Brian Patterson (Oneida Indian Nation), the president of the United South & Eastern Tribes, addressed tribal leaders at the organization's annual conference last October.

Patterson: Bundling the Arrows

Gale Courey Toensing
2/2/12

The United South and Eastern Tribes’ motto – “Because there is strength in unity” – answers an implied question: Why should the south and eastern tribes unite?

USET President Brian Patterson says it’s urgent not only for the tribes to unite, but for tribal organizations all across the country to “bundle their arrows” to gain the strength needed to move Indian country’s agenda forward. “I think the Indian tribal organizations in their role as a voice representing the member tribes really have a great opportunity and advantage to identify the greater good and commonality for Indian country,” Patterson told Indian Country Today Media Network. He is Bear Clan Representative to the Oneida Indian Nation’s Men’s Council.

Last year in the days leading up to USET’s annual Impact week in Washington, Patterson laid out his vision for redefining the trust relationship between Indian nations and the federal government from an Indian perspective. This year in preparing for the 2012 Impact Week February 13-16, Patterson is calling on the large tribal organizations, such as the National Congress of American Indians, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, the Assembly of First Nations, and other tribal associations to unite and lead the way. “I think the organizations should really take a leadership role in leading the leaders. We should band together and put our arrows in a bundle to push a common agenda of the trust responsibility on behalf of Indian country. And I think we can focus across the board on the key areas of education, health, access to capital and commerce, infrastructure, and land into trust,” Patterson said. “While individual tribes are advancing their tribal sovereignty the organizations could come up with the concept that is expressed in the Haudenosaunee Indian culture as one bowl, one spoon.”

USET is a 43 year-old non-profit inter-tribal organization that collectively represents its 25 federally acknowledged tribes regionally and at the national level. It operates through various workgroups and committees and provides a forum for the exchange of ideas and information among tribes, agencies and governments. It’s annual report is available at here.

While indigenous tribes in the U.S. are diverse, they are more similar in their values, needs and worldview than they are different, Patterson said. One of their strongest links is the federal government’s trust responsibility. But the federal government sees the trust responsibility differently from the nations. “I think from the government’s point of view the trust responsibility is asset management. There has to be some asset to maintain otherwise there’s nothing to have a trust relationship for. But Indian country views the trust relationship on a whole different platform – it’s about the health and welfare of our people.”

While Patterson clearly articulates the obstacles that still exist in the trust relationship he also contends that Indian country needs to accept responsibility for itself. “We cannot continue to look for federal programs to help make a better life for ourselves. We need to do that for ourselves.” This is not to say that the federal government is to be let off the hook for the treaties and trust responsibility.”The promise of the treaty trust relationship is paid for in land and the sacrifices and blood of our people,” Paterson said.

He also voiced praise for the Obama administration, which “has been doing good things. Obama has reached out to Indian country more than any other president,” he said. “I’m optimistic because while we’re still in the middle of difficult times, in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity and I think Indian country is in the process of demonstrating our capabilities to take up some of the slack. For instance, we know there are restrictions on energy development in Indian country. Well, those are cross-agency issues and the agencies’ aren’t going to be able to address them individually, but if the tribes are sitting at the table, we can help determine the strategy going forward.”

The tribes bundled together have the strength to educate both the government and the public on the enormous contributions that Indian country makes to the U.S., Patterson said. “What if Indian country didn’t contribute all that it does? Consider the contributions we make from our veterans who serve in the military in the highest numbers of any demographic, to the social and economic contributions we make to the American economy, to safeguarding the sacred landscapes of this land where the bones of our people are buried,” he said. In 2010, Indian gaming generated more than $26 billion and provided more than 700,000 jobs for both Indians and non-Indians.

Patterson himself is proactive in “bundling the arrows.” As USET president serving his third two-year term, he has led the organization to develop for the first time goals and a strategic plan that will enable the organization and its 25 member tribes to stand unified on issues. He serves on the National Tribal Natural Resources Strategy Group, an organization that focuses its energy on developing a national natural resources strategy that will unite the 565 acknowledged tribes and has already unified more than 10 tribal organizations. And largely through his effort, USET and the Affiliated Tribes of the Northwest Indians signed a covenant uniting 80 tribes to work together to set priorities and achieve common goals.

Shinnecock Indian Nation Representative Lance Gumbs told ICTMN that USET has changed noticeably in the past few years. “I think the movement internally at USET is that the tribal leaders are starting to understand the economic power that we have,” Gumbs said. Shinnecock members had attended USET conferences for years as representatives of a non-recognized tribe. The nation joined USET after it was federally acknowledged in 2010.

Indian country is showcasing its progress in efforts like the Navajo Nation and Oneida Nation working collaboratively or USET and ATNI’s covenant and becoming more sophisticated in the process, Patterson said. “I see that in my role at Bluestone,” Patterson said, referring to the Bluestone Strategy Group, an economic development advisory firm for tribal leaders and decision-makers where he is a senior strategist.

“Prior to joining USET as a federally acknowledged tribe, I didn’t see a lot of unity there. At this meeting (USET’s annual conference last October), I saw a lot of tribes and tribal leaders wanting to work together in a different way. I think part of it is there’s a lot of different people involved and maybe a different mindset taking over to allow us to move in a purposeful direction,” Gumbs said.

Indian leaders will use all their skill and sophistication during Impact Week – USET’s winter meeting when tribal leaders gather in Washington to define and address Indian country’s current issues and legislative needs and meet with legislators. At the top of USET’s legislative priority list is Carcieri fix – a bill to clarify that the Interior Secretary is authorized to take land into trust for all federally acknowledged tribes, USET executive director Kitcki Carroll said. “We will continue to fight for a Carcieri fix until such time that a fix is secured,” Carroll said. Other priorities are the budget and the importance of reminding Congress “that the trust responsibility must be honored and respected,” Carroll said. “While the majority of Indian country funding falls within discretionary funding, we all know that the trust responsibility should be the furthest thing from discretionary.” And since it’s unlikely that new or additional funding is available in this economic climate, there is a great opportunity for the federal government to work with Indian country to complete no-cost actions to remove barriers and challenges that interfere and impede impinge on greater economic development success and independence, Carroll said.

Unity among the tribes and their representative tribal organizations is essential now and in the future, Patterson said. “We need to sit down and address the common good. We need to have concern not only for each other and fellow tribal nations, but we also need to have love and compassion for the generations that aren’t here yet,” Patterson said.

The road ahead is long and hard, but Indian country can travel it, Gumbs said. “I think USET has done a lot of wonderful things, but we’ve only just scratched the surface of what we can do if we put our economic power and our brain power behind it,” Gumbs said. “So many tribes have gotten into this comfort zone because they have gaming, not realizing that as Indian people in this country we are never safe. There’s always somebody trying to take away something that we’ve achieved. But I think there’s a lot of understanding among the tribal leaders now that we can’t stay silent. We have to be willing to step out of that proverbial box. We have the energy.”

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