Every now and then, somebody asks me why I share space in my weekly column, "How Did I Miss That?," with my Republican cousin Ray Sixkiller. I’ll give the answer I always give before moving into the subject of this column, which is pretty much the same thing. I am an Oklahoma Cherokee, and that means I have lots of cousins who are Republicans. I am also old enough to remember when Republicans played a constructive role in government.
Oklahoma has a complicated history that even many Indians do not understand. It became a state in 1907, cobbled together from Indian Territory (consisting of the Five Tribes plus the Osage) and Oklahoma Territory, which contained the reservations of numerous other tribes, including virtually all of the surviving Indians from the Republic of Texas, which had been the state of Texas since 1845. Texas has another colorful and little known history, having been part of other US states (New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and Wyoming) and Mexican states (Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas).
For a Cherokee, even outside of Oklahoma, the Trail Where They Cried is part of our blood memory. Those who did not walk it still lived through the upheaval, the disruption of the clans, the frantic efforts to protect the sacred fire. I did not know as a child that all of the Five Tribes (and many others) walked their own trails of tears with greater or lessor degrees of coercion.
The major compensation for the Trail of Tears was ironclad assurance in the removal treaties that land forcibly “traded” to the Five Tribes would never become part of a US state without the consent of those tribes. Relying on that ironclad assurance, the Five Tribes all functioned as republics defined by geography. Anybody who committed a federal crime on Indian land was shipped off to Ft. Smith, Arkansas, to answer in federal court. Indian law governed Indian land, and the forms were quite similar to US states.
When statehood was in the air, the leaders of the Five Tribes called a constitutional convention, and drafted the Constitution of the State of Sequoyah, a map of which appears on the cover of my first book, Sequoyah Rising. It would have been almost all of Indian Territory—the Five Tribes lands but not the Osage lands.
The politics of Sequoyah were not doable, and only part of the reason was racism. The eastern states were not happy with power shifting westward, and the Sequoyah/Oklahoma issue came up at the same time as New Mexico and Arizona. Admitting Sequoyah would have meant at least two new western states, because Oklahoma Territory was not going away, and a political tussle about the Osage Nation, where the BIA had allowed oil exploration since 1896.
When the Oklahoma constitutional convention was held, there was substantial overlap with the delegates to the Sequoyah convention, and the resulting document was pretty similar. The point of this short history lesson is that the men (in those days, always men) who led the Five Tribes led the proposed state of Sequoyah and led the eastern half of what became the actual state of Oklahoma.
Naturally, there was tension between the settlers and the Indians, but in much of the state in 1907, the Indians were part of the establishment. That’s ancient history, and everybody’s colorblind now, right?
Well, Cousin Ray Sixkiller and I have been observing the race to succeed Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn. One of the leading contenders is T.W. Shannon, who goes by his initials because his first name is Tahrohon. His father is Chickasaw and his mother is African-American, and he is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation. If elected, he’ll be the first Indian in the Senate since Ben Nighthorse Campbell, and part of a short list of Indians who ever served in that body in addition to Campbell: Robert Owen (Cherokee, who also ran for president) and Charles Curtis (Kaw, who was also elected vice president).
Indian self-determination is the most enlightened Indian policy the United States has ever had. Yet it is still plagued by funding problems and existential issues.
The poor state of roads and bridges in Indian country is well-documented, and all too familiar to tribal citizens who face impassable roads during storms, rough dirt roads that are the only routes to take children to school, and bridges that may only be accessible seasonally. The lack of road safety features result in crash injuries and death more often in Indian Country than anywhere else in the United States. Decrepit infrastructure has hindered economic development and stifled job growth in many tribal communities.
On April 29, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx put forward the Obama Administration’s transportation bill, “Grow America Act,” which has the construction industry, labor leaders and transportation policy advocates praising the effort to stimulate congressional action on needed investment in the nation’s deteriorating road, bridge, and rail networks. The proposal reflects some of Indian Country’s transportation needs, but falls short of the commitment required to reduce the historical funding inequities that have left many tribal roads systems stuck in the mud. Moreover, the viability of the Obama Administration’s proposal depends upon Congress adopting tax reform measures that generate new revenue to shore up the depleted Highway Trust Fund -- a big presumption given partisan gridlock in Washington.
Most Indian tribes operate their own transportation departments with funding received through the Highway Trust Fund, and these tribal transportation programs are crucial to providing safe and reliable roads, bridges and transit services. The effectiveness of such programs is essential to stimulating commerce, job creation and economic development in Indian Country.
Representatives from Indian country have been working to build momentum for tribal transportation legislation that boosts funding and further empowers tribes to transform dangerous and deficient roads and bridges into transportation networks that can safely provide tribal citizens better access to services, resources and commerce.
