Indian activists assert priorities before DNC

DENVER - On the eve of the Democratic National Convention, some Indian activists are attacking perceived weaknesses in the mainstream political system on several issues of Native importance, including energy development and sovereignty.

Among the voices of dissent are those of the American Indian Movement of Colorado, which cites the government;s failure to protect Indian sacred sites, lands and resources against unwanted intrusion and an unwillingness by Democrats to tackle such long-standing grievances as Leonard Peltier's continuing imprisonment.

Glenn Morris, a Colorado AIM leader, said he does not know all the inner details of the party's platform process, but he noted that ''what we do know is that the Democrats have talked about sovereignty without committing to the sensitive protection of sovereignty.''

His comments were made in an interview when he was asked to talk about AIM's view of top Native issues and concerns in light of the upcoming convention, Democratic Party priorities, and the constraints of the system in general.

Morris, a professor in the political science department at the University of Colorado - Denver, has been an outspoken critic of some elected officials and educators for their stance on American history, the commemoration of Christopher Columbus, and such issues as gold mining in indigenous areas.

''When you look at the image of [Illinois Sen. Barack] Obama, who is supposed to be this new, progressive man of color - what he does leave out is Native people.

''His book, 'The Audacity of Hope,' says America can come together because it is unlike Europe with its tensions and rivalries, while America was peacefully settled without much conflict - what country is this man talking about? He talked about being at the foot of the Rockies [when visiting Denver], where civilization was brought to the frontier. He invisibilizes Indian people.''

Morris said he feels there are a number of things the Democratic Party should be focused on in Indian country, among them the amount of the settlement in Cobell v. Kempthorne over government mismanagement of Indian trust monies.

''There needs to be clear and proactive action on the trust fund case - when the federal government of the United States admitted that they had probably lost at least $40 billion and then offered to settle the case for that amount at one point, and then a federal judge came back on Aug. 7 settling the amount at $455 million after 125 years of stealing Indian resources - and on the very same day, a federal judge granted $400 million in damages to shareholders of Qwest in the stock-fraud case.

''Justice will not be found for Indian people in the federal courts, and so it's dependent upon a progressive policy agenda from the Democrats, but history doesn't lend us much optimism in that regard,'' said Morris, who is of Shawnee descent.

Other Native resources may be in jeopardy in the rush to develop new sources of energy, he said, because ''talk of energy independence means more pressure on Native nations to develop the resource, whether they want to or not.''

Although nuclear energy is touted as a way to energy independence, ''60 percent of uranium reserves are on Native peoples' land. And if push comes to shove, and the United States wants the resource, will Natives have anything to say about it?''

Even though the Navajo Nation tribal council has passed a resolution banning uranium mining on tribal lands, Morris noted that under the administration of former Democratic President Jimmy Carter, ''tribes that stood in the way of implementing a comprehensive U.S. energy policy were threatened with termination.''

''Democrats need to be sensitive to that - there may be Native nations that don't want to develop uranium or coal or degrade their water resource,'' he said.

A related issue is the protection of sacred sites under pressure from various kinds of development, he said, including the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona, where a ski area/sacred sites controversy recently was heard in federal appellate court.

''Last Friday, once again, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied the petition of over a dozen Indian nations in the Southwest to protect one of the most important sacred sites in the United States, so what Native people need to hear from the Democrats are commitments not only to Indian society and self-determination, but a commitment to the protection of sacred sites, a just resolution of trust fund cases, and a revisitation of respect for treaty rights.''

AIM plans a presence at the Aug. 25 Freedom March and Rally for Human Rights and Political Prisoners because, he said, former President Bill Clinton promised to grant clemency to Peltier before he left office, but ''left a clemency petition on his desk to go to the inauguration of George W. Bush.''

Peltier was convicted and sentenced to two life terms in 1977 for the murder of two FBI agents in a shootout on the Pine Ridge Reservation, but the circumstances of his trial and conviction have remained a matter of international scrutiny and dissent.

Any other plans by Colorado AIM in connection with the DNC remain under discussion, Morris said.