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Quinaults run for sovereignty

QUINAULT INDIAN RESERVATION, Wash. ? In the past, American Indian tribes commonly used runners to alert their communities to impending enemy attack. This week marks the beginning of a 600-person, 2,800-mile relay from Washington State to the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in an effort to heighten national awareness of erosion of Indian sovereignty on reservation lands.

Organizers hope the run will be a watershed event in the preservation of tribal sovereignty, said Fawn Sharp, attorney for the Quinault Indian Nation in coastal Washington and team leader for the Sovereignty Run. It is geared to unite tribes and tribal supporters, create sovereignty awareness and support on a national level and raise money for the National Congress of American Indian's Tribal Sovereignty Protection Initiative.

"It's a different battlefield, but our runners are here to tell the courts we're still resistant to defeat," she said.

The Sovereignty Run began in Taholah on the Quinault reservation on Sept. 11 and will wind its way through 12 states to end in a Washington D.C. rally on Oct. 7 ? the day the Supreme Court is set to convene.

Indian Nations are sovereign governments, recognized in the United States Constitution and hundreds of treaties with former presidents. A year ago, faced with what they characterized as "terrible precedents in restricting tribal jurisdiction," NCAI started organizing to protect tribal sovereignty from further erosion in the courts, according to the organization's web site. Corporate and private donations to the Sovereignty Run will help further those goals.

In September 2001, Sharp was in the middle of training for the Seattle marathon. When she attended the Sept. 11 NCAI meeting in Washington, D.C., she was thrust not only into a heated discussion of sovereignty erosion but also confronted by the terrorist attacks on the United States.

"When I came back from Washington D.C., (running) was the thing that was really inspiring to me," she said. "When I returned from 9-11, I could really see a sovereignty run, and that was the catalyst for it."

American Indian and Alaska Native tribes from around the country will run through Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. for the event. Runners include a 74-year-old elder from the Yakama nation, gold medal runner Billy Mills, Oglala Lakota, and a Spokane tribal member who will run 50 miles.

But Sharp says anyone can participate: in shape or not, native or non-native.

"We've told people 'if you want to do a 50-yard dash for sovereignty, that's great,'" she said.

The run will begin in Quinault with a mile-long walk to commemorate past tribal president and national leader Joe DeLaCruz, Sharp said. Runners will carry a staff carved by Quinault cultural leaders. Organizers are negotiating to have the staff inducted into the Smithsonian's Museum of the American Indian when the run is complete.

David Montgomery, 16-year-old Quinault tribal member and technical director for the Sovereignty Run, has been publicizing the event around his Olympia, Wash. home.

"When I told (non-native) people what I was working on, they weren't really familiar with sovereignty in general, let alone with the Sovereignty Run," he said. "So I think it's an issue that really needs raised awareness in order to preserve the sovereignty of our nation."

He's had good response. So far, Montgomery has counted about 15,000 hits on the event's web site.

Though the current composition of the Supreme Court has been particularly insensitive to assertions of tribal sovereignty, it is a trend that has been long in the making, said Robert Odawi Porter, a law professor at the University of Iowa, and a member of the Seneca Nation of New York.

"You might look at (recent) cases as a more virulent form of the court's anti-sovereignty agenda, but looking over the long history of the court begrudgingly acknowledging the sovereignty of Indian nations, in the long run I don't think it makes any difference," Porter said. "It's a long history of loss."

For 30 years, tribes have tended to let their lawyers do their fighting in issues of sovereignty. But lawyers advocating for American Indian tribes have to work in a hostile legal climate, "fine-tuning the erosion," Porter said.

Check out the Sovereignty Run's web site at: http://www.sovrun.org/.