The Week That Was: The Big Stories in Indian Country, December 6, 2015


Exonerating the Fairbanks Four, renaming Thanksgiving break and presenting indigenous climate change concerns in Paris all grabbed Indian country’s attention this past week.

NEAR EXONERATION? Almost 20 years after separate juries convicted them of a beating death they say they never committed, four Alaska Native men’s hope for exoneration rests with one individual: Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle. Lyle must determine if the evidence presented in a five-and-a-half-week hearing that concluded November 11 clearly and convincingly proved that the men, known as the Fairbanks Four, are innocent or deserve a new trial. He could also determine that the evidence did not and uphold their convictions. The decision will be made sometime next summer.

TEETERING: My Sister Friend’s House—Mita Maske Ti Ki, in the Lakota language—has sheltered Native and non-Native victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking since 2000. However Mita, as it is known, could be forced to close in January. The 12-bed shelter in Sioux Falls, South Dakota failed to win a much-needed competitive grant that it has depended on for years in the past. It needs $12,000 per month to run.

FIVE-FIGURE COMEUPPANCE: Shell’s Puget Sound Refinery near the Swinomish Reservation has been fined $77,000 by the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries for an uncontrolled release of toxins that sickened residents and sent at least two people to the hospital. The Labor & Industries investigation found that the Puget Sound Refinery—which produces numerous compounds used in refining aluminum and sulfur—didn’t adequately decontaminate its main industrial flare when the flare was shut down for maintenance on February 20. That resulted in the release of hydrogen sulfide, hydrocarbons, mercaptans and pyrophoric iron into the air.

TROLL SHUTDOWN: CBC News, the largest news broadcaster in Canada, has temporarily blocked all comments on indigenous-related stories until officials can create a better system of moderation. The network said its employees had observed a disproportionate amount of racist and ignorant hate speech targeted at First Nations people.

CATCHING A BREAK: Students at Humboldt State University, in Arcata, California have won a small victory for Native Americans. The university will no longer call days off in November “Thanksgiving Break,” it will from now on be known as “Fall Break.” Michael Ramirez, Konknow Maidu/Wintu/Hupa/Yurok, along with the Unified Students of Humboldt asked university President Lisa Rossbacher to remove “Thanksgiving Break” last year.

LET IT BE POT: For the Suquamish Tribe and the Squaxin Island Tribe, licensing the retail sale of marijuana and legalizing its use on their lands now seems unavoidable. Thousands of motorists a day take State Highway 305 through Suquamish’s Port Madison Indian Reservation on their way to and from the neighboring cities of Poulsbo and Bainbridge Island. The reservation’s residents include non-Native Americans allowed under voter-approved state law to use marijuana.

MYSTERIOUS DEATH MOURNED: As police investigate the sudden death of newly elected Juneau, Alaska Mayor Greg Fisk at age 70, he is being mourned by Inuit in Quebec, Canada as one of the crafters of the first major land claims agreement in the north. The consultant and politician was instrumental in helping craft the James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement, a treaty addressing economic development, property issues. It also mapped out cultural and other institutions for those who lived in the covered communities.

CLIMATE PRIORITIES: The world's indigenous leaders met on November 27 for the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change (IIPFCC) in the lead-up to the United Nations COP21 climate talks. The IIPFCC, an official Caucus for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), produced proposals for COP21 that indigenous groups want incorporated into conference documents.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell discussed climate resilience in her COP21 speech, highlighting work in Indian country as examples of what the U.S. is doing to improve climate change within communities. She spoke of the work to “honor and capture” the “knowledge to strengthen our understanding of ecosystems and climate change,” referring to the Alaskan Native Tribal Health Consortium’s Local Environmental Observer Network as an example. She also discussed the working relationship with American Indian tribes and Alaska Natives across Turtle Island on seed funding so tribes could to begin their own climate resilience programs.

CANADA AND COP21: Meanwhile Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the gathering that Indigenous Peoples are key when it comes to climate solutions.

“Indigenous peoples have known for thousands of years how to care for our planet,” Trudeau said in his speech at the talks on the opening day, November 30. “The rest of us have a lot to learn. And no time to waste.”

Also on hand was Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde, who along with Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed and Congress of Aboriginal Peoples National Chief Dwight Dorey were among the indigenous leaders who formed part of the delegation from Canada. All stressed the importance of cooperation, unity and respect for the human and treaty rights of Indigenous Peoples as keys to combatting climate change. Bellegarde was able not only to outline indigenous environmental priorities before world leaders but also got President Barack Obama to pose with him for a quick photo, snapped by none other than Trudeau. 

WRITTYN’S GOT TALENT: Dine’ hip-hop artist and motivational speaker Kari Denny-Flynn, a.k.a. Writtyn, auditioned for America’s Got Talent on December 3 in Phoenix. The producers contacted her after watching some of her YouTube videos, she told ICTMN.

SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS: A Native American man died in holding cell in Juneau, Alaska, after prison staff there allegedly told him, "You could die right now and I don't care," according to a newly released report reviewing the state's department of corrections. Joseph Murphy, 49, of the Yup'ik people, was booked at 7 p.m. on August 13 for intoxication at the Lemon Creek Correctional Center and placed in a holding cell, Lisa Phu of Juneau's KTOO Public Media reported. A video reviewed by the state shows a sober Murphy at 5:20 a.m. the next morning, but he appeared sweaty and complained of chest pains to jail staff, who said he declined medical assistance.

UNSOLVED: Rebecca Rose Anderson, a 30-year-old American Indian female assaulted in Minneapolis in September, died last week. The Minneapolis Police Department is seeking the public’s help in solving the crime. Anderson was found severely beaten and unconscious on September 3 and died on Thanksgiving Day.

HAKA TRIBUTE TO RUGBY GREAT: On November 30, tribute was paid to rugby great Jonah Lomu, of Tongan descent, with a haka by members of the All Blacks team. The married father of two succumbed to nephrotic kidney disease on November 18 at age 40.

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