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‘No Diplomacy with a Hungry Lion’: Native Leaders Look Ahead for 2016

Five tribal leaders were asked to revisit last year’s thoughts and look ahead to what they expect or hope for in 2016.

Last year, ICTMN asked then Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Kevin K. Washburn, United South and Eastern Tribes President Brian Patterson, Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Chairman Cedric Cromwell, Schaghticoke Tribal Nation Chief Richard Velky, and Tom Rodgers, a Blackfeet Nation lobbyist, “What should we expect in 2015?” Their answers are posted here: ‘Ring Out the False, Ring in the True’: Five Takes on 2015.

This year, the five were asked to revisit last year’s thoughts and look ahead to what they expect or hope for in 2016. Their comments follow.

Serving Indian country was ‘the highest privilege of my life’

The Interior Department announced in mid-December that Washburn would leave the BIA at the end of January. “The opportunity to serve Indian country under the leadership of President Obama and Secretary Jewell, and with my colleagues in Indian Affairs at Interior, has been the highest privilege of my life,” Washburn said. “I have seen a level of trust develop with tribes in the nation-to-nation relationship under President Obama that has not existed in more than 200 years of federal-tribal policy. It has been a very special time.”

In January, he returned to academic life at the University of New Mexico School of Law.

Washburn did not comment for this article, but in an exclusive ICTMN interview, he provided a panoramic view of the many significant advances that have taken place in tribal self determination and self-governance since his tenure as BIA head began in the fall of 2012.

RELATED: Kevin Washburn Leaving BIA in January

Washburn also touched on some of the bumps in the road ahead, particularly the dangers posed by a group of hostile conservative lawmakers with termination (of federal recognition) in their hearts and an eye toward stopping the restoration of stolen Indian lands to their rightful owners

RELATED: Rep. Don Young is Leading an Assault on Native Rights

USET Perspective for 2016

In his comments last year, Brian Patterson, Oneida Indian Nation, Bear Clan Representative to the Oneida Indian Nation’s Men’s Council and Clan Mothers, and President of USET, focused on the limits of diplomacy when faced with a hungry lion – his metaphor for the enemies who would destroy Indian country. “There is no time for diplomacy when the lion is coming after you. And I think in most regards that’s where Indian country finds itself. Ultimately, there’s no reason for the lion to fear you so it’s going to continue on its course of attack,” Patterson said.

This year Paterson focuses his attention on the only force strong enough to face the lion and win – Indian unity.

“First and foremost, I remain amazed and renewed by the resiliency of our peoples,” Patterson said. “Indian country continues to make progress as a direct result of our collective advocacy efforts and our passion and dedication to make a better life for our people.

“Reflecting back on 2015, there are many accomplishments that we can celebrate together.... However, I think we can all agree that we have yet to realize our greatest potential, which is often inhibited, interfered with and challenged by a myriad of sources, including federal policies and regulations, state interests and court decisions. All of these fail to fully recognize, promote, protect, honor, and respect our inherent sovereign status and authorities.

“Despite this reality, I remain optimistic, because I know that Indian country is strong, persistent, and has the will not only to persevere, but also to succeed and prosper. ... However, recognizing that many threats continue to exist, we must remain vigilant and steadfast in our determination and dedication. In doing so, we must be willing to assume greater risks in order to create expedited and improved results which may require some folks to move out of their comfort zones at times.”

No longer landless in Massachusetts

What does tribal sovereignty mean if a tribe doesn’t have land? At the beginning of 2015, the Mashpee Wampanoag people were landless and waiting for the Interior Department to take two parcels of land into trust for an initial reservation and a casino. Interior’s approval came through in November.

The following statement by Chairman Cromwell was written at the beginning of 2016. On February 5, Cromwell announced that a lawsuit had been filed by an anti-Indian casino group challenging the Interior Department’s decision to take land into trust for Mashpee’s First Light Resort & Casino project in Taunton, Massachusetts. The lawsuit is financed by the Brockton casino group, which seeks to establish a competing casino in the area. A full story on the lawsuit will follow.

“I can’t look forward to 2016 without looking back at 2015, and the centuries before. Last year at this time, Mashpee was still a ‘landless’ tribe. We have left that painful truth behind. For centuries, we have lived in our homelands, walked among our ancestors, but without power to protect those homelands and with only limited power to protect our people. This year, our ancestors have helped us leave some of the pain behind. This year, we have achieved our first trust land base, founded in the record left for us by our ancestors, as they fought to occupy and protect that land base over hundreds of years of pressure. We have their records, the Interior Department has their records, and now the past has come forward to support the present, as it always has. We know an end to the centuries of technicalities designed to remove us from our lands. From this time forward, our children and their children will know that our homeland can be protected. And it will be used for the people.

