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‘Ring Out the False, Ring in the True’: Five Takes on 2015

Five individuals engrained in the politics of Indian country answer questions on what to expect in the new year.

A federal government official, the president of a large tribal organization, the chairman of a landless federally recognized tribe that’s waiting for approval of its land-into-trust application, the chief of a state-recognized tribe with a reservation established in 1736 whose federal recognition was rescinded under political pressure, and a Washington lobbyist were asked to answer the wide open questions: “What should we expect in 2015? And/or, what would be the best thing to happen in Indian country next year?” Here are their diverse answers.

Department of the Interior Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Kevin K. Washburn, Chickasaw Nation

For 2015, the Department of the Interior will be continuing major efforts within the BIA and the BIE to improve education for Indian children. We will be taking a lot more land into trust for tribes to expand tribal homelands and working, through the Land Buy Back Program to consolidate fractionated interests to restore these lands to tribal control. We will continue to encourage tribes to take control of their own destinies through the HEARTH Act and other tribal self-governance mechanisms. We will work to strengthen Indian families by finalizing new Indian child welfare guidelines for state courts and embarking on an effort to develop regulations that carry the force of law. We will be reforming a host of regulations to improve tribal and federal governance in Indian country, involving rights of way, secretarial elections, housing and transportation. We will be distributing resources to tribes to help develop indigenous responses to climate change. We will be finalizing the reform of our federal acknowledgment regulations so that the recognition process is more transparent, fair and efficient.

On the operations side, Interior will work to improve performance of our routine, day-to-day work serving Indian country to deliver services to Indian country faster, better and cheaper. At the same time, we will be working to further institutionalize the White House Native American Affairs Council and further the Council's crucial mission of bringing an all-of-government approach to supporting Indian country. We will also continue to promote an all-of-the-above energy development strategy in Indian country so that Indian country remains a key partner in American energy independence. We also look forward to continuing a bipartisan working relationship with Congress to keep Indian country's legislative agenda moving forward.

Brian Patterson, Oneida Indian Nation, Bear Clan Representative to the Oneida Indian Nation’s Men’s Council and Clan Mothers, and President of the United South and Eastern Tribes

I understand diplomacy. It’s genetic – my people have 400-plus years of practicing diplomacy. Now I’m not looking to start a fight, but what is the opposite of diplomacy – what is needed when actions are taken that are against Indian country and the best interests of our children and our children’s children going forward? How do you counter that? I think of a lion. If a lion is coming after you, you don’t get diplomatic and say, ‘Oh, what else would you rather eat besides me?’ 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. Now if Indian country had the means to generate enough pressure in a unified approach then maybe, just maybe we could deter that lion from attacking us.

Look, without the Violence Against Women Act we can’t protect our women; without trust land we have Carcieri and can’t protect our land base; the Baby Veronica case and others show that the Indian Child Welfare Act is under attack and we can’t protect our children. The lion is coming and no one’s standing to deter that attack from the lion.

So where does that leave Indian country in looking at 2015? Politically speaking, Indian country has exemplified its ability to remain bi-partisan. We know there are continuing challenges between Congress and the administration, there’s a growing public sentiment about a do-nothing Congress and there’s heavy political posturing on the part of the candidates especially as we begin to turn our full attention on the next presidential election. For Indian country, the strain is always between the Congress and us. If we look at what just happened to San Carlos Apache Tribe [in Congress’s vote to turn over a 2,400-acre sacred site to a giant copper mining outfit], we see that we can’t protect our sacred sites, but they are more than sacred sites – they are our identity as a people and a reflection of our universal values. And so for 2015 and moving forward, our job and responsibility is to continue to advocate for the recognition of our inherent sovereignty and that doesn’t change regardless of the makeup of Congress and the administration. The threats are real – to our identity, to our children’s future. So the question becomes how do we put fear in the lion? I think the only way we can do that is through a unified approach. Indian country has to be accountable within itself; it has to embody trust within itself. The year 2015 will be critical for Indian country’s ability to define the next era in Indian country — and we’ll do that through our unity.

Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council Chairman Cedric Cromwell

We are hopeful that 2015 will be a banner year for tribes across Indian country, specially in light of the recent federal court decision in favor of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe that upholds the Interior Department’s ability to take land into trust. Even with the U.S. Supreme Court Carcieri ruling in 2009, which clouded the process, the Obama Administration has taken more than 200,000 acres of land into trust on behalf of tribes. And, at the White House Tribal Nations Conference in November, President Obama reiterated his commitment to take a half-million acres into trust by the end of his term. These developments will reverberate across Indian country in the upcoming year.

Of course, leaders across Indian country will need to build relationships with a new Congress. We will need to seek their support in sustaining economic development initiatives among tribal nations, so that we can rely on our own efforts to build housing; deliver healthcare; education; youth and elder services; and to conserve the cultural and environmental resources our Creator has bestowed upon us.

Schaghticoke Tribal Nation Chief Richard Velky

John F. DeForest, a prominent Connecticut historian reported in his History of the Indians of Connecticut (Hamersly Publishers, 1852) that “One of the largest, if not the largest, of the tribes who retreated before the advancing Colonists was the Scatacooks in Kent (CT).”

In addition to being forced to retreat from our traditional territory, the Schaghticoke population was destroyed via force of arms, European disease, and a wholesale taking of our aboriginal lands – a common story among the Indigenous Peoples of the northeast.

The King of England set aside a 2,300-acre reservation for the Schaghticoke in 1736. The State of Connecticut subsequently recognized the Schaghticoke and assumed “guardianship” over the tribe for the past 400 years – centuries characterized by neglect, a lack of support and, most recently, hostile attempts at cultural genocide by political attacks on our efforts for federal recognition.

The failed guardianship included the denial of a Schaghticoke request for a school in 1786. The state government denied our request claiming that our “savagery” would render a school useless.

Another failure occurred in 1900-1902 when the New Milford Power Company excavated and destroyed the tribe’s ancient burial grounds.

And recently, when the Schaghticoke received federal recognition in 2004, the state and other special interests combined forces in a successful political campaign to get the BIA to rescind its approval.

What would be good for Indian country in 2015? The best thing for Indian country would be for the BIA to move forward with the reformed federal recognition regulations presented in its draft proposal without further revisions.

For Connecticut, the best thing would be for the state to redeem its guardianship role by supporting its state-recognized tribes.

For Schaghticoke, the restoration of our federal recognition would put us 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, it would mean Indian country and the state working together for generations to come.

Tom Rodgers, Blackfeet Nation, owner of Carlyle Consulting, a lobbying firm

English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote: "Ring out the old, ring in the new / Ring, happy bells, across the snow / The year is going, let him go / Ring out the false, ring in the true." As we contemplate the New Year's moments we reach for that which is true, that which is the escalator to opportunity – empathy. We now watch our President be unilaterally bold in his moments of empathy. But also in these moments we have a divided government and a Supreme Court where far too many justices have no knowledge or empathy for "us as a people." Now more than ever the New Year's moments call for BOLD vision and BOLD action at the Department of the Interior, not lowered ambitions. This is your legacy moment: remember when you leave you can take nothing that you received, only what you have given: a full empathetic heart, honest service, sacrifice and courage.