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Native Americans Giving Back: Martha Redbone

Not every singer has a voice for blending her upbringing with an echo of mountain holler and values distilled in the South since before America was founded, but one does:  Martha Redbone.

Raised on Appalachian folk music and Piedmont blues, Martha Redbone grew up on Clinch Mountain (in Virginia), in Harlan County, KY and in Brooklyn, NY. Choctaw-Shawnee, Redbone is an unchained talent and sought after collaborator. Establishing her career in London and New York City, she has worked with legends such as Walter “Junie” Morrison (of Ohio Players and P-Funk fame) and Shola Ama (British Grammy winner).

Redbone’s music was strongly influenced by the downhome blues of fellow Kentuckians Jim Ford and Jackie DeShannon – long before her forebears Buffy Sainte-Marie and Rita Coolidge brought Indigenous concerns to rock and roll in the 1970s.

Perhaps best known for “The Garden of Love – The Songs of William Blake,” Martha recorded that album in Nashville. In it, she sets to song the poetry of William Blake, calling up old-timey, rustic Americana, with underpinnings of folk and roots music and acoustic blues, offering up “visions of coal mines, simple living and ancestors living at one with the land.”

While prior releases “Home of the Brave” and “Skintalk” (now part of the permanent collection of contemporary Native music at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI)) also explore rhythm and blues, “The Garden of Love” is considered Martha at her best, focusing on vocals and allowing her deep communion with the spirits of her ancestors. Raising her son, losing a mother and aunt, and facing other trials during the writing of this album, it was a 5-year work of art giving voice to these turbulent times. Lyrics like “C’mon, brothers and sisters, and get yourselves back to some semblance of The Garden” give comfort and meaning and appeal to plain folks hungering for a simple truth. It was voted one of the best albums of 2012.

Yet Martha’s contributions don’t stop there. She talks on indigenous rights, the role of arts in politics, and Native identity at universities, and she talks on motivation at reservation grade schools. After the infamous Red Lake shootings, Martha donated 100 “Skintalk” albums to the tribal youth council. For being an exemplary ambassador to Native and African youth for the National HIV/AIDs Partnership, she was recognized by the U.N. with a Red Ribbon Award.

Martha Redbone, pub. by NPR at bit.ly/MarthaRedbone

Martha Redbone, pub. by NPR at bit.ly/MarthaRedbone

Currently featured as a popular artist in NMAI’s exhibit, “Up Where We Belong,” Martha holds a Traditional Music Workshop annually in the United Houma Nation (LA), teaching children the music of her Choctaw and Cherokee heritage and integrating the tribe’s Houma-French language. And after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged Houma communities along the Gulf Coast, Martha single-handled generated publicity to raise awareness about the forgotten Gulf tribes, generating over $30,000. She also performed with Floyd Red Crow Westerman and Bonnie Raitt to help raise over $130,000 for the Clyde Bellecourt Scholarship Fund (allowing full-tuition for 12 Native students who have overcome adversity). Finally, as indigenous affairs consultant and creative advisor to the “Man Up Campaign,” she helps eradicate violence against women and girls.

Like Martha, National Relief Charities was there providing disaster relief for the Houma after Katrina and Gustava and Ike. We too are furthering college scholarships for motivated Native American students and supporting programs focused on domestic violence. Last year alone, we helped domestic violence programs on the reservations assist nearly 2,500 participants. National Relief Charities acknowledges Martha Redbone for steadfastly supporting causes she believes in and bringing leadership to Indian country.

“Native Americans Giving Back” is a blog series that features Native American celebrities who are giving back to Indian country and supporting the same types of causes NRC supports. The series will run periodically through year-end 2014 and feature topics from all of NRC’s regular blog writers.

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Native Americans Giving Back: Adam Beach

One man has witnessed first-hand many of the same struggles Native Youth face today, and has found a way to give back, and to give hope:  Adam Beach.

Perhaps best known for his role as Victor in the film, “Smoke Signals,” Adam Beach is an actor, producer and composer. An inspiration to many, Beach is a strong voice for Native American actors, a group underrepresented in the entertainment industry. And, he understands first-hand many of the desperate and depressing issues facing many Native Americans today.