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“What comes next? We have centuries’ worth of damage to repair... Our people need economic development, so that we can establish and enhance basic services. Like much of Indian country, we need to provide employment and educational opportunities, we need to continue to improve the availability of health care and additional human services to our people – on our reservation. We are proud to be able to refer to our reservation, finally.

“On a national level, we look forward to continue working with the governmental officials who have helped us to reach this stage in our journey...In an election year, the thicket of issues in Washington becomes ever more tangled. We will continue to support efforts to ‘fix’ the uncertainty introduced by the Carcieri decision. We remain concerned by attacks on tribal sovereignty in Congress, and in the courts. These attacks continue, and they are troubling. But of one thing, we are certain – we are not going away. Like our relatives in tribes across the country – we will remain – forever.”

The phoenix of Connecticut

The political influence that led to the reversal of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation’s federal recognition was so blatant and the reversal-process so notorious that one Indian law attorney in Washington called it “a shameful example of all that’s wrong with the federal recognition process.”

RELATED: Schaghticoke Tribal Nation Seeks to Regain Rightful Status

The federal recognition regulations were reformed in a three-year process during Washburn’s tenure at the BIA. The final new rule was attacked at the eleventh hour by a group of extreme right-wing legislators.

RELATED: Fed Recognition New Rule Attacked in Interior’s Appropriations Bill

Chief Velky recounts the story below.

“The true test of the American ideal is whether we’re able to recognize our failings and then rise together to meet the challenges of our time. Whether we allow ourselves to be shaped by events and history, or whether we act to shape them. Whether chance of birth or circumstance decides life’s big winners and losers, or whether we build a community where, at the very least, everyone has a chance to work hard, get ahead, and reach their dreams,” Velky cited a speech by then Senator Barack Obama from 2005.

“President Obama’s statement, made during his tenure as Senator, rings louder today than ever before. The Schaghticoke Tribal Nation met the standard for federal recognition in 2004 and was recognized by the United States Department of the Interior as a sovereign Indian tribe. We shall not be deterred! Again, we rise as the ‘tribal phoenix’ in 2016 so that proper order is restored to our people.

“For the new year in 2016, President Obama and his administration have a very unique opportunity to address the actions of a prior administration that have so tainted an administrative process within the Department of the Interior as to render the process capable of being effectively influenced and manipulated by external political pressure.

“In 1981, the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation filed a petition for federal recognition with the Department of the Interior in order to address a threshold requirement in an action filed by the United States seeking to condemn tribal land for use by the Appalachian Trail as well as in separate actions also concerning tribal lands. The Connecticut General Assembly outlined the boundaries of the Schaghticoke reservation in 1736 and now holds over 400 acres in trust on behalf of the Nation.

“On January 29, 2004 – 23 years after the Interior Department filed its action to seize Schaghticoke land – the Department notified the Nation that it had made a positive final determination on the Nation’s petition for federal recognition, thereby restoring the government-to-government relationship between the Nation and the United States.

“Almost immediately, an unprecedented political firestorm was unleashed against the Department and the Bush Administration in public forums, in the media, and in private meetings. Members of Congress threatened the Department of the Interior Secretary with the loss of her job if she didn’t take steps to overturn the Department’s decision to federally recognize the Schaghticoke Nation. The Secretary and other Department officials were called to Capitol Hill and were told behind closed doors that there would be serious repercussions if the positive final determination was not reversed.

“In 2016, the State of Connecticut must redeem its guardianship role by supporting its state-recognized tribes. The restoration of the Nation’s federal recognition would put it on the path to cultural renewal and economic development projects that would create thousands of new jobs and generate billions of dollars for highways, bridges, and roads in desperate need of repair. Instead of an adversarial relationship, the Nation’s federal recognition would mean Indian country and the State working together for generations to come.”

Steely knives

As enigmatic as a medieval riddle, this short piece by Tom Rodgers, owner of Carlyle Consulting, tells a story of a people almost culturally destroyed and their hope for the future. Solve the riddle by learning their name.

“The Algonquian word means ‘the confluence of two waterways’ or ‘gathered waters.’ And like the genocidal son of Genoa, on a second Monday in October these brothers of Cristobal Colon armed themselves with their steely knives sheathed in rain. It rained on all the people's unfulfilled promises. It rained on all their unfulfilled hopes. It rained on the dreams never to be realized and for the silence of those who were supposed to protect them. It rained for the betrayal. It rained for the false words. It rained until the memory of the birth of the people of the ‘gathered waters’ became as lost as their tears in the rain.

“And they asked, Is this what death is like?

“Almost, I said.”