Repatriation summit only a start in eyes of Chickasaw leader

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OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. - As the recent National Repatriation Summit wound down here, Chickasaw Lt. Governor Jefferson Keel said the two-day gathering made history and was a good start at meeting problems confronting tribes across Indian country.

The first of its kind summit was sponsored by the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations.

"We wanted to show that it can be done. There are a lot of confederations. There are a lot of coalitions which have been created around the country. We are aware of that. But they still do things individually."

Keel said the nations wanted to identify a common goal. "We all have ancestors remains that are sitting somewhere in boxes on shelves, somewhere, warehoused. We all want to see them returned."

That requires a national coalition, which voices Indian tribal concerns about repatriation, outside the federal government, he said. "Very seldom are tribes advocating for this, we have individuals on boards trying to do the best they can."

Keel said he believes tribes need to step up to the plate and be a part of repatriation, rather than being led along by the hand of the federal government.

"Part of it is because it is always governed by the National Park Service. We aren't animals, we aren't land, we aren't trees, birds. ... our affairs don't need to be managed by the National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs or anybody else."

He said the BIA has always had an adversarial relationship with tribes across the country. "We, the Chickasaw, have a pretty good relationship with the BIA, we recognize that there is a need for the BIA, but in terms of Indian cultural identities, beliefs, customs and traditions, federal agencies do not advocate on behalf of Indian tribes. We need a voice, we believe a national coalition will accomplish a greater goal of uniting our voice."

Keel said he believes the reason for that adversarial relationship over the past century, even though a majority of BIA employees are Native American, is easy to explain.

"I think it is conditioning. It becomes an exercise in futility. Employees undergo the process of working for an organization. They work for an entity. They become accustomed to following rules and regulations; everything that has to do with Indian tribes, for instance, used to be governed by an old BIA manual. It said, 'This is exactly how you do everything. Everything is spelled out, if it wasn't in those procedures, it wouldn't work.' So, although we have Indian people working for the BIA, they are limited to what they can do."

He pointed to "an intriguing aspect of the BIA ... created out of the War Department for the purpose of managing Indian Affairs. What that presumes is that Indians can't manage themselves. We have proved over and over again in modern history that we can manage our own affairs and that we are capable of providing better quality services, more services, higher quality, higher-level services."

Keel said he recognizes the internal struggle of Indian people who work for the federal government and the roadblocks they encounter.

"Indian people love this country, they always have. We have always had Indian warriors who have answered the call to defend this country, go to war. I spent twenty years in the Army myself. I retired in 1989 and came back to work for Indian people.

"That is what I have dedicated the rest of my life to, the service of Indian people, in whatever capacity. I'm excited about bringing Indian tribal leaders together if I can do that. If I can't, I tried."

Keel said he drew satisfaction from working to provide his people with better health, education and meet housing needs.

He sees a need for a political voice in Congress. "I believe that the best social program is a good job," he said. And, he wants to see tribes working together beyond the repatriation issue.

"This is a start. It is a start in getting tribal leaders to come together and show that tribes can work together. We have a ... common belief in protecting our sovereignty, in protecting our customs, traditions and beliefs, which reaches far beyond plain economical development or health care or congressional funding.

"I believe it is important that we take our voice to those individual tribes and say, 'We're willing to help you.'

"We don't need to fight among ourselves. The longer we fight among ourselves the more we participate in that divide-and-conquer theory that everyone else wants us to be plagued with."