Photo Caption:  Adam Beach, pub. at http://bit.ly/AdamBeach

Photo Caption: Adam Beach, pub. at http://bit.ly/AdamBeach

Born Saulteaux on the Dog Creek First Nation Reserve in Canada, Beach witnessed many challenges on the reservation such as poverty, sexual abuse, alcoholism – social challenges that exist in many communities on and off the reservations. In addition, when Adam was eight, both of his parents died – his mother killed by a drunk driver when she was eight months pregnant and his father accidentally drowned only months later. After this, Adam moved to Winnipeg to live with his aunt and uncle and joined the high school theatre group to have fun with his friends. When they decided to move, Adam remained and began seriously to consider acting as a career. With more than 60 Adam Beach films and TV programs dating back to 1990, his choice paid off.

Yet, it is Adam’s off-screen work that is making the biggest difference in the lives of Native Americans. He started the Adam Beach Film Institute to provide resources and training to Aboriginal youth who are interested in pursuing a career within the film industry. He also launched the Adam Beach Foundation to:

“…enhance the awareness of suicide, for the prevention of suicide and also to provide different opportunities to distract the younger generation from losing hope, from thinking that they have nowhere to go or have no ideas to put together.”

Like Adam, National Relief Charities is committed to helping Native Americans address suicide prevention, realize health and hope and live a better tomorrow. In 2013, NRC supported reservation programs for suicide prevention, domestic violence, behavioral health, substance abuse treatment, as well as youth camps, boys and girls clubs, and other programs working to support and inspire Native American youth and families toward healthy and hopeful lifestyles on the reservations.

 “Native Americans Giving Back” is a blog series that features Native American celebrities who are giving back to Indian country and supporting the same types of causes NRC supports. The series will run periodically through year-end 2014 and feature topics from all of NRC’s regular blog writers.

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Native Americans Giving Back: Buffy Sainte-Marie

When it comes to the United States, it is mostly understood that Native Americans were here first. Before it was recorded by the likes of Elvis, Barbara Streisand and Cher, Until It’s Time for You to Go was recorded first by a Native American: Buffy Sainte-Marie.

Cree singer-songwriter, Buffy Sainte-Marie, was breaking ground in the 1960s while the rest of the North American counter-culture was just beginning to wake up. According to her website, the start of Sainte-Marie’s career put her in a unique place “after the beatniks and before the hippies.” Touring colleges, reservations and concert halls throughout the 1960s, Sainte-Marie won acclaim but also undoubtedly shattered audience expectations of Native Americans. She was probably the first Native American many people experienced apart from television or film.

Even after being blacklisted by the Lyndon B. Johnson Administration, Buffy Sainte-Marie continued to gain fame internationally. She could be seen supporting grassroots and activist causes like the American Indian Movement, all the while winning an Academy Award and Golden Globe for her song, Up Where We Belong.

Buffy Sainte-Marie, pub. at http://bit.ly/BuffySaint-Marie

Buffy Sainte-Marie, pub. at http://bit.ly/BuffySaint-Marie

It was 1969 when Buffy focused her activist passion into education. Establishing the Nihewan Foundation for Native American Education, her aim was to raise self-identify and self-esteem in generations of Indian children by integrating accurate, enriching information about Native cultures into their learning. Though the Foundation and her Cradleboard project, Buffy also provides cross-cultural training among students and teachers internationally to promote an understanding of Native cultures. Two of the students Buffy sponsored went on to become tribal college presidents who are helping other students reach their full potential. By 1975, her passion spilled over into a five-year run on Sesame Street.

Over the course of her 52-year career, Buffy has earned and continues to earn numerous awards for music, education and the arts. Yet, at the forefront of all this was creating opportunity and improving recognition for Native Americans – a passion that earned her a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Indian College Fund.

Like Buffy, our American Indian Education Foundation (AIEF) shares a commitment to education and strives to create opportunity for Native youth. We believe that education is a key to the long-term challenges facing Indian country. In addition to providing scholarships for undergraduate and graduate students attending universities, tribal colleges, and vocational or technical schools, AIEF partners with Native-serving schools to support retention. Only about 20% of Native Americans who start college complete their first year, but through these partnerships, 95% of AIEF scholarship students complete freshmen year.

