Marquez: Deeds, not words, should persuade tribal nations

As Nov. 4 approaches, I find myself reading blogs and op-ed pieces from various tribal corners, mostly supporting the Democratic ticket in the race for the White House. I was surprised to note that there are few public statements being expressed by tribal leaders and representatives about Sen. John McCain and his public record of support for sovereign tribal nations.

Campaign promises being voiced by Mr. Barack Obama to Indian country are noteworthy. But we should remember that no group of Americans has been promised more and delivered less than the First Americans. Instead of more promises, let’s give attention to real accomplishments involving issues of significant importance, which have benefited Indian tribes because of Sen. McCain’s deeds.

Few issues are as fundamentally important and sacred to Indian tribes as their cultural resources and their histories. Sen. McCain’s leadership resulted in the enactment of federal legislation that serves today as the foundation for the protection of these important resources. The Native American Graves Protection Act was passed by the Congress in 1990.

Sen. McCain became vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs (now known as the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs) when the 101st Congress was constituted in 1989. Aware that congressional efforts to protect tribal cultural resources – including sacred sites and graves – had failed in 1986 due to opposition from museums and other groups, he introduced NAGPRA during the first session of the 101st Congress. The senator had become increasingly concerned about the looting of tribal sacred sites and graves across the nation.

Instead of more promises, let’s give attention to real accomplishments involving issues of significant importance, which have benefited Indian tribes because of Sen. John McCain’s deeds.

In partnership with then-committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, who had introduced a bill of his own on the subject, McCain convinced the world-renowned Heard Museum in Phoenix, Ariz., to convene and lead a national dialogue on issues related to the protection of American Indian cultural resources. The national dialogue was tasked with producing a set of recommendations, which could serve as a basis for legislation to protect these important resources.

The national dialogue, which involved museums, archaeologists, anthropologists and Indian tribes and organizations took nearly two years but was successful in producing recommendations for the Indian Affairs Committee. Once the recommendations were delivered to Sen. McCain, they were incorporated into legislation that became NAGPRA.

Today, tribal nations across this country are successfully using NAGPRA to protect their cultural resources, sacred sites, human remains and others.

A review of the history of the SCIA over the past 20 years reveals that the period of 1988 – 1996 produced more legislation and policies that enhanced tribal sovereignty and produced countless benefits for Indian nations than any other period in history. Legislation protecting tribal forestry resources, instituting tribal self-governance programs, expanding Indian housing and a host of others too numerous to mention were adopted or expanded during this period.

It should be no surprise. Sen. McCain was in a committee leadership position throughout the entire period working in a bipartisan manner, as he always does to benefit Indian nations.

Deron Marquez, former chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, Calif., and a recognized national tribal leader lecturing on tribal sovereignty, economic development, governance and politics