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Oneida Indian Nation and Navajo Nation Leaders Launch Discussion on Indigenous Issues

In early July, Navajo Nation Vice President Rex Lee Jim led a delegation from the Navajo Nation to Verona, New York, where he met with Ray Halbritter, Oneida Indian Nation Representative and CEO of Nation Enterprises. It was the first high-level government-to-government meeting between the two nations and it yielded a fruitful discussion about health care, education, economic development and other subjects, and a promise to work together with other leaders to move these issues forward across Indian country.

The Navajo Nation with its spectacular Utah, Arizona and New Mexico landscapes of buttes, canyons, and wide open spaces is strikingly different from the Oneida Indian Nation of central New York whose equally spectacular territory of rivers, lakes and woodlands has been settled for hundreds of years. But when the northeastern nation’s leader met the southwestern nation’s vice president recently a new friendship and partnership was forged based on the commonalities of all Indigenous Peoples.

In early July, Navajo Nation Vice President Rex Lee Jim led a delegation from the Navajo Nation to Verona, New York, where he met with Ray Halbritter, Oneida Indian Nation Representative and CEO of Nation Enterprises. It was the first high-level government-to-government meeting between the two nations and it yielded a fruitful discussion about health care, education, economic development and other subjects, and a promise to work together with other leaders to move these issues forward across Indian country.

“Our goal is to bring more tribal leaders together and talk about a national agenda and issues that are critical to our nations and start working on them,” Jim said.

“We were delighted and honored to have the representative from the great Navajo Nation visit our community and our people,” Halbritter said. “We had a very good discussion about a number of issues we identified as common areas of concern. It was a great first meeting and we look forward to more discussions. As tribal leaders, this is what we should be doing. Our responsibility is to look out for our generations to come.”

Although the two nations met for the first time, they already had a mutual connection – Notah Begay, the famous PGA Tour tournament winner. Begay is half Navajo, one-quarter San Felipe, and one-quarter Isleta – and 100 percent dedicated to positively impacting the American Indian community, particularly its youth. In 2005, Begay launched The Notah Begay III Foundation, which works to battle obesity and diabetes in Indian youth. The Oneida Nation has hosted golf tournaments featuring golf superstars such as Tiger Woods, Camilo Villegas, Mike Weir and Begay himself at Oneida’s Atunyote Golf Club to raise funds for the Notah Begay III Foundation’s health and wellness programs for American Indian youth on reservations throughout the country.

“The Navajo Nation and the Oneida Nation are great supporters of those efforts for Indian youth and the Navajo were in the area and they called and we thought it would be a great opportunity to sit down and discuss those issues that are common to all Native people,” Halbritter said.

Jim said that Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly had assigned him to take charge of health, education and international issues that relate to indigenous peoples.

“Notah Begay is very interested in young people and health issues, and we’re dealing with diabetes and obesity and we want to work with him to see if he could bring some of his program to Navajo to help us with that. At the same time we’re also interested in fund raising for scholarships for Navajo people,” Jim said.

Part of the Navajo delegation’s tour of the northeast included visits to Ivy League colleges, including Yale University in Connecticut, Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and Harvard University in Boston. “What we’re attempting to do is tap into their resources,” Jim said. Indian country needs to access the privileges described by the Ivy League institutions, Jim said. “So we’re trying to test them out and say, ‘You need to help and partner with indigenous nations.”

Halbritter noted that, historically, many of the Ivy League schools, including Dartmouth and Harvard, were developed “to help bring, in their view, some education to the Indigenous Peoples of this country.” A number of the schools were given land by Indian people, Halbritter said. “And through time their original missions faded so this is a wonderful idea that the Navajo people have, because they’re giving the Ivy League schools the opportunity to remember their original missions and also their historically close connections to Native peoples.”

Harvard, for example, was given funds to establish the Indian College by the English Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Among the Natives in New England for Indian education in the late 1640s. In its Charter of 1650, Harvard acknowledged the “necessary provision for the education of the English and Indian youth.” The first Native students who attended the Indian College were John Wampus, who departed before graduation, two Wampanoag students, Jacob Iacoommes and Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck who were members of the class of 1665. Iacommes, who was killed shortly before the commencement in 1665, was honored with a posthumous degree during commencement in May.

Before the 1970s, Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck was the only Native American student who lived long enough to receive a Harvard degree, although he died of tuberculosis one year after graduation, according to the university website. “With no students, the Indian College was dismantled in the 1690s, its bricks put to other uses.” The university resurrected its Indian program in the 1970s.

Dartmouth College was founded specifically: "...for the education and instruction of Youth of the Indian Tribes in the Land in reading, writing & all parts of Learning which shall appear necessary and expedient...” Mohegan preacher Samson Occom raised funds for the college in Britain with King George III giving the grant in 1769. Only 28 Indians attended Dartmouth between 1865 and 1965, however. On March 2, 1970, Dartmouth’s 13th President, John G. Kemeny, re-affirmed the college’s commitment to American Indian education during his inauguration and since then Dartmouth has developed one of the most robust Indian programs in the country.