On this day and in thinking about Native Americans giving back, we would like to recognize Buffy Sainte-Marie for enriching the lives of Native Americans through education and non-Natives through cultural education. Her work supports not only Native American youth but also tribal futures, as well as AIEF students, partners and donors, and all who care about education.

“Native Americans Giving Back” is a blog series that features Native American celebrities who are giving back to Indian country and supporting the same types of causes NRC supports. The series will run periodically through year-end 2014 and feature topics from all of NRC’s regular blog writers.

 

 

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Native Americans Giving Back: Wes Studi

“Why don’t Native Americans help each other? We hear this question often. The answer is, they do… wealthy tribes assist other tribes, Indian gaming creates new jobs, tribes partner in sustainability projects… But, we want to bring this closer to home for our readers. NRC is launching the “Native Americans Giving Back” series to feature Native American celebrities who are philanthropists and humanitarians that care about the same causes we do – and the series starts now with our first celeb:  Wes Studi.

Credited with changing the stereotype of Native Americans in film through more than 80 diverse and nontraditional roles, Wes Studi is perhaps best known for The Last of the Mohicans, Dances With Wolves, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Geronimo: An American Legend, We Shall Remain, and Avatar, as well as TV series Streets of Laredo, The Mentalist and Hell on Wheels. An acclaimed actor, musician, author and winner of several First Americans in the Arts awards and the Santa Fe Film Festival Lifetime Achievement Award, Studi wa also inducted into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum’s Hall of Great Western Performers in 2013. Eldest son of a ranch hand, he was born in Oklahoma and spoke only Cherokee until he was 5 years old. Although he attended and graduated from an Indian boarding school, he never forgot his Native tongue.

It is fair to say that Wes started giving back publicly when he joined the U.S. Army and asked to serve in Vietnam. At one point in the Mekong Delta, he was nearly killed by friendly fire. After an honorable discharge, Wes became a political advocate for Native Americans, joining the American Indian Movement (AIM) and supporting the Wounded Knee occupation that brought global attention to the policies and conditions forced upon Native Americans in the U.S. Embracing ever more seriously his desire to be a vehicle for positive change, he then worked for the Cherokee Nation and helped start the Cherokee Phoenix, a newspaper that is still published today. Recognizing the importance of cultural ties, Wes also taught the Cherokee language at Northeastern University in Tahlequah, OK. In 1983, he began acting at The American Indian Theatre Company in Tulsa, viewing it as a healthy outlet for his feelings.

Wes Studi, pub. at http://wesleystudi.com/bio/

Wes Studi, pub. at http://wesleystudi.com/bio/

When we look at Wes Studi, the humanitarian, he is actively giving back to Native communities through the use of his natural talents. This begins with actively encouraging next-gen filmmakers and actors through mentoring and apprenticeship programs. It continues with regularly contributing to nutrition and health concerns similar to those NRC supports. For instance, Wes uses his acting talent to help organizations get critical messages to tribes throughout the U.S. and Canada.

In a PSA for the CDC’s Traditional Foods Project, Wes encouraged reclaiming traditional foods as a way of bringing balance to diabetes in Native American cultures. In a PSA for the I.H.S., Wes spoke about flu prevention and treatment and the need for flu vaccines. Did you know the risk of H1N1 flu is four times higher for Native Americans? Wes also supports the Dreamcatcher Charitable Foundation, a Canadian charity focused on developing youth as future leaders in First Nation communities.

We congratulate Wes Studi for his success as a Native American actor and as a humanitarian in support of Native American peoples, cultures and causes. And, we hope this first topic has been enlightening for our readers. If you’re a fan of Adam Beach, Martha Redbone or Buffy Sainte-Marie, Graham Greene or Jana Mashonee, or Chaske Spencer and Kiowa Gordon of Twilight fame, stay tuned for more!!

