MOSCOW, Idaho – The Bellwood Lecture series observed its 14th year at the University of Idaho with an increased emphasis on American Indian Law. The College of Law hosted the event as first year speaker, Charles Wilkinson, a student of AI law, began the discussion.
Three of the nation’s leading Native American attorneys keynoted by Larry EchoHawk, assistant secretary for Indian Affairs in the U.S. Department of Interior were also a part of the lecture.
The assistant secretary spoke and moderated a discussion on “The United States and Tribal Nations: An Evolving Relationship Guided by Domestic and International Law” that involved the other two speakers, Lawrence Baca, president of the Federal Bar Association; and Rebecca Tsosie, executive director of the Indian Legal Program in the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.
The university’s Native American Student Drum Group provided grand entry and honoring songs and the local tribal community dancers performed. Also on stage were tribal leaders from several regional tribes and other notables from the legal profession. Paul Agidius, president of the University of Idaho Board of Regents and University of Idaho president Dr. Duane Nellis offered welcomes to the guests and crowd.
EchoHawk had stressed he would take this evolving relationship back to the past with its dark chapters, talk about those times and how things have improved. “There’s a future out there we’ve got to be thinking about in terms of what we want to do to make sure that the tribal nations are included in the family of nations in the United States in a significant way to be able to control their future.”
He spoke of his background and recruitment to his present position by then U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar. He recalled one phone call, “‘Your country is calling you into service.’” He still hesitated to say yes. “I knew if I accepted the job I would be the face of the federal government in Indian country. That has not always been something that’s been good.”
He finally agreed to accept the challenge calling it, “The most difficult job I have ever had in my life.
“I have responsibility for working with 564 tribal nations. I have the responsibility to manage in the interest of the United States over 55 million acres of land. I manage a budget of $2.5 billion with 10,000 employees. I oversee the second largest federal school system having responsibility for 183 schools and 25 colleges and universities which serve Native communities.”
The assistant secretary talked of the long history of court cases affecting the relationship between the United States and tribal nations as it evolved over time and the deterioration of the authority of tribal nations. He talked of the doctrine called abrogation where the solemn treaties were changed by the U.S. Congress, “one party to the treaty over the objection of the other side.” He talked of termination in the 1950s when U.S. lawmakers wanted to walk away and terminate federal responsibility over Native people.
“I would be the face of the federal government. Do you see why I would hesitate?
“I wanted things to be different. I wanted to be an agent of change. I want only to do what is right and just in a new generation of American law. I want to help our great nation keep its word. I want to help our country to write new chapters of American history by recognizing tribes are sovereign political entities. By recognizing tribes are entitled to nation-to-nation relationships with the United States of America; by honoring treaty rights and obligations. By embracing the principal of self-determination and by having the states deal with tribes on a government-to-government basis and by faithfully fulfilling the trust responsibility of the United States of America.
“I believe the future of this evolving relationship with tribal nations must be described in words such as respect and cooperation, collaboration, open communication, partnership, and brotherhood.”
He told of the meeting in November 2009 when President Barack Obama had a meeting with tribal leaders and concluded, saying, “I promise you as long as I’m president of the United States of America, you will not be forgotten.”
Baca continued the evolving relationship theme by focusing on actions of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice since it formed in 1957.
“On the absolute personal grass-roots level, as an Indian person wanting to walk into the restaurant of your choice, or the polling place and be able to cast a vote, or be able to run for office, and for the historical failures of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice to include American Indians in the bodies of people for whom it brought cases.”
Baca spent 32 years in the Department of Justice and brought ground breaking cases involving Indian people, so speaks with authority on the overall failure of that body to react to the needs of Indian country. He relates how the Civil Rights Division filed thousands of cases between 1957 and 1973 on behalf of African-American victims of civil rights violations. “It filed only two on behalf of American Indians. We were ignored by the Civil Rights Division.”
Things improved somewhat in the 1980s, but not greatly. He spoke of neglect for American Indians and then open hostility. In 1984, Baca filed nearly one-fourth of the cases in the unit regarding American Indians and expected a pat on the back, instead he was told he did too much work with Indians. “I hold the dubious distinction of being the only attorney in history to be told he did too much work with his own race.
“I believe that the future of litigation on behalf of American Indians is going to improve. I know that the new administration is changing what I went through in my time there.”
Tsosie spoke about the future of Indian law. “How we might reshape the parts of the current legal system that are perhaps not working as well to effectuate the needs of Native people in terms of sovereignty and access to resources through international human rights standards. Looking at those as normative standards which can tell us where our current legal system is not fully meeting the goals of Native people for self-determination.”
She talked of the document adopted by the United Nations in 2007 on the Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples. “An attempt to provide an aspirational charter. … this is what it would take to craft a just relationship for all the Native peoples who live within your borders.”
The U.S. was one of four nations in the world who failed to endorse the Declaration.
“We know Native nations are the sovereign nations of this land. They will always be the sovereign nations. Sovereignty is exercised on the ground. The relationship between Native nations and those lands is enduring. In the Declaration it states you should not remove indigenous people from those lands.”
She spoke of the Plenary Power Doctrine giving Congress the power to extinguish Native sovereignty altogether – in opposition to the Declaration passed by the United Nations. She talked of Supreme Court decisions limiting tribal criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians on tribal lands which also violates international conventions.
The day closed with a discussion among the three primary participants which expanded on the subjects and the overall theme of the evolving relationship of tribal nations and the U.S. government and international law.