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Congress Can Learn From American Indians

A column by Ray Halbritter, pointing out that Congress can learn from American Indians.

An earlier version of this commentary first appeared in The Daily Caller.

Native Americans understand through very personal experience that this country’s history is one of conflict and compromise. At our finest moments, Indian and American political leaders have worked together to promote a positive vision and a sense of responsibility toward future generations. In many cases that partnership has resulted in achieving a common ground where mutually beneficial compromise is possible.

As the U.S. Congress finds itself in gridlock, it would be wise to step back and study the history and resolve of American Indians to see that there is another path—one that leads to cooperation and creativity and a better future for all, which is different from the path it finds itself on now.

For tribal governments, an approach to difficult issues is nothing new. Long before European explorers and settlers arrived on these shores, tribes negotiated trade agreements, territory boundaries and countless other issues with each other to ensure each party’s long-term security and stability.

The horrific injustices perpetrated against Indian people—and to be clear, that have and in some cases continue to be validated by the courts in violation of the sacred promises made but not kept by this country—have not made us lose sight of our larger goal: providing a better future for our people and our community. It is against this backdrop that we understand how some people may view the current situation in Washington as hopeless.

Students of history know that relations between the federal government and this country’s First American Allies have been anything but close over the past 250 years. The wants and needs of the federal government and its United States too often run counter to the best interests of tribal governments. And the States’ right at times run counter to the authority of the federal government to regulate relations (and trade or commerce) with Indian nations.

Yet, since 2009, President Obama has brought together representatives of all 565 federally recognized tribal governments at an annual summit, where these representatives can interact directly with the president and senior staff.

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Last week, the White House hosted a Tribal Nations Conference. In public meetings and in more vocal closed-door break-out sessions, tribal leaders pressed their cases on a variety of fronts. As a result of these meetings and prior negotiations, the federal government enacted a series of new initiatives. Specifically:

*A new tribal consultation program. The Department of the Interior has heeded the concerns of tribal leaders, who in the past have expressed frustration at the level of interaction between Interior and the Nations on important issues concerning economic development, land use, health and education.

*New land lease rules. Leasing tribal land held in trust has been a complicated, time-consuming process. Interior has put new rules into place to speed things along and cut red tape.

*A true nation-to-nation relationship on the part of FEMA. The Obama Administration has come forward to support changes in legislation to give Tribal Nations the ability to apply directly to the President for disaster aid, operating in the same manner as states.

*A new commission on trust reform. Trust management has long been a source of hardship and lawsuits for Indian, most notably exemplified by the Cobell class-action lawsuit. The formation of the commission is in direct response to positions taken by tribal representatives.

Rather than focus on the issues that drive us apart, the administration has shown that it understands people can work together to bring about positive change. Indian Nations and President Obama have made honest efforts to work together in good faith on behalf of the seventh generation yet to come. Members of Congress should see this as a different path if they want to move in a more productive direction.

Ray Halbritter is Oneida Nation Representative and CEO of Nation Enterprises, parent company of Indian Country Today Media Network, LLC.