“Native Americans Giving Back” is a blog series that features Native American celebrities who are giving back to Indian country and supporting the same types of causes NRC supports. The series will run periodically through year-end 2014 and feature topics from all of NRC’s regular blog writers.

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An Interview with Dana Lone Hill

“It takes a thousand voices to tell a single story,” but sometimes a single voice can tell a story too.  Native American author Dana Lone Hill is one of those voices and now is your chance to win an autographed copy of her new book, “Pointing With Lips.” Hurry, the contest ends October 16! For rules of entry and how to win, check out our Thousand Voices book contest page.

A powerful voice from Indian country, Dana Lone Hill recently released her first novel, “Pointing With Lips,” which is set on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Dana granted us an interview to share with readers everywhere. This Lakota author is an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Our Q&A follows.

Pub. by CreateSpace, www.createspace.com/4670234

Pub. by CreateSpace, www.createspace.com/4670234Dana, in your words, what is the book about?Dana, in your words, what is the book about?

1. Dana, in your words, what is the book about?
Everyday life on the rez. Everyday struggles. Everyday laughter. Most media is about sadness. We as Indians get through the struggle with laughter. I want people to see that’s who we are, not the romanticized people of Hollywood or the pitiful stories the media portrays us as, but real people.

2.  In an email you shared with me, “my heart wrote [the book].” Why do you say that?
First, when I wrote the book, I was incarcerated and awaiting sentencing. I thought to myself, “I’ve done these things, been a writer, and got my voice out there. I am known reservation-wide.” Yet, I was sitting in jail, and thinking, “I’m not going down like this. This is not who I am as a Lakota woman. I have so much I am capable of because I am a Lakota woman and came up around strong Lakota women.” I knew that as soon as I hit freedom, I was going to get my voice out there, and I have.

Second, the family in the book is not my family specifically. They are a family I made up and love. They exist in my heart.

3.  How much of the book is based on real life experience?
It’s all fiction. A few things in the book are real-life experiences, similarities to certain people or certain stories but not a lot.

Some parts of it are not sugarcoated; they are things that need to be out there so people understand they happen in this day and age. For example, the story about alcoholism is out there already. However, what is not out there is how It impacts 100% of the reservation. Somehow, some way, everyone is impacted (either someone died, went to prison, or is sick from it). No one raises their hand to say they were impacted by abuse connected to alcohol. Things like that have repercussions for the rest of your life. I wanted to touch base on the children, what happens to them because of the alcoholism, because they are our children, “wakanyeja” (gift from God).

4.  What are the most important Lakota aspects you bring into the book?
I think some of the things are that we never forget where we came from and how grateful we are to still be here.

We have to know our history in order to move forward. Our Elders tell us all the time what happened to them or their Elders. We can’t forget our history or get over it. It’s about going forward from it. We’re still here. My kids hear that every day.

I also included in the book a lot of real-life historical points, such as the Black Hills gold issue, the beginning of the AIM Wounded Knee occupation, and the boarding school issue. These things are significant in Lakota history and today.

5.  Are there aspects specific to life on Pine Ridge you hope people will “get”?
I hope they realize what a wonderful people we are. I am not Sincere – the main character. A lot of people confuse me with her (the smiles, the quips), but she is fictional and stronger than I am. Maybe Sincere is who I would want to be.

6.  What is your favorite part of the book?
My favorite part is when the family has their cookout, as dramatic as it was. They had a lot of drama. And I’ve been to cookouts like that.

Another favorite part would be Sincere’s realization of what she needs to do.

7.  What was the hardest part of the book for you to write, and why?
The hardest part to write was Sincere’s flashback of when she was a little girl at a party. Although what happened to Sincere didn’t happen to me, I remember being at parties and feeling fear. I took a week off from writing that part.

8.  How different would this book be for Native American and non-Native readers?
Native Americans from back home and from other reservations are supportive, because I’m not hiding anything about life on the rez. I might exaggerate a little bit but I’m not hiding anything.

Non-Native reviews are good too in the sense of understanding what we go through on a daily basis. These readers learn more about how we live and that we know how to live in a poor world.

By writing the book, my dream came true. One message I hope people get is that we know how to live when we are poor, so let’s use that same hustle to move us forward. Jayson Brave Heart first brought up the hustle to me.

