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‘The case is a laugher’

I’m not a lawyer; I’m a scientist, and a budding one at that. However, this semester I am participating in the Native American Political Leadership Program at George Washington University because I am interested in science and policy working together. The program includes spending the semester in Washington, D.C. and participating in networking events, conferences and classes and, for me, an internship in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The networking events have all been uncontroversial and informational, ranging from visits to the Motion Picture Association of America to the Bipartisan Policy Center. I’ll admit that I’m not extremely well-versed in matters of law and I view most of our events as a chance to learn something new.

Recently, we went to the Supreme Court for a visit with Justice Antonin Scalia, who has served as an associate justice since his appointment by President Reagan in 1986. I thought this would be a good experience for me since I’ve not been to the Supreme Court before and have only read about the verdicts handed down and the aftermath of their implications.

Most recently, the Carcieri v. Salazar decision of Feb. 24 has been a recurrent topic of discussion within the Indian communities in D.C. I’ve heard it discussed amongst Indian lawyers in offices at the National Congress of American Indians Executive Summit and in passing at the National Indian Gaming Commissions meeting in D.C.

I know the implications could be huge for those tribes not federally recognized in 1934 and that the opinions of the Supreme Court justices on the use of the word “now” are the reason. So, when I went to visit with Justice Scalia I thought perhaps I would use the opportunity to ask about the case and see what he said.

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I began by mentioning the Supreme Court ruling on a case involving a Rhode Island tribe and the issue of having to be federally recognized in 1934, I was fairly short in my address and didn’t get a chance to finish my question, which was going to be, “what do you think of all the attention to the case?” The justice promptly cut me off in mid-sentence and asked if I’d read the statute. I had only read about 20 articles talking about the statute so technically, I suppose, I hadn’t read it, so I said I’d read some of the statute. That was all he needed to begin a rather defensive rant embarrassing me in front of a room of 30 or more people. He said that if I’d read the statute then I would know what the word “now” meant and that to him; “The case is a laugher.” That’s his response to a young Indian woman brave enough to face him.

My shock made me sit down and wonder what exactly I’d said that prompted the chastising. I felt disrespected, but worse was that I felt sadness. For all of us, Indian and non-Indian, working and fighting to keep what is rightfully ours and to have this so called “justice” slamming down his rhetorical hammer defending an unjust nation’s legislation was a slap in the face. He had earlier stated to another Indian student brave enough to stand and ask a question that the U.S. right to rule was by conquest and all Indian law was based off that.

I believe that to be truly conquered you must no longer fight. I don’t believe this to be the case in Indian country. We are still fighting and we will always fight against being conquered and against an establishment that believes they have won.

The justice doesn’t believe in a living constitution, which he made clear. He also doesn’t support a woman’s right to choose because it isn’t in the constitution. Race doesn’t matter because we should treat everyone as equal because. … it’s in the constitution. He thinks that if you haven’t read the Federalist Papers then you don’t know who you are. My response to his defensive rant and constitutional perspective is that those who know who they are do not find themselves from reading finite words on finite pages. Knowing who you are comes from nurturing your culture, traditions and land and finding it valuable enough to fight for.

– Nazune Menka

Arlington, Va.