Trust Responsibility

The U.S. government has a trust responsibility to American Indians. This trust responsibility was an underlying promise made by the United States when it made treaties and agreements with Indian tribes.

The U.S. government acquired virtually all of its land through treaties or agreements with Indian tribes. Today most lands that Indian tribes use are owned by the United States and held in trust by the U.S. government for those tribes.

The U.S. government made a commitment to protect Indian tribes from non-Indians by enacting the Trade and Intercourse Acts, which were passed between 1790 and 1834. Exploitation of Indians was one of the major reasons for conflict between Indians and non-Indians.

The U.S. government’s trust responsibility to American Indians was affirmed in the 1830s by the Supreme Court. The court ruled that when the government entered into treaties with Indian tribes, it made a promise to protect and enhance Indian tribes.
In 1871, the United States passed legislation stating that it would no longer enter into treaties with Indian tribes, primarily because it had acquired all the land that it wanted at the time and because the treaty-making process had caused conflicts between the Senate and the House of Representatives. Thereafter, all federal laws passed with regard to tribes have been the result of actions taken by Congress.

The U.S. government assumes a trust responsibility for all lands that it owns, whether they are national parks, national forests, military reserves, or Indian trust lands. The government’s responsibility is to manage those lands in a way that best serves the people who use them.

The U.S. government’s responsibility for managing land held in trust for Indian tribes is no different from its duty for managing other lands it owns. The United States is responsible for ensuring that decisions that affect Indian trust lands benefit the tribes involved.

In recent years, the United States has said that every federal agency has an obligation to ensure the protection of tribal governments, even though the trust relationship is administered primarily through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. For example, the Department of Energy has a responsibility to ensure that the energy needs of tribes are being met, and the Environmental Protection Agency has a responsibility to ensure that the environments within Indian reservations are protected.

Federal agencies and their employees are responsible for ensuring that their actions that affect Indian tribes enhance, protect and improve conditions for the tribal communities and governments. Each federal agency has applicable law that describes its relationship to everyone in the United States, including its trust relationship with Indian tribes.

Management programs for Indian trust lands are implemented for the most part by the Department of the Interior, which has regulations describing how it will protect and enhance federal lands. Generally, protection and enhancement of Indian trust lands are done through the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, and recently, more tribes are assuming control over the use of their own lands through self-governance cooperative agreements.

In the 1980s, tribes began to take on some of the responsibilities for managing trust lands under the authority of a federal law, P.L. 93-638, also known as self-governance. Under self-governance, tribes have received federal funds directly to administer and manage programs, services, functions and activities that the tribe determines are in the best interest of its members.

Self-governance does not mean that the trustee-benefactor relationship between the United States and tribes ceases. Instead it means that the U.S. government now has cooperative agreements with tribes that enable them to directly operate programs for their members that formerly were provided by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service. A major tenet of self-governance laws is the continued trust responsibility of the federal government to tribes.

The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe was one of the first tribes in the country to enter into a self-governance compact with the federal government. Self-governance has since become the basis of current federal Indian policy. Ideally, this will allow more tribes the opportunity to enter into self-governance compacts, if they choose to do so.

Through self-governance, tribal officials with the Mille Lacs Band have been able to ensure that federal funds are utilized in accordance with tribal priorities that will improve the lives of Band members.