9.  What do you most want readers to know about you?
Above all else, I am a mom with four children (three sons and a daughter).

I also want people to know that hundreds of people stay on the reservation and try to make it a better place. I have cousins and friends there and nothing but respect for them. They are wonderful people and the most supportive of everybody.

10.  What suggestions do you have for other first-time novelists on or off the reservation?
Just never give up!!

I used to write when no one read me. I wrote for myself. I had a blog and slowly people started reading it. I wrote on napkins and anything I could get ahold of just to keep going.

Dana Lone Hill

Dana Lone Hill

*** Books by Dana Lone Hill:
Dana’s book, “Pointing With Lips,” is available at https://www.createspace.com/4670234. You can also purchase it at the Sioux Nation Shopping Center in South Dakota, telephone 605-867-5183.
A sequel to “Pointing With Lips” is coming out around Christmas this year.
“Hangover Soup” is a compilation of short stories co-authored by Dana and Jayson Brave Heart. It is coming out in 2015.

*** Author’s Bio:  Dana Lone Hill is an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe from the Pine Ridge Reservation. Her award-winning weekly column, “Rez in The City,” chronicles life off the reservation and in urban America. Dana currently lives in Red Wing, MN. Be sure to check out her blog and follow her on Twitter at @justarezchick.

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$554M Navajo Settlement: A Win but Not a Windfall

On May 29, 2014, the Navajo Nation Tribal Council voted to accept a $554 million settlement from the U.S. government for claims dating back to 1946 – starting the clock on a 120-day process of payment earmarked for September. It is and is not surprising that it has taken until yesterday for this news to hit the mainstream media, even though the tribe held a signing ceremony that published on YouTube on June 6, 2014. This kind of delay seems sadly common when it comes to news about Indian country. I hope this latest news will inspire the media to keep a closer watch on the tribes, as there is much positive change in the works today.

With the news now widespread, the Navajo Nation has made history in winning the largest settlement of its kind in U.S. history. We all need to remember, of course, that the $554 million is not a windfall but rather an attempt to offset tribal losses incurred due to federal mismanagement of tribal trust lands and leases. These leases involved farming, grazing, oil and gas development, mining and housing. Back in 2006 when this claim was first filed, the total loss to the Navajo Nation was valued at more than $900 million.

The Navajo Nation has since taken on significant responsibility for the leasing of nearly 14 million acres of its tribal lands and has a process in place should further disputes arise with the federal government. This is another positive step toward tribal sovereignty and self-determination.

President Shelly has stated there will be no spending plan but rather a 5-year Navajo investment plan. The tribe is creating an official investment committee (aka task force) to explore their best alternatives and options for investment. As of the 2010 Census, the Navajo Reservation had 300,048 tribal members inhabiting their 27,000 acres of tribal trust land. There is no shortage of options for investment. Challenges abound with housing, water, roads, electricity and other utilities, and general infrastructure, as well as a shortage of jobs and poverty ranging from 40-50%.

Andrew Sandler, a tribal attorney for the Navajo Nation, echoed the investment sentiment, saying some tribal members suggest the Navajo settlement funds be used for business development or put aside for future generations. The first investment committee meeting is reportedly scheduled for October.  We know from experience that such planning and implementation will take a while, as will seeing the fruits of the investments, but we look forward to seeing what the settlement becomes.

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History of Native American Day

Add Your Voice - Tell Your StoryIn many parts of the U.S., Native American Day is celebrated on the fourth Friday in September. Although not a “national” holiday, Native American Day is a time set aside by individual states to honor, recognize, and appreciate the rich cultural heritage and significant contributions of the indigenous people in their respective states.

One of the earliest advocates for a day to honor Native Americans was Dr. Arthur Caswell Parker. A Cattaraugus Seneca Indian, historian, anthropologist, and author from New York state, Parker’s great-uncle was secretary to Ulysses S. Grant and the first Native to serve as Commissioner of Indian Affairs for the Department of the Interior. Dr. Parker founded several Indian rights organizations, including the National Congress of American Indians and others. Parker persuaded the Boy Scouts of America to set aside a day for “First Americans,” which they did from 1912 to 1915.

