Taken for a Ride on the Acronym Train

Cedric Sunray

“NCAI condemns Donald Sterling’s appalling comments regarding African Americans. There is no place in modern society for that kind of hatred and discrimination. We also want to applaud the many athletes, sportscasters, corporations, and individuals who have spoken out against Sterling and his comments. It is encouraging to see so many people standing together and declaring that this behavior is unacceptable.”

This April 29 posting made me say…Really?

While there is no question the statements which have been made by National Basketball League (NBA) Los Angles Clipper’s owner Donald Sterling are beyond reprehensible, it seems highly ironic that the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) would make such comments when member tribes of the organization, such as the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, created a wholesale, heavily funded campaign targeting the forced removal of their own tribal members based on their race (i.e. Cherokee Freedmen). Especially in light of the fact that the NCAI took zero steps to condemn or place sanctions on the tribe for the racist propaganda campaign they undertook. In fact, NCAI came out supporting the tribe’s “sovereignty” to do so.

As stated via resolution by NCAI during the federal government’s attempt to withdraw funding from the CNO during the Freedmen contestations,

“This alarming, inappropriate and unacceptable overreach undermines sovereign tribal governments and sets a dangerous precedent to all Indian tribes and nations … it has been the historic policy of NCAI to object to any legislation or federal action which diminishes, limits or reduces sovereignty of federally recognized tribes or nations.”

It seems there is a continued willingness of tribes and tribal organizations to shy away from real issues directly impacting Indian Country such as internal racial discrimination (…think of not only the Five Civilized Tribes Freedmen prohibitions, but also the Office of Federal Acknowledgement’s (OFA) continued stoppage of federal recognition petitions for tribes in the South and East who are perceived or do have some Black ancestry), disenrollment (…think of the over 50 tribes in the country who have disenrolled their own tribal members over the last dozen years) , and sacred site desecration (...think of the Poarch Creek’s building of a casino on the ceremonial Hickory Grounds which contains burials). The same unwillingness to go after blatant, non-justifiable, horrific issues such as these is correspondingly set aside for pursuits which are much safer in nature, such as the NBA’s Donald Sterling, the National Football League’s (NFL) Washington mascot, etc.

USET, like NCAI, has fallen into the “safe” issue trap. While being opposed to many identifiable historic “non-federal” tribes in the East and South (many of whom USET’s own affiliated tribal members attended federal Indian boarding schools with), they have had no problem going all the way down to Colombia to assist the indigenous people there. USET’s Cultural and Heritage Committee Chair, Robert Thrower, an enrolled member of the USET affiliated Poarch Creek, stated in regards to USET’s work with the indigenous people of Colombia, “USET has set a precedent for not only Native rights but human rights in general.”

Really? So is USET saying that the negative way people treat their own neighbors is not to be judged in the public arena when one is purportedly assisting people on a global scale?

While there is no question that Donald and the D.C. mascot should be condemned, it is the avoidance of the internal issues which make it all so unbearable to an ethical person. It reminds me of a man engaged in domestic violence at home and yet still going out into the world passing judgment on other abusers publicly due to self-assurances that “what happens in one’s home, stays in one’s home”.

In response to the Sterling debacle, the NBA placed sanctions and a lifetime ban on the perpetrator. The other three letter acronym in Indian Country, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), may want to join that chorus in respect to tribes its funding mechanism engages. But far beyond the ease by which it is possible to denigrate the BIA or hold them solely responsible for societal problems within the Indian world, exists the possibility of real change when national Indian organizations, such as the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians (ATNI), Alliance of Colonial Era Tribes (ACET), United South and Eastern Tribes (USET), the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA), and the before mentioned National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), take it upon themselves to remove member tribes from organizational involvement and support until they can live up to basic ethical standards which anyone in Indian Country with a shred of common sense can relate to. Internalized racism towards tribal members, disenrollment, and the desecration of sacred sites should be a basic starting point of issues viewed as intolerable. It is bad enough when one of these issues is dividing a tribe, but some tribes today are involved in all three. I thought the game was three strikes and you’re out?

Tribes don’t need to first run to the U.S. government, the BIA, or the Supreme Court for answers to our problems (and it seems most Indian academics, law officials, and other critics are sharply criticizing tribes which take this course of action anyway). We have the capacity to solve them internally via sanctions and consequences.

Many tribes and national tribal organizations have already galvanized around Indian Country’s most important issue, that of ending domestic violence. Organization after organization, tribe after tribe, are engaged strongly in the ethical and moral mission to weaken, repel, and abolish this greatest of social ill. While we collectively continue this important work, can we not also begin the process of halting and exterminating internalized racism, disenrollment, and sacred site desecration within our own tribes? After all, the first and foremost victims of these three are the very women who birth, raise, and bury our people. While it is much easier, comfortable, and safer to decry non-Indian’s racial comments, non-Indian’s removal of citizens from their countries (…think of the issues surrounding the Ukraine, Palestine, and Israel today), and non-Indian’s desecration of Indian sacred sites, it has seemed increasingly harder and harder to take a look in our own mirror and be accountable.

The argument always posed is that we must support “sovereignty” above all else. As it stands now, the NBA is flexing more sovereignty than our own tribes in the arena of ethics and morality. This is a pretty sad reality if you know the business practices of its leadership and moral ineptitude of many of its owners and players.

Saying that individual tribes have exclusive jurisdiction over matters related to their own tribal members and sacred sites is like saying the world didn’t have a responsibility to stop the violence in Bosnia or intervene in Rwanda in order to protect their “sovereignty”. It is like saying that I have no say in if my neighbor beats his wife “in the privacy of his own home”, while all the while understanding that his son may then grow up viewing such occurrences as normalcy (if his mom survives), date the community’s daughters, and possibly repeat the cycle.

In the end, the NCAI may have actually summed this all up best, “…this behavior is unacceptable."

Cedric Sunray (MOWA Choctaw) is a longtime educator and current student in the University of Oklahoma Indian Law Program.


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nonfedindian's picture
Sorry Cedric, but the disenrollment issues cited do not rise to the level of racism demonstrated by Sterling. The very nature of being "Indian" requires a consideration of race. Certain Cherokee Freedmen were removed from the rolls, not because they are black, but because they aren't of Cherokee blood lineage. Anyone with that Cherokee blood lineage remains on the roll, even if they also have black heritage. I was also not surprised by your implied, yet unsubstantiated, claim that OFA has stopped federal recognition petitions for tribes in the South and East BECAUSE they are perceived or do have some Black ancestry. It seems you conveniently ignore the fact that these tribes have simply been unable to prove that they meet current recognition criteria.