The Week That Was: The Big Stories in Indian Country, February 21, 2016


In the Now We’ve Heard Everything department, the news out of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge this past week stunk—literally. Plus, an actress allegedly carved her beloved’s name into sacred rocks; the number of missing or murdered aboriginal women in Canada is dwarfed by the actual problem; and Natives are particularly prone to dementia. This was counterbalanced, to an extent, by some good news in Indian country. Read on.

ELECTION BLUES: Clyde Bellecourt, founder of the American Indian Movement and 79-year-old Anishinaabe elder statesman in the Twin Cities civil rights community, blasted Bernie Sanders and other presidential candidates for not saying “a single word about Native people.” Even though Native observers felt Sanders’s response to be inadequate, it was worth it to speak up simply to draw attention to these issues, wrote Simon Moya-Smith. Meanwhile, voting can help too: Mark Trahant reports that three of the 19 Congressional seats that the Democrats think they can win have a significant number of Native American voters.

DESECRATION TO THE EXTREME: Disturbing and disgusting doesn’t even begin to describe the condition of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, a site sacred to the Burns Paiute Tribe, after a 41-day armed standoff with militants led by Ammon Bundy. “Occupiers appear to have excavated two large trenches and an improvised road on or adjacent to grounds containing sensitive artifacts,” wrote U.S. Attorney Billy Williams in a report describing what officials found. “At least one of these trenches contains human feces.”

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? Actress Vanessa Hudgens and rumored boyfriend Austin Butler are under investigation for allegedly carving their names into sacred rocks at the Coconino National Forest in Sedona, Arizona, on Valentine’s Day. The photo, posted on Instagram, was soon taken down. The investigation continues.

“WAY, WAY BIGGER”: As preliminary meetings paving the way for a national inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women wrapped up in Canada, officials admitted that the problem surpasses the 1,200-person estimate by national police. “The families believe that the number of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls is higher than 1,200,” Bennett’s office told reporters after emerging from a meeting. "It is bigger than 1,200. Way bigger than 1,200.”

IT’S TIME: Pressure is mounting for the release of Leonard Peltier, who has served 40 years for a crime he swears he did not commit. Today his grown son, bullied by cops since he was 10 years old and his dad was on trial, tours with his father’s artwork, telling his story and advocating for his release. He has lots of support worldwide. On February 6, Peltier supporters gathered in New York, California, Oregon, Paris, Barcelona, Belfast, Brussels and Berlin for an International Day of Solidarity. In Albuquerque, home to the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, an overflow multigenerational crowd congregated at the First Unitarian Church to commemorate with prayer, discussion, music, dance and drumming the 40th anniversary of Peltier's incarceration in the U.S. federal prison system.

BACK WHERE IT BELONGS: After years of contention over jurisdiction, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has indicated its support for legislation that would hand over management of the National Bison Range to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Indian Reservation, where the federal refuge lies.

SUCCESS: The second largest of its kind among 18 Native casinos in Minnesota, the 40,000-foot water park dubbed The Lagoon at Treasure Island Resort & Casino has debuted. The Prairie Island Indian Community began the $19 million project in May 2015.

DOING THE RIGHT THING: Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians tribal council will raise the minimum wage on the reservation from $9.25 an hour to $11 an hour. The increase applies to all tribal enterprise and tribal government employees, including those at Chinook Winds Casino Resort. Oregon's current minimum wage is currently $9.25, the eighth highest in the nation. The federal minimum is $7.25.

SUPPORTING MOMS: After Stephanie Conduff found herself pumping breast milk in the bathroom at her workplace, the Cherokee mom invented the Leche Lounge—a self-contained, lockable portable enclosure fitted with a hospital grade breast pump for mothers who want to express breast milk. Her mother and brother are also in on the new venture.

DEMENTIA RISK: In other health-related news, a new study has found that more than one third of American Indians/Alaska Natives over age 65 can expect to develop dementia before age 90, according to research published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association. It’s the first research to look at the incidence of Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia and nonspecific dementia in American Indian/Alaska Native populations and Pacific Islanders.

PROTECTION: President Barack Obama declared 1.8 million acres in the Southern California desert as national monuments, in the process protecting 1,700 Native petroglyphs and linking Death Valley National Park, Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve with one another, to boot.

POPE FRANCIS ASKS FORGIVENESS: Pope Francis toured Mexico for five days, meeting with indigenous leaders from several Latin American countries in addition to visiting Mexican government officials. In Chiapas, Pope Francis asked indigenous people for forgiveness and for their help in dealing with climate change. He also gave two masses, with parts of the service translated into three indigenous languages. Pope Francis was taken to task, however, by the Apache Ndé Nneé Working Group, which issued a statement pointing that he was traversing unceded territory belonging to the Apache Ndé Nneé, and demanding that he acknowledge outright the genocide perpetrated on Indigenous Peoples on behalf of the Holy See. 

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