According to our research, the rest of the timeline for Native American Day goes something like this:

  • 1916: Possibly the first time an American Indian Day was formally designated in the U.S., when New York’s governor set the second Saturday in May for the observance.
  • 1919: The Illinois state legislature passed an act similar to New York’s.
  • 1935: The governor of Massachusetts issued a proclamation naming the day for observing American Indian Day each year.
  • 1976: President Ford proclaimed a week in October as “Native American Awareness Week.” Since then, the President and Congress have observed a day, a week, or a month each year in honor of the American Indian and Alaska Native peoples. And no coincidence here… 1976 marked the U.S. bicentennial.
  • 1977: “Indigenous Peoples Day” was first proclaimed in Geneva, Switzerland, by representatives of Native nations at the U.N.’s International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas. The declaration was praised by indigenous peoples around the world.
  • 1989: The South Dakota legislature declared 1990 as the “Year of Reconciliation” for Native Americans and changed Columbus Day to Native American Day at that time. South Dakota is home to 9 tribes.
  • 1992: Berkeley, CA followed suit and designated 1992 as the “Year of Indigenous People” and stopped celebrating Columbus Day, despite some local criticism.
  • 1994: The Tennessee state General Assembly established the fourth Monday in September as “American Indian Day.”
  • 1998: Some 30 years after Ronald Reagan signed a resolution calling for “American Indian Day” on the fourth Friday in September, the California Assembly declared “Native American Day” an official state holiday.

Several related holidays have also been declared in honor of Native American peoples. Since 1994, August 9 has marked the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, honoring indigenous populations around the world and including Native Americans. Since 2009, thanks to President Obama, the Friday immediately following Thanksgiving Day is American Indian Heritage Day. This is an apt remembrance given the Native contributions on and leading up to the pilgrim’s first Thanksgiving. And each year, November is American Indian & Alaska Native Heritage Month at the National Museum of the American Indian (Smithsonian).

Further, while the several Presidential proclamations did not create a national observance, the 1976 act did allow each federal agency to develop their own ways of celebrating and honoring Native American heritage. For instance, from 2003 to 2010, the Office of the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs in the Department of the Interior has observed these themes:

2002 – “Celebrating Our past, Celebrating Our Future”
2003 – “A Celebration of the American Indian Spirit”
2004 – “Native Nations: Continuing in the New Millennium”
2005 – “Knowledge of the Past/Wisdom for the Future”
2006 – “Tribal Diversity: Weaving Together Our Traditions”
2007 – “Keeping in Step to the Heartbeat of the Drum as We Unite as One”
2008 – “Tribes Facing Challenges: In Unity, Transforming Hope into Strengths”
2009 – “Pride in Our Heritage with Gratitude to Our Elders”
2010 – “Life is Sacred – Celebrate Healthy Native Communities”
2011 – “Celebrating Our Ancestors and Leaders of Tomorrow”
2012 – “Serving Our People, Serving Our Nations, Honoring Those That Served Our Country”
2013 – “Guiding Our Destiny with Heritage and Tradition”

It’s good to see that recognition for the contributions of Native American tribes, cultures, and contributions is growing. In thinking about this, two things came to mind:

1. What are the major contributions Native Americans have made?
2. What does Native American Day mean to Native Americans?

We’d love to hear any thoughts you have on these questions. Anyone?

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National POW/MIA Recognition Day

pow-mia-dayHow do I as a civilian even begin to talk about this? It’s a heavy thing and a lot to wrap my head around… the meaning of National POW/MIA Recognition Day for Native Americans.

A few days ago, I was walking in the rain with my dog on a cold morning on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation. I couldn’t help but complain and think, “This is miserable.” Then, I got to thinking about Native Americans fighting in wars from the American Revolution to Afghanistan and Iraq. In my head, I pictured things like the smoke and heat of Little Big Horn and ambushes in the humid jungles of Viet Nam. On the ground, I could see the dead and dying. But, what about those men and women who seemingly turned to ghosts on the battlefield? Their families left to wonder about the fate of a relative who became a prisoner of war or went missing in action. These are truly miserable things.

