Native Nations Institute 20 Year Anniversary Reflections Series

How It All Began


In 1998 I joined the University of Arizona faculty as a professor of sociology and director of the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy. At about the same time, two colleagues—Joe Kalt and Manley Begay—and I were engaged in a series of discussions about how to expand the ground-breaking research on Indigenous governance and development carried out over the previous decade by the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, a research project that Joe Kalt and I started at Harvard University in 1987. In particular, we wanted to find an institutional home closer to much of Indian Country where we could continue that research and more effectively reach out to Native nations. My move to the University of Arizona offered an opportunity.

Read the Udall Center Update article announcing the establishment of NNI in 2001

Building on those discussions, in 2000 I proposed to the University that it establish a Native Nations Institute to deliver that research and outreach, and I proposed that the Institute be established within the Udall Center. The Morris K. Udall Foundation, a federal agency (today the Morris K. Udall and Stewart L. Udall Foundation), joined that effort as a founding partner. In early 2001, the University approved my proposal, and with financial support from the Ford Foundation, the Morris K. Udall Foundation, and the University, NNI was born. We soon hired Manley Begay as its first director; Joan Timeche, its first assistant director; and Miriam Jorgensen, its director of research.

Stephen Cornell and Manley Begay teaching in 2005
Steve and Manley teaching during an Executive Education for Tribal Leaders Seminar (2005).
Other instructors included Joe Kalt, Miriam Jorgensen, Joan Timeche, and Ian Record.

NNI was built on two core ideas. The first was the belief that, as Native nations in North America and beyond increasingly asserted self-governing power, pursuing their own governmental and developmental goals, they could benefit from rigorous research on what was working and what was not. We knew that most such nations faced daunting tasks: addressing the catastrophic legacies of colonialism, revitalizing language and culture, building capable governments, making and enforcing law, providing fair adjudication of disputes, building productive relationships with other governments, educating their citizens, managing their lands, developing economies that could free them from poverty and dependence, and more. Yet few had the resources to examine relevant policy options in ways that could inform their decision-making. Few, faced with a specific problem or task, had the time and resources to systematically discover: Are there other Native nations, in North America or other parts of the world, that have faced this problem? What have they tried? What worked and what didn’t? What can we learn from each other? And are there things we can learn from the non-Native world about what works and what doesn’t?

Australian tribal elders and Manley during a conference with the Northern Territory and Reconciliation Australia,
where Steve and Manley were invited to present NNI's work (2003)

The second idea was directly related to the first. If we could produce robust research results on what was working, or could work, could we make those results accessible and usable to Indigenous leaders, professionals, and ordinary citizens, to those who had undertaken the tasks of nation rebuilding themselves?

As this suggests, our target audience for both research and education was neither fellow academics nor typical university students. It was Native nations. Their need for information and usable insights was both urgent and substantial. NNI’s core mission was to try to meet that need.

For twenty years, these two ideas have guided NNI’s work. They have led to research on everything from constitution-making to tribal child welfare policies, from tribal governance of data to the advantages of tribally controlled health care, from organizing economic development to wise use of profits, and much, much more. And NNI’s educational and other programs have made the results of this research available in accessible form to hundreds of working Indigenous professionals, from multiple countries, who are engaged in the tasks of rebuilding their nations.

The former governor of one of the Pueblo nations, introducing an NNI presentation to a major conference, put it this way: “They may not tell us what we want to hear, but they tell us what we need to know.” As long as that remains the case, NNI will be doing its job.

For more on NNI's history, scroll through our interactive timeline.

Read some of the first publications by NNI and Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development.

Share this