GREAT FALLS, Mont. - The American Indian Nations Symposium in Great Falls
contained a nearly unparalleled slate of speakers from throughout Indian
country. Nearly 50 people took the podium during three days.
With crowds of visitors in the area celebrating the 200th anniversary of
the Lewis and Clark expedition, the Indian community took advantage of the
opportunity to voice its version of events and the years following. As
George Horse Capture remarked, "a survey of our world at this time as
presented by heroes of our world."
Former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell gave the opening keynote address. Asked
during his college years why he wanted to participate in a government that
had taken so much from Indian people, he had replied, "Because it's the
only game in town. You can hide your head in the sand or you can get active
and try to make public policy better." Campbell served in public office for
22 years doing just that.
Campbell spoke of the ancient past, saying, "Our ancestors were here when
Socrates drank the hemlock and when Plato wrote the Iliad." And, speaking
of the ancestors of the Pueblo people from Mesa Verde where he sometimes
goes for inspiration, he said, "they were there four times longer than
we've had the U.S. government. They were there two times longer than all
post-Columbian history. They had a system of government that worked very
well for them.
"They lived by four tenets: take care of your family; participate in your
community; you're part of the Earth Mother; and honor the Creator of all
things. We could learn much from them."
He spoke of many acts that have greatly impacted American Indians, the
majority of which were detrimental. "Now," Campbell said, "Indian leaders
have learned the 'rules of engagement.' We need to defend ourselves in the
courts and the halls of Congress. The lance and the war pony have given way
to education and voting rights."
He spoke in favor of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act: "Between 1990 and
2005 we went from bingo games in a tent or tin shack to a $19 billion
Campbell reported that the Indian population has grown twice as fast as the
population at large, the growth in income per capita for Indian people
during the past decade was three times faster than the national growth and
that poverty rates for Indians have also dropped much faster than the
national average because "tribes are creating jobs while the rest of the
nation had a stagnant economy."
He also cautioned that Indian people can't relax their vigilance. "Years
ago most tribal problems went to Supreme Court. Not anymore. Now almost
half are remanded back to appellate courts and they rarely have the
historic background or sensitivity that the Supreme Court did for Indians."
Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of Indians, recommended that
all Indian leaders should have a pocket-sized synopsis of their treaties
when they go to Washington, saying that many people in Congress and the
American public don't know that a tribe is a sovereign government. He would
add to that Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution and the tribe's own
constitution; and he plans to encourage that at the annual meeting of NCAI.
Hall commented on the Cobell v. Norton lawsuit, which asked for an
accounting from 1887 to today, and the fact the government has no records.
"A week ago we went to the National Press Club and we said $27.5 billion.
That will be your settlement. And the first thing the administration said
was: 'We can't settle for that. We have to have facts. We have to have
data. Where are your records?' Such hypocrisy! I think they're getting off
Hall also cautioned Indian leaders about current mismanagement claims on
which some 50 tribes are working. "[The government is] going to say, 'We'll
give you [X amount] million dollars for a settlement of your tribe's trust
asset management claim.'
But if you look, they're going to put in a couple of sentences. 'Settlement
of this claim is to settle any future or all claims.' That means if you
have a water case, coal case, or oil and gas case, you're settling right
there. If you sign, you're done with any future claims. Tribal leaders of
today must know those issues."
Dr. Janine Pease, Crow, was recently named to a four-year term on Montana's
Human Rights Commission and is the state's presiding officer for the
Redistricting and Apportionment Commission. She said, "Our population is
growing, and wherever we're growing it's almost the rule that the people
around us are not. That creates a stress."
She continued, "Indians now have a majority in six House and three Senate
districts in Montana ... and in the next five to 10 years Montana may have
three or four more counties where Indians are the majority."
Indians consistently vote as a bloc. "They like a particular candidate,
maybe of either party, and can be looked at as a viable swing vote." She
continued, "There have been a number of recent elections where just a few
percentage points have made the difference. Anywhere there is a close
election and Indians are 1 to 6 percent of the population, you can bet that
voting will be a matter of some contention."
She cited numerous examples used to discourage Indians from voting,
including redistricting to dilute the Indian vote, making registration
difficult, relining boundaries to exclude Indian communities, and others.
Tex Hall summarized the symposium well when he said, "With the help of the
Creator and your people, you will find the right path. The challenges are
many but they can be accomplished."