Yet, while thinking about these military members now listed as POW/MIA, another thought persisted. While Native Americans may make up a small fraction of the near 2000 service members still unaccounted for from the Viet Nam War, the true number of American Indian POWs is significantly higher.

POW-MIA RecognitionIt only takes one Google search to see what I mean. For example, if you Google “Native American Prisoners of War,” you will see multiple links leading to the same place:  the 2010 TED Talk by Aaron Huey about his experience of photographing poverty on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

In his opening dialogue, Huey refers to Pine Ridge as “Prisoner of War Camp Number 334.” I’ve heard others use this expression before, but I’ve never quite been able to figure out where it originated. Despite how the name may have come about, one thing is clear:  history has designated many Indian reservations as POW camps, whether officially or not.

One thing from Huey’s talk struck me as staggeringly powerful, and moreover, staggeringly sad:

“The last chapter in any successful genocide is the one in which the oppressor can remove their hands and say, ‘My God, what are these people doing to themselves? They’re killing each other. They’re killing themselves while we watch them die.’ This is how we came to own these United States. This is the legacy of manifest destiny. Prisoners are still born into prisoner-of-war camps long after the guards are gone.”

On this National POW/MIA Recognition Day, which is September 19th, I ask that you remember all U.S. military personnel – especially those declared as Prisoners of War or Missing in Action. And, as you remember them, I ask that you remember Native Americans too. Remember all the losses and sacrifices they made at the hands of the U.S. to become the nation we know today.

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What is Tribal Sovereignty?

Lately, there has been much focus on sovereignty, a huge issue for tribes. And this is important in that it can perhaps bring to light the unique relationships that exist between the United States and the Indian nations.

What is Tribal Sovereignty - Rez-Other-Navajo Landscape 11This starts with the need to understand just what “sovereignty” is and how that meaning is interpreted, for sovereignty is a complex juggernaut of legal and ethical issues involving Native American tribes and state governments, as well as the federal government.  Consider this:

  • For many tribes, sovereignty means the ability to manage their own affairs and exist as nations that are recognized as having control over their own destinies. It means to live unencumbered by the yoke of an outside power determining and re-determining their fate. Unfortunately, this has been the nature of the relationship between Native American tribes and the United States since the very earliest treaties.
  • For the federal government,  U.S. tribal sovereignty means that Native American tribes are “domestic dependent nations” that exist within the boundaries of the U.S. and that they are wards of the U.S., even though they may operate and manage some internal tribal affairs. From the U.S. viewpoint, tribes do not exist as truly sovereign and independent nations.

Because of this disconnect about what tribal sovereignty means, there are those non-Natives that feel Native Americans are “super citizens” or have special rights that they themselves do not have. This could not be further from the truth. Historically, Native Americans have had to fight tooth and nail for recognition and to compel the United States to live up to its treaty obligations.

A disconnect also exists in the way various tribes may conduct business. Throughout history, some tribes have been selected to act “as sovereign government entities similar to states within our federal system.” Yet, other tribes have not been given this opportunity. So, the  levels of experience tribes have in independently managing their affairs varies greatly due to extreme economic and social injustices placed upon these tribes by the U.S.

There are, however, both positives and negatives to the issue of tribal sovereignty:

  • Positives:  To allow tribes to live and exist as truly sovereign nations is to give them back dominion they had before the arrival of Europeans. It allows them to manage and control their own destinies and to operate without incursions into their legal and business affairs by the States.
  • Negatives:  After centuries of conflict and relocation and removal and assimilation, many Native American tribes no longer have rights to the natural resources in their original homelands. Just how does a tribal nation that has become dependent on federal assistance now become self-sufficient and self-determining in the truest sense of the word? Not just internally for select tribal affairs, but in all aspects of tribal management.
1st woman Chief, Eastern Band of Cherokee, http://bit.ly/JoyceDuggan