The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the Intertribal Transportation Association and the newly-formed Tribal Transportation Unity Caucus have linked tribes and tribal organizations in an effort to develop and promote the “Tribal Transportation Unity Act,” a proposal for comprehensive tribal transportation legislation. This tribal coalition presented their proposal to key transportation and infrastructure committees in the Congress the week before Secretary Foxx delivered his.
The Tribal Unity proposal urges the United States to deepen its commitment to infrastructure investment and transportation services in Indian Country through substantial funding increases as well as terms that provide tribal governments greater authority to plan, construct and operate transportation programs to meet tribal needs. The Obama Administration’s “Grow America Act” reflects some of these priorities, but fails to contemplate the level of investment or the breadth of tribal authority contained in the Tribal Unity Act legislation.
The most significant challenge facing tribes is the lack of adequate funding to meet the overwhelming and documented need. This Congress has objected to increasing investment in transportation when revenues from its sole funding source—the federal gas tax—are declining.
Indians of all nations are skeptical of the federal government. This is why, even though most tribal societies practiced capital punishment in one form or another, tribal governments have not rushed to opt in to the federal death penalty.
For those of us who grew up watching Rod Serling’s classic science fiction series, The Twilight Zone, there was a memorable 1962 episode, “To Serve Man.”
Cliven Bundy’s dispute with the Bureau of Land Management has brought the Western Shoshone Nation and the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley back into focus.
John Winthrop, a wealthy Puritan lawyer and would-be theologian, might be styled a founder of “American exceptionalism.” It was his sermon, A Model of Christian Charity, that contained the line made famous in modern times by President Ronald Reagan, “we must consider that we shall be as
The word “indigenous” has become ever present in the way that most people now tend to speak, think, and write about the nations and peoples that were living in this hemisphere when the monarchs of Western Christendom first made their invasive landfalls in the 15th and later centuries.
The world is moving forward on Indigenous Rights, yet the Supreme Court of the United States is moving backward. In 2010, the United States joined the United Nations in supporting the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which declares:
After being ignored for nearly six decades the Grindstone Indian Rancheria, located in Glenn County, California, will receive its own representative on the Stony Creek Joint Unified School District Board of Education in Elk Creek, California.
Our Creator, Wakan Tanka, endowed our Lakota people with life and liberty. As Sitting Bull said, “We are free. We choose our own path.” We Lakota established the Lakota Nation, Oceti Sakowin or Seven Council Fires.
Every few decades it seems that Indian country has new concepts that it adopts that become the backbone for how we talk about ourselves. Those concepts usually seem to be about how we frame our relationships as Indian people to the dominant society, or more specifically to the federal government. They often mirror whatever the current policy regime happens to be. For the last 40 years we have spoken in terms of self-determination and sovereignty. Now “good governance” seems to be our new buzzwords.
A few weeks ago I attended a conference on that very topic at a prominent law school. It was organized by some prominent Native law scholars and academics, people highly regarded for their brilliant work in the fields of Indian law and Native American studies. Sadly, the conference was only one day long and could easily have filled two or three days with presentations. The presenter list read like a who’s who of people that have written influential policy papers, law articles, and books on topics related to tribal governance.
But there was something that stood out about the topics they were talking about and the kind of work many of them are doing: the presentations seemed to have a heavy emphasis on economic development. How to best maximize economic development; good self-government for better economic development; attracting business to the reservations; these were the kinds of things being talked about under the umbrella of good Native governance. It was as though good Native governance means good economic development.
What was missing, it seemed to me, were any critical perspectives. Possible critical topics that could have been included: the problem of tribal disenrollment in gaming tribes; the environmental repercussions of resource extraction on reservation lands; the dangers of hydraulic fracking to reservation communities; income disparity in Indian communities. Here’s one: how about negotiating the philosophical differences between capitalism and indigenous worldviews in economic development projects?
The very nature of capitalism is its commitment to unending economic growth (which means unending resource exploitation). It doesn’t recognize limits. It is a reflection of the Western (civilized) never-ending imperative, always wanting more: more land, more growth, more money, more technology, more power. The commitment to values based on profit. This paradigm is what caused our ancestors to lose their lands and what is causing indigenous peoples in other parts of the world to lose their lands in this globalized economy. Capitalism is wrapped up in the language of civilization, disguised as the desire for a better, easier life. It is responsible for a changing climate, for increasing global poverty, human rights violations and war. It is the big trickster of our time—it is coyote in his modern day manifestation.
Capitalism as a way of life is imposed as a civilizing technique of the colonizing American government, especially during the eras of assimilation and the Indian Reorganization Act. The goals of self-government under the IRA were envisioned primarily as a business creation and management regime, tribal governments were organized as corporations. This was in response to the poverty that resulted from the miserable failure of allotment (and arguably, all the land theft and cultural disruption before that).
I expect Utah is as much a cesspool of corruption as Texas, because that happens in one party states. This is not a partisan comment directed at Republican Utah.