Native Americans and the Intersection of Social Equity and Public Administration: Time to Walk the Talk

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By John C. Ronquillo
May 30, 2019

In the past several decades, there has been plenty of talk in public administration professional associations—as well as treatment given in the research—to social equity. Beyond mere agreement of its importance in both research and practice, we have gone so far as to have adopted social equity as a major pillars on which our field stands, or, perhaps in this case, rests.

Too often, Native Americans, our first Americans, are among the last considered in discussions on social equity in public administration. My personal observations to this point are frequently relegated to, “Oh yeah, them,” types of responses. This dormant acknowledgement is not enough, especially when American bureaucracy has systematically disenfranchised tribal communities from the top down throughout the course of history.

Fifteen years ago, H. George Fredrickson, who many would call a father of social equity in public administration, rebuffed a “clean hands” approach to social equity and challenged us to, “Engage with the problem of inequality, that we dirty our hands with inequality, that we be outraged, passionate, and determined…that we actually apply social equity in public administration.” The field is ripe with examples to do so, especially when it comes to Native communities.

Displacement and dispossession have long been unfortunate themes in the interactions of American bureaucracy within Native American communities. Forced assimilation within tribal communities was common and exemplified by the, “Kill the Indian… and save the man,” mantra espoused by Richard Henry Pratt who founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1879 and continued the perpetration of the “Americanization” and “civilizing” of Native Americans. Carlisle became a model for other boarding schools across the country that also forcibly removed and assimilated Native children to a culture other than their own. The instances that exemplify Pratt’s ideology are far too numerous to list here, but they are well documented, and sadly are reflected still today.

While many perspectives focus on the historical atrocities thrust upon Native Americans, there are plenty of modern issues that also merit attention. Last year marked the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), which set out to further prevent separations of children from families or their respective tribal communities, from the cases in boarding schools mentioned above well into the 1970s. The lingering effects of these separations and the fight to remedy the displacements and reunite displaced Native children with their respective communities has been brought to light through the recently released documentary Blood Memory, produced by Drew Nicholas, Megan Whitmer and Elizabeth Day.

The film parallels two featured perspectives on surprisingly different trajectories; That of Sandy White Hawk (Sincangu Lakota), the founding director of the First Nations Repatriation Institute, who was adopted by a white missionary family and removed from her community at 18 months old, and that of Mark Fiddler (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians). Mark Fiddler is a private practice attorney who describes himself on his law firm’s website as a, “Life-long advocate for children’s rights.” He finds himself involved in numerous cases that seek to redress ICWA, despite the fact that he once defended the law as the founding director of the Indian Child Welfare Law Center. This center advocates on behalf of American Indian families.

The audience I was part of was sympathetic to White Hawk and her story, as well as her work to reunite displaced adoptees with their birth families and tribal communities. It was my impression that most of the audience—as I was—were shocked to hear Fiddler say, “I get tired of Indian people carrying around this victim mentality.” While Fiddler is a tribally enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, his own children are not. This leaves viewers wondering about a potential identity conflict within Fiddler and his rationale to oppose the invocation of ICWA in certain cases.

The film intrepidly highlights numerous delicate yet critical areas that merit attention. Such areas include cultural dilution, displacement, child welfare, and blood quantum. These are all embedded at the intersection of social equity and public administration. To speak candidly, these are all areas that should draw out the outrage and passion alluded to by Fredrickson. Add to this recent issues such as the Standing Rock Water Protectors and the opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, or the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement—both of which warrant their own serious treatment—and the case further makes itself. We have not done justice to Native Americans when it comes to social equity in public administration, and that must change.

Social equity, as a vehicle intended to make public administration more inclusive, is itself at risk of not being inclusive enough. The story of Native Americans and their unique status is a story that continues with multiple opportunities for us, as Fredrickson encouraged, to “Walk the social equity talk.”

Author: John C. Ronquillo is assistant professor of nonprofit and public management at the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs where he teaches courses in leadership and ethics, social entrepreneurship, organizational behavior, and public management. His research interests are in indigenous governance and leadership, and social and organizational innovation. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @johnron.

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