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Native Americans Enjoy Autonomy, But Land Use, Sovereignty Questions Persist

  • Adam Phillips

The National Congress of American Indians convenes in Washington, D.C. to meet with legislators and policymakers.

The National Congress of American Indians convenes in Washington, D.C. to meet with legislators and policymakers.

Tribal leaders meet in Washington to strategize, meet with legislators

A few blocks from the U.S. Capitol and the White House, a Washington hotel was abuzz with activity, as delegates to the National Congress of American Indians Executive Council Session met to network with each other, and to meet with legislators and policymakers.

Leaders and activisits from many of America's 526 federally recognized Native American tribes discussed strategies for lobbying Congress and the Obama administration on a host of political, economic and social issues, including questions of sovereignty for American Indian nations and tribes.

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Janice Mabee of the Sauk-Suiattle tribe of Washington State said she came to press lawmakers to return the forestlands where her tribe once lived. The lands were taken away during the 1930s when their value for timber became known.

"And we really would like to have our land back," she said. Mabee added her tribe would not log the land, which she says is not being used at this time. Her tribe wants to build homes for tribal members on it. "We only have 19 homes right now and we have 200 tribal members that are homeless. So we need homes for our families and our children to grow up in."

Limited sovereignty

Indian tribes in the United States enjoy the legal status of autonomous nations, with their own rules of governance. Agreements between tribes and the U.S. government are called treaties, just like pacts between the United States and other sovereign nations. Still, legal questions over land use and the limits of Indian sovereignty remain in dispute.

For example, before European settlers arrived, the Mohawk Indians lived for centuries in the area now bisected by the U.S.-Canadian border. They complain that, while a treaty allows their members to pass freely across the frontier, new anti-terrorism restrictions issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have restricted their ability to do so.

Many Indians, like Robert Holden - a Choctaw-Chicasaw Indian and the deputy director of the National Congress of American Indians - also claim that treaties guarantee them a right to health care even if non-Indians do not have that right.

Holden said that when his tribe moved to a reservation, giving up its ancestral homeland and the traditional herbal medicines available there, the government promised to provide for their health and well-being in exchange. But Holden said the government has never fully met those obligations.

"Beef, Blankets and Medicine"

"At that time it was beef, blankets, pharmaceuticals, those sort of things, that kept us alive, were never delivered at that time," Holden said. Today, such aid is administered by the Indian Health Service of the U.S. government, which funds clinics and other facilities on Native American lands.

"Just because you have a clinic, if it's not fully staffed, if it doesn't have adequate supplies, if it doesn't have x-rays and machines to diagnose problems, it's a band-aid," said Holden, who cited a statistic that the average federal prisoner gets twice as much in health care as native peoples. "There's a trust responsibility the U.S. government undertook as a signatory to these treaties that's still in effect. We call for enforcement."

Byron Dorgan, a U.S. Senator from North Dakota, where many American Indians live, spoke at the meeting. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, he acknowledged the U.S. government has obligations to America's first peoples.

"Our country made promises and we should keep them," he said. "American Indians …are the first Americans, and too often, they live in Third World conditions…in education, health care, housing and a range of areas, where better and more investment is needed."

Being counted

That investment usually takes the form of federal funds designated for specific programs. The amount of funding is largely based on population figures and economic data gathered by a constitutionally-mandated census the federal government conducts every ten years. The 2010 Census is just getting under way. If fewer community members are counted, they risk getting less federal and state aid.

Arlan Melendez, the tribal chairman of Nevada's Reno Sparks Indian Colony, said his tribe was often undercounted by 50 percent or more before 2000. Members didn't trust the non-Indian census workers who came to their homes to ask questions about household residents, income and other personal matters.

"You see a non-Indian coming to the door, you think it's the tax collector or someone coming to shut off your water." But, in 2000, Melendez's tribal government teamed up with the Census Bureau to hire local Native Americans to go door to door. "And then you explain to them how it's really a benefit to them as far as funding. And once they understood that, most of our tribe actually participated," Melendez said. He added that over 90 percent of his tribe filled out the form in 2000, and predicts that the 2010 Census will get an even better response from American Indians.

Controversies over Native American rights and demands are likely to continue. But there will always be a larger issue at stake in the U.S. government's relationship with Native Americans, said Daniel Inouye, the long-serving U.S. senator from Hawaii whose speech at the National Congress of American Indians was well received. "We have done things that we should be ashamed of… and I believe we have a lot to do overcome that shame."