PARAMUS, N.J. ? Despite the terrorism attack on the World Trade Center less than 25 miles away, students at a small community college here gathered to hear speakers from across the nation during the sixth annual Native American Day celebration.
Three speakers listed on the event brochure, all from California, declined to participate amid fears of flying and arriving in an area gripped by the chaos following the attacks on the World Trade Center Sept. 11.
Joely De La Torre, an assistant professor of Native American Studies at San Francisco State University, Joseph Myers, director of the National Indian Justice Center in Petaluma and Susan Billy, a Pomo basket weaver, didn't make scheduled presentations.
Organizer, Linda Robins, a Bergen Community College professor, said she considered calling off the Sept. 20 and 21 event, but college officials decided they wouldn't allow terrorism to halt the celebration.
Tonya Gonnella Frichner, a member of the Onondaga Nation, told students about challenges facing Native Americans and their contributions to the diversity of the American culture.
Frichner, whose office is just blocks away from Ground Zero in New York City, took time to talk about the how people have overcome that tragedy.
'I'm grateful you are well, especially after that trauma last week,' she said.
'Some of our (speakers) chose not to come out of respect for those who have died in the disaster. It is difficult for some of our people, as far as traditions are concerned, to be in a territory where people have lost their loved ones. Out of respect, they stay away,' Frichner said.
'Our offices are right below 14th Street. I think our people went back for the first time last Friday. Lakota fire fighters came in and Mohawk ironworkers.
'For us Mother Earth is a place we walk and underneath Mother Earth are the bones of our ancestors. All of that is a connection, why all those wonderful people are not here,' she said.
Frichner is president of the American Indian Law Alliance, a non-profit community-based organization providing legal services to Native people in the New York metropolitan area. More than 20,000 American Indians live in the city.
Being a lawyer, scholar and an activist is easy, said the woman who has worked for more than a decade promoting human rights for Indigenous people.
'When you do this work, the reward is a reward of the spirit because public-interest work certainly isn't for monetary reward. Those of you who do this work (do it) because of your commitment to your community.'
She said while Native people have made contributions throughout history, they were left behind when it came to basic constitutional rights. Segregation and the termination policy cleared the way for racial discrimination.
'If you look at your Constitution, you will see exclusion was very purposeful. We were not thought of as being part of the United States,' she said.
'Our traditional governments were removed by an act of Congress, our nations were terminated by an act of Congress and our people began to have to look at each other in terms of blood quantum.
'Does anybody ever walk up to you and say how much white are you or how much black are you? They do that to us every day. It comes from a tradition of us having to prove using papers and documents how much Indian we are.'
Frichner said that even though the nation's history of a policy trying to eliminate American Indian people is long, the tribal people remained.
'As our elders always say, 'As long as there is one person to sing, another person to dance and another to listen, we will still always be here.' Our story isn't over. We still have a lot to tell.'
As Frichner travels the world, she uses an unusual passport. Appointed as a delegate of the Haudenosaunee to the United Nations Subcommittee on Human Rights, Frichner travels with a passport issued by Haudenosaunee, Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy.
'It is not easy to travel on. Wherever I go, I make sure I have a visa to travel to that nation.'
Frichner recently went to South Africa to the World Conference on Racism sponsored by the United Nations Human Rights Commission
Giving the more than 250 students a glimpse of the way the nation's agencies have approached the American Indian people, she talked about efforts to recover $40 billion belonging to American Indians held in trust from grazing and quarrying rights as well as leases for timber, agriculture, oil, natural gas and minerals.
The battle over the lost income began with Elouise Cobell, then tribal treasurer for the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana. In the mid-1970s Cobell discovered that payments to tribal members for leases and other income, negotiated for the use of tribal lands, had been lost by the BIA.
'I know if you lose $10 in somebody's checking account in this country, all hell breaks loose. But for our people, it seems to be OK to lose, misplace, misappropriate or not be able to find $40 billion that belong to the Indian people,' she said.
Frichner read a short excerpt from an apology issued by former Assistant Secretary of the Bureau Indian Affairs Kevin Gover who pledged, nearly a year ago, a greater commitment to the American Indian people to prevent such policies from ever again happening.
'We accept this legacy of racism and inhumanity. We accept the moral responsibility of putting things right. Never again will this agency stand silent when hate and violence is committed against Indians. Never again will we allow policy to proceed from the assumption that Indians possess less human genes than other human races. Never again will we attack your religion, languages, rituals or any other of your tribal ways. Never again will we seize your children nor teach them to be ashamed of who you are,'' Frichner said quoting Gover.
'I think it was our Jewish brothers and sisters who said after the Holocaust, 'Never again.' That is what held them together and hopefully that will hold us together. Never again will these same acts be perpetrated again not only for Indigenous people, but for all people.'
Members of the audience asked how American Indians feel about mascots.
'I do find using our people in a form that mocks us is very insensitive and has racist overtones to it. I would also suggest there is a violation of human rights as well. Mascots are something that is usually done in a degrading way when it comes to our people,' she said.
'If we turn it around, sometimes it is the only way for people to understand the point we're making. The usual response is that 'we are honoring you,'' she said.
'Don't trivialize a people. It isn't nice, not politically correct. It is offensive, racist and it is a violation of our human rights. Certainly it wouldn't be acceptable to say Cleveland Jew, Cleveland 'N' word, but it is okay to say Cleveland Indians. When the civil rights movement happened in this country and it was decided by law that separate and equal was no longer appropriate, I think we were all better for it.'
The event, which recognizes tribal people from different regions of the nation each year, was to focus on California tribes. Norman Fillmore, Washoe and Paiute, spoke to students about his experiences growing up on a California reservation.He was born on the Walker River Paiute Reservation in west central Nevada. After his family later moved, he grew up on the Cedarville Rancheria Reservation in Northern California.
Fillmore attended the Stewart Indian School and said, like many American Indians across the nation, he was forced to give up tribal tradition and his Native language.
He said in 1963 the California Indian Consortium was organizing and trying to unite all of the rancherias in the state.
Tribal councils formed and the rancherias sought medical care and economic support for tribal residents living in isolated communities without electricity and running water, he said.
At the age of 11, Fillmore served as a councilman for his tribe and faced a challenge trying to comprehend massive piles of paper sent to him because his reading skills were weak. The failure to understand the documents compromised his tribe.
'I started getting all these official papers from Washington, D.C., and Phoenix, Ariz., and I didn't know what they meant. I just kind of went through the motions. All of the elders weren't much help because they couldn't read. There were a couple of them who were blind,' he said.
Although Fillmore attempted to fill his role by enlisting the help of a couple of people from nearby Susanville to translate and explain the issues, he found himself signing agreements allowing water storage tanks to be built on American Indian lands without realizing what he had done.
'They would say sign this and sign that. I left in 1971. When I came back in 1975, there were these huge water tanks on the rancheria on the hill above town. I said where did they come from?
'I gave them permission to put water tanks on the rancheria and everybody was mad at me. It was one of those learning experiences and I learned not to sign anything unless I know what it means,' Fillmore said.
While many of the Paiute people lived in California, they didn't have a rancheria. They simply built homes and community outside of urban areas. There are more than 100 different tribes in California.
Fillmore said gaming has brought a new image to Americans who believe every tribe owns a casino. But he was quick to point out that many of the tribes across the nation haven't engaged in gaming.
Those who have taken advantage of gaming as an industry contribute a portion of their profits to non-gaming tribes who use the money for an assortment of programs, he said.
Fillmore was an ironworker before resuming his education in 1993. He graduated from St. John's University in New York City, receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in 1997. He works at the American Indian Community House.