“Some of us went to Ivy League schools,” Jim noted, “and Oneida has good connections to Harvard so we hope to work together more in that area on how we can access the education they offer.”

In fact, both Jim and Halbritter are graduates of the crème de la crème of Ivy League schools – Princeton and Harvard, respectively. Jim received a BA in English from Princeton in 1986; while Halbritter earned a law degree from Harvard Law School. The Oneida Nation endowed a chair at Harvard – the Oneida Indian Nation Professorship in American Indian law – in 2003 and funded it with a $3 million gift.

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Halbritter said the Navajo initiative is also timely because technology now allows for distance learning and potentially distance medicine to be used in the more remote areas of the Navajo Nation and other areas of the southwest. Navajo lands cover some 27,000-plus square miles over the three states.

“I think there’s a really good opportunity to bring distance learning and potentially distance health care to remote areas that you sometimes find particularly in the southwest where Navajo is situated. The technology could be used for any remote location, even in Central and South America. We know those people are our brothers,” Halbritter said.

But what is needed for the Navajo’s grand scale vision to bring improvements in health care, education, economic development and other areas to Indian country is for indigenous leaders to join the initiative, Jim said.

“One of the things about this whole initiative is we do have national programs but they are initiatives started by other people, let’s said the Indian Health Service, and to a certain degree they’re the ones driving these initiates, but we want to turn it around and say, ‘This is what we want as tribal nations, as sovereign nations and we are the tribal leaders speaking,” Jim said.

A good example of the need for a unified tribal leadership is the implementation of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Jim said.

“We’re not going to sit around and wait for the U.S. or somebody else to say, ‘This is how you should do it.’ We need to take bold actions and say, ‘This is how we want it done and then you will do whatever you need to do – changing your laws or whatever – to accommodate what we are doing,’“ Jim said.

Both Halbritter and Jim were involved in the making of the Declaration – Halbritter at the beginning of the process and Jim toward its end.

When Jim was elected to the Navajo Nation Council in 2003 he began attending the sessions at the U.N. where the Declaration was being written. “I actually participated in the casting of language and in the debate and did some research and so on as part of the Navajo delegation,” Jim said.

Halbritter was among a delegation of indigenous leaders who first went to the U.N. in Geneva in 1977 seeking justice and a redress of the many treaty and human rights violations by the dominant societies that had colonized their aboriginal lands.

“I was very honored back in 1977 when I was fortunate enough to attend that conference which was the beginning of the discussion of the Declaration. It’s taken so many years, but it’s good to know that from those humble beginnings something has come about,” Halbritter said.

The U.S. – with Canada, Australia and New Zealand – voted against endorsing the U.N. Declaration in the General Assembly on September 13, 2007, and was the last nation to finally accepts the international document asserting indigenous human rights. President Obama announced that the U.S. would “lend its support” to the Declaration at the White House Tribal Leaders Conference on December 16, but questions about the administration’s intent and interpretation of the Declaration arose almost immediately because of the ambiguity of the language used both in Obama’s speech and in a 15-page letter issued by the State Department.

So, how will the nations actually persuade the U.S. to go about implementing the Declaration and living up to its obligations under the international agreement particularly in issues of indigenous land rights?

“It’s certainly not that we expect it to be an overnight process,” Halbritter said. “It’s probably a generational process, but that’s what our job is, that’s what we need to do.” It won’t be an easy task, Halbritter said. “The U.S. government has a responsibility to live up to truth, justice and the American way and that includes American Indian peoples. They’ve lost some of their knowledge of history in complicated arguments, but to me the issues are quite simple: the treaties are plain and clear. Certainly it’s a challenge and we have to assert ourselves. We’re here and we’re not going away. We’ve been here since time immemorial and we’re going to be her as long as the grass grows and the rivers flow.

Indian leaders will soon have the opportunity to meet and discuss these issues and plan their next steps. The Navajo Nation will hold its annual fair September 7-11. Halbritter and other tribal leaders will be invited to attend and start the discussion and work on the issues. “We’re looking at leadership across Indian country and beginning a relationship with those leaders that are bold and doing certain things that we think are advancing the sovereignty of the nations,” Jim said. “They may not even be aware of it, but they may be already exercising and implementing some of the U.N. Declaration articles and those are the leaders who are making those moves that we want to bring together and start talking about in face to face meetings.”

Halbritter said plans are in the works for an Oneida delegation to attend the Navajo event.

“I think this fair is a wonderful opportunity for leaders to come together and continue this discussion. This is where it begins – in discussion. That’s where everything begins,” Halbritter said.