1st woman Chief, Eastern Band of Cherokee, http://bit.ly/JoyceDuggan

Given these realities, how do we move forward, define and enact sovereignty for all Native American tribes? That is a very complex and open-ended question. Perhaps we need to start by agreeing on what “sovereignty” means. Then move forward from that definition to define what it means for the tribes and for the U.S. Yet, even the definition of “sovereignty” is a complex quandary. As a former chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee stated:

“Many people still have a hard time today understanding sovereignty. What does this sovereignty of Indian nations mean? I have a hard time with it too because we’re not sovereign in this nation. If we were sovereign in this nation we would not have to depend on federal government dollars. We would not have to go to the state for gaming approvals. We would be able to live independently in our own nation, which is what we were doing in 1838 at the time of the removal.”

Thus, we need to educate tribal members as well as non-Natives about what sovereignty truly means. An ongoing discussion of tribal sovereignty can perhaps define, through new legal precedents, the way that the federal government and the states can interact with tribes… can perhaps project a clearer understanding of why sovereignty is important, and how it does not encroach on the rights of other Americans but rather complements the very ideal on which the U.S. was founded – independence.

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The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934

In my recent blog post on Black Elk, a holy man and healer of the Oglala Sioux, I mentioned how the early reservations were before the Indian Reorganization Act… no food, inferior shelter, meager provisions and uncaring superintendents. In today’s topic, I explain the changes brought about by the Indian Reorganization Act and how they furthered tribal lands and economies and labor.

President Obama - Social JusticeA policy set in motion by John Collier, then newly appointed Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 28, 1934, the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (the Reorganization) addressed the failures caused by the Dawes Severalty Act.

The Dawes Act of 1887 (Dawes) was a misguided attempt to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream white culture in the United States. It broke up the reservations, allotted lands to individual tribal members, and sent children to boarding schools where they were punished for speaking their Native languages. As you can imagine, Dawes had disastrous results for Native American populations everywhere and actually furthered the already desperate situation faced by many tribes at the time.

The Reorganization attempted to reverse these devastating effects and, at the same time, give Native Americans a chance at a “New Deal” that ran parallel to many other programs Roosevelt was creating for all Americans, programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration.

The Meriam Report that came out in 1928 outlined in great detail the extreme failure of Dawes… how since 1887 the Native-owned tribal land base had decreased from 137 million to only 47 million acres… how poverty and hunger issues had actually increased… how the loss of culture due to the boarding schools had accelerated too. John Collier and President Franklin Roosevelt both found this report to be a strong argument for immediate and much-needed reform in the area of Indian Affairs.

From 1934 until 1945 when John Collier left his position, the Bureau of Indian Affairs moved forward with many of these reforms and through the different sections of the Indian Reorganization Act promoted a more positive approach to the issues facing the tribes. To be succinct, the Reorganization:

  • Ended the allotment of tribal lands and extended the trust period for existing allotments
  • Recognized tribal governments and encouraged tribes to adopt constitutions
  • Prohibited lands from being taken away from tribes without their consent (something Dawes DID NOT do)
  • Gave the tribes the power to manage their assets, which consisted mainly of land at the time

LaborJohn Collier truly cared that conditions were horrible for most Native Americans and he wanted something better for them. To this end, John Collier championed the Indian Reorganization Act as essential to the survival and existence of Native Americans as a people. He saw that no effort was being made to give Native Americans a chance to improve their own situation. And he believed that giving them the power to govern themselves locally and to manage their resources and assets would further the self-sufficiency that he felt Native Americans (and all people) needed to maintain economic, physical, and spiritual well-being. An example was the Collier-led creation called the ECW (Emergency Conservation Work), a Native American counterpart to the Civilian Conservation Corps. By the time it ended in 1943, the ECW trained and employed over 85,000 Native Americans to utilize land and resources and work on their tribal homelands.

There exist, I feel, both successes and shortcomings in the Indian Reorganization Act. It was a much-needed improvement in the approach the United States had with tribes before and after the Reorganization was established, but it was by no means perfect. Before, Dawes was awful and made life so much worse for Native Americans, but after the Reorganization, the U.S. regressed to its policy of termination and relocation. So, although not perfect in its scope or enactment, the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 was a good beginning.

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