Indigenous Rights Advocates Question Keith Harper Nomination
“Specifically, we would like to discuss the growing problem of bad governance practices by tribal officials which, to date, have victimized thousands of individuals,” the disenrolled citizens wrote in one such letter in early 2009, inviting Harper, then an Obama transition team member, to meet at a time they knew he would be attending a nearby tribal conference. “The bad governance practices are often characterized by violations of law which strip or deny individuals and targeted groups of the basic rights and privileges enumerated and guaranteed by tribal, state, and/or federal statutes. In most instances, the victims of these bad governance practices are denied recourse against the tribal official perpetrators due to the fact that the officials invoke tribal sovereignty to escape prosecution.”
Cory, who was disenrolled from her tribe in 2006 along with 600 other tribal citizens, says that Harper seemed like he should have been the right person to contact, as he served on the president’s transition team, later worked in the Obama administration, has been a major campaign finance bundler for the president, and by most accounts continues to hold a place in the White House inner circle.
But Harper’s response was less than satisfying, Cory says, as he responded via e-mail in early 2009 that he would soon no longer be a member of the transition team, so he said the disenrollment concerns should be directed elsewhere in the new administration. She also says he chose not to meet disenrolled citizens at a candlelight vigil held during a tribal leadership conference hosted by the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians on January 24, 2009, yet he attended a tribal leaders’ meeting there at the same time where he was billed as a member of the Obama transition team, although he had told the disenrolled citizens that his transition service would end on January 20.
Pechanga has been frequently criticized for its disenrollments in recent years as its gaming enterprises have flourished, and its leadership has maintained that the tribe’s sovereignty provides a solid foundation for it decisions. Still, disenrollment remains a highly controversial issue in Indian country at-large because many Native citizens feel the action is a federally-sanctioned way to strip Indians of their identities.
“The conference at Pechanga was not the only time that Mr. Harper has declined comment or assistance in fighting the spread of this horrific illness of tribal disenrollment that is consuming Indian country in California and beyond,” Cory says. “After I received disenrollment papers from Picayune, I e-mailed Mr. Harper with details of the situation and asked for help, or at least commentary, three times between 2006 and 2008 at his Kilpatrick Stockton firm. Never did I receive a response.”
Cory knows that Harper was busy with the Cobell lawsuit at the time, but she also believes that if he was interested in one day being a world leader on indigenous human rights, he had the obligation to address the concerns of disenrolled tribal citizens at some point during his long legal career.
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