Skip to main content

Bush sovereignty pledge welcome

Follows Western Shoshone dispossession

WASHINGTON - President George W. and First Lady Laura Bush welcomed tribal
leaders and U.S. congressional members to the White House Sept. 23,
recognizing the unprecedented Indian presence in the nation's capital for
opening week of the National Museum of the American Indian.

Speaking from the East Room, where more than 30 years ago President Richard
M. Nixon delivered the "Special Message" to Congress that ended tribal
termination as policy and recognized a new era of self-determination, Bush
announced an executive memorandum ordering federal agencies to respect
tribal sovereignty and self-determination in their decision making. "My
government will continue to honor this government-to-government

The words brought the second ovation of the morning, exceeding even the
first at mention of "Indian members of our U.S. military."

Executive orders and memoranda have been standing features of presidential
power since the founding of the republic. They lack the force of law and
can be canceled or ignored by later officeholders; though in this case Bush
continued an order already in place from the Clinton years. Every president
has issued executive orders. Only Bush has issued an Indian-specific one
within six weeks of a presidential election; but then only Bush has had an
occasion like the NMAI opening, with more Native people gathered in the
capital city at one time than ever before.

The other theme of the morning was sovereignty. The president repeatedly
emphasized tribal sovereignty. Later, in a day filled with Indian meetings
around town, a woman would remark that maybe he was trying to make up for a
blunder some months ago, when he told a Native audience that America had
"given" sovereignty to tribes (as Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., regularly
notes around Washington - the U.S. Constitution does not grant, but
recognizes and guarantees, the prior sovereignty of tribes). Tex Hall,
elected leader of Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota and of the
National Congress of American Indians, minimized the oversight as a matter
of inadequate briefing from the president's staff.

If so, the staff had briefed him fully this time around, and the president
had gotten the message. He said in several ways that he understands it and
embraces it, and enforces it to the extent of issuing an executive memorant
dum on the government-to-government relationship to federal agency

Whether or not he'll defend it was another question in some minds that
morning. This is the president, after all, whose signature was added to
legislation intended to dispossess millions of acres and billions of
dollars of mineral-rich Western Shoshone treaty lands in four western
states. At least one of them, Nevada, is among the so-called "battleground
states" in the presidential election, raising speculation as to what Indian
resources a second-term president, with no need to position himself for
re-election, might find it in his power to sign away. Notable in this
regard is that the U.S. Congress encouraged and validated the activities of
a "shadow" Western Shoshone tribal government, as against the
constitutional ones, that provided Congress with a tissue of legitimacy for
resource piracy, in the opinion of many Indian people. In Iraq, Bush made
it earthshakingly obvious that he'll exercise U.S. national sovereignty
without too many questions beforehand and without apology after. In the
Western Shoshone case, he may have made it a little too clear for tribal
comfort that he'll exercise it domestically too, though with the discretion
befitting domestic dependent nations whose only transgression is their

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Bush's role in all this hasn't been an open book, but a Republican
administration is not without power in a Republican-controlled Congress. In
any case, a presidential veto of the controversial Western Shoshone
dispossession bill could not have been overcome. So at the end of an
exuberant week for Indians in Washington, the question of what pirate flags
the U.S. ship of state may raise next in Indian waters still fluttered over
the East Room.

But for the happy companionship within, the president's words were tonic,
appealing and timely. They not only encouraged the tribal leaders present;
they also disassociated the president and the presidency from the
right-wing groups that continue to insist tribal sovereignty is a
contestable issue. With the strains of a Native-language national anthem
from the Cherokee National Youth Choir still rich in memory, the president
made it plain that tribes and their sovereignty are central:

"Native American cultures survive and flourish when tribes retain control
over their own affairs and their own future ... Long before others came to
the land called America, the story of this land was yours, alone. Indians
on this continent had their own languages and customs, just as you have
today. They had jurisdiction over their lands and territories, just as you
have today. And these sovereign tribal nations had their own systems of
self-governance, just as you have today."

The national museum is appropriately located on the National Mall, he
added, "because the American Indian experience is central to the American

He closed to a third ovation: "The National Museum of the American Indian
affirms that this young country is home to an ancient, noble and enduring
Native culture. And all Americans are proud of that culture. Like many
Indian dwellings, the new museum building faces east, toward the rising
sun. And as we celebrate this new museum and we look to the future, we can
say that the sun is rising on Indian country."

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the Colorado Republican who retires after the
current Congress as the Senate's only Indian member, introduced the
president with an assurance that Bush "wasn't going to be about hollow

Campbell said he met with the president about Indian country during the
2000 presidential campaign. He marked his promises of Indian school
construction funds for future reference because he considers it a crucial
issue - kids can't study amid leaky ceilings and peeling walls. Four years
later, Campbell said, Bush has spent three times as much on Indian school
construction as any previous administration.

"Quite simply, he kept his promise to us."

Later in the day though, at another of those Indian meetings in a week full
of them, Hall said he missed a rollout of future promises in the form of an
Indian agenda for a second term if Bush is re-elected. Otherwise, Hall
considered it a great morning at the White House.