Patterson to tribes: Adopt an Indian definition of ‘self-determination’
ONEIDA NATION HOMELANDS, N.Y. – Strengthening tribal sovereignty and intertribal economic development at home, and promoting tribal cultures in the global arena, may sound like an ambitious agenda, but somebody’s got to do it.
Brian Patterson, Bear Clan representative to the Oneida Indian Nation of New York’s Men’s Council and president of United South and Eastern Tribes Inc., has volunteered for the job.
After a busy two-year term as USET president, he was re-elected to serve a second term during the nonprofit organization’s annual meeting in Nashville at the end of September.
Prior to his election as president in 2006, he served as USET co-chair and later as chairman of its Culture and Heritage Committee.
The wealth of human and cultural resources in Indian country can move the nations toward true, Indian-defined self-determination, he told Indian Country Today.
“We have all the qualifications to take our seat at the United Nations – our cultures, our languages, our land bases, our communities. We will only continue to be ‘domestic dependent sovereigns’ as long as we allow that to define us.”
Indian country has progressed remarkably during the past several decades, but tribal leaders almost everywhere say that each step forward and each advance in prosperity also brings more pressure from states and courts to rein in tribal success.
Patterson said the nations need to work together to shrug off the negative aspects of the legacy of colonialism – both physical and mental – that keep them from realizing their full potential.
“We need to lift those locks of oppression, those chains of mindset that have gripped us for hundreds of years.”
But economic success alone is not enough, he said.
“It’s not enough to have a strong internal policy that allows for business to develop and thrive and attract qualified and quality business to Indian country. That’s not enough. We also need to create the foundation that will serve the seventh generation. And the foundation is good housing for your people, good health care, and good education to create an educated work force. And we also need to escape all the social entrapments of alcoholism and the effects of 200 years of poverty.”
During USET’s annual meeting, he presented a list of goals and initiatives that he hopes will be adopted at the organization’s next meeting in Washington in February.
The goals cover four broad areas: evaluate USET’s structure, expand its presence in Washington and its role as a tribal information resource, and promote Indian sovereignty and culture.
One of his proposed initiatives is to host an annual economic development and sovereignty conference in Washington.
“The problem is there are tons of conferences every year, so what’s going to make this one unique? I think it needs to be tribally driven. Doing business in Indian country is not the same as the bottom line for Fortune 500 companies,” he said.
“We need to balance the tribes’ cultural perspectives with sound business practices. I think that’s a big stumbling block for tribes. I think politics get intertwined with business and I think some business practices actually act counter to cultural values within tribes. There are several layers to it. We need to combine sound business and sound cultural practice with good governance.”
Many of the large economic conferences feature non-Indian experts in finance, banking, accounting, the law and other matters involved with doing business.
“Other interests seem to drive tribal businesses. What I think is required is strong tribal leadership with a vision, and I think that’s what would set this conference apart. While we’d bring in these financial players and allow them to express their interests, the tribes need to be able to mesh their cultural values and balance those with these other perspectives.”
Is there enough expertise now in Indian country to keep the wheels of Native businesses turning without having to depend on non-Indian resources?
“That’s where I’m hoping a summit would actually lead and I think we do have MBAs and lawyers and accountants, and other modern warriors in Indian country, who have taken a lead in the financial area and business development. And for this economic summit that I envision, we need to compile all the components and gather all of the expertise into one comprehensive resource package. I don’t think this has been done yet.”
The goal is true self-determination, and one of the essentials supporting self-determination is self-sufficiency, Patterson said.
“Indian country really needs to define self-determination according to our own terms. Right now, the self-determination era is strictly within the confines of the federal process and federal policy, which doesn’t mirror tribal self-determination. The paradox is we’re only self-determining as long as we operate within those parameters.”
While he struggles to formulate the structure and scope of his proposed economic summit, he is sure of one thing: it should be held at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington. “I think that would be a great focal point for an economic summit.”
The triad of sovereignty, culture and business underlie all of the other goals Patterson presented in his proposal.
USET should diversify its funding sources beyond the current membership dues and federal funding, he said. This goal is tied to another initiative that would establish a political action committee that would allow lobbying. He noted that under USET’s current 501(c)3 status, the organization can “do advocacy” but cannot lobby.
Member tribes and an individual have also raised $52,500 to develop a contemporary Web site that can fill members’ needs.
“It’s all part of the overall effort to find out what USET does best for our member tribes and how it is that we represent our tribes. Our web-based initiative will include strategic planning for the next five to 10 years. The USET staff and tribal leaders realize that USET really needs to turn a corner.”
Editor’s note: The OIN owns Four Directions Media, parent company of Indian Country Today.