Public Law 93-638, or the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, often referred to simply as the Indian Self-Determination Act, enacted authorization for the Secretaries of the Interior and of Health, Education and Welfare and some other government agencies to enter into contract with and make grants directly to federally recognized Indian tribes. This enables the tribes to have greater control over management of funds and decisions regarding their welfare.
Signed into law on January 4, 1975 this legislation made self-determination, rather than termination, the focus of government action. It reversed a 30-year effort by the federal government to sever treaty relationships with and obligations to Indian tribes. It also was the result of 15 years of change through the Civil Rights Movement and community development based on grassroots political participation.
The Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934 was an early step in the renewal of tribal self-governance, in the forms of creation of constitutions and employment of counsel. It was somewhat limited as all tribal actions were subject to review by the Secretary of the Interior (via the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).
In the 1950s there was a renewed effort by some Congressmen to move toward assimilation and terminate the special relationship between the federal government and tribal nations. The federal government sought to terminate the legal standing of numerous tribes, judging their members ready to be independent citizens. More than 100 tribes and communities were terminated. For more on Termination, please see Indian termination policy.
The failure of Termination policies became obvious with assessment in the late 1960s. Native Americans and the federal government began to work for a return to greater Indian rights represented by the earlier IRA. The passage of the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 was influential in the road to self-determination. It guaranteed the application of the Bill of Rights upon Indian Country (tribal nations), a guarantee Native Americans on reservations had not enjoyed, given their special relationship to the federal government.
Against the Civil Rights Movement led by African Americans, the rise of activist groups, namely the American Indian Movement, and high profile demonstrations such as the occupation of Alcatraz, helped bring the issue of Native American rights to greater prominence in public policy. It was not until Richard Nixon's July 8th "Message from the President of the United States Transmitting Recommendations for Indian Policy" that self-determination became enunciated as a goal of the United States government. His message proclaimed termination as an inherently incorrect policy, and Nixon called for broad-sweeping self-determination legislation. This goal was met in the Indian Self-Determination Act.
The fundamental basis of the Indian Self-Determination Act was that if members of a tribe wanted a new health clinic, day care center, etc., the tribe would contract with an appropriate government agency (often referred to as a "638 contract"), receive a grant for the funding, and build infrastructure itself. This enabled the tribe to manage affairs more swiftly, rather than waiting for a project to be managed by a federal agency, from planning to construction.
In the early years, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) resisted this change in policy and operations. The process was strict for approval of funds for tribal use. Continued efforts by tribal leaders to obtain the grant money, and pressure from Congressional representatives helped bring about a new way of doing business. The influence of the BIA over tribal affairs slowly lessened, bringing greater morale and hopes for greater self-determination to Indian Country.