The Year in Politics

Indian country’s story lines of 2014 focused on stronger government-to-government relations and improved living conditions.

Over the past year, one of the most story-lines in Indian country was the push for stronger government-to-government relations as well as improved living conditions throughout Turtle Island.

Among this year’s biggest headlines was President Barack Obama’s visit to a reservation, a Native woman making judicial history by getting benched, a messy presidential election in the Navajo nation and Keith Harper being named Obama’s human rights ambassador.

Here is a short recap of the biggest political stories this year:

Welcome to Standing Rock

During the 2008 presidential election, then-Senator Barack Obama made a campaign stop to visit with the Crow Nation in Montana.

His second visit to Indian Country may have been delayed a bit too long for the taste of some, but two years into his second term, he returned to connect again directly with Native people. Prior to his trip to Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, President Obama shared his thoughts on the visit in a column for Indian Country Today Media Network. “We’re writing a new chapter in our history—one in which agreements are upheld, tribal sovereignty is respected, and every American Indian and Alaskan Native who works hard has the chance to get ahead,” he wrote.

RELATED: On My Upcoming Trip to Indian Country

While in North Dakota, the president met with tribal youth, who shared their stories of struggle with poverty, addiction, suicide, violence and more. President Obama acknowledged there was a “crisis” in Indian education and introduced his plan to improve tribal education. The President’s focus on Native youth and Indian education did not end with that visit, as more initiatives were rolled out on December 3 at the 2014 White House Tribal Nations Conference.

RELATED: President Obama Follows Visit With Strong Action Plan for Indian Country


Navajo Generating Station, one of three major power plants in the area

The WCIP Controversy

The World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (WCIP) was spurring debate long before it was convened in New York in September.

Controversy about the WCIP swirled during the 13th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in May, where indigenous organizations voiced concern that state actions would sideline the issues of Indigenous Peoples at the WCIP. These concerns stemmed from news last winter that the President of the General Assembly had decided Indigenous Peoples would not have full and equal participation at WCIP on par with states.

When the WCIP was over, the biggest news out of it was the conference’s Outcome Document. The OD, prepared in advance of the WCIP and approved in New York, had input from Indigenous Peoples during the preparation stages, but was finalized without any indigenous consultation. The crux of the OD reaffirms the commitment of states to the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and promises consultation and cooperation with Indigenous Peoples. A bit ironic that, considering the final document was put together without that consultation – a point that was made by many in Indian country.

RELATED: World Conference Outcome Document: States Win

Glenn Morris, a tenured professor of political science at the University of Colorado at Denver, felt the OD did more harm than good. Morris felt the “so-called” OD now completely excludes four essential principles for indigenous rights: Self-Determination; the international personality of indigenous nations and international character of treaties between indigenous nations and invader states; the right of Indigenous Peoples to control their territories, natural resources and traditional knowledge; and Dismantling the Doctrine of Christian Discovery. Morris asked, “How can states make the pretense of honestly implementing the spirit of the UNDRIP while ignoring these four essential areas?”


Navajo Generating Station, one of three major power plants in the area

Harper Gets an International Voice

He became the first citizen of a federally recognized tribe to become an U.S. ambassador on June 3 when the Senate confirmed his appointment. Harper, widely known in Indian country for being part of the team of lawyers who represented the lead plaintiff in the Cobell trust litigation and settlement. “The President’s nomination and Senate confirmation of Keith Harper as Ambassador means that we will have someone representing the United States who can fight for our tribal treaty rights and our human rights at the international level,” former Mandan, Hidatsa & Arikara Nation tribal chairman Tex Hall said at the time.

RELATED: Keith Harper, Cherokee Nation Citizen, Confirmed as Ambassador

The National Congress of American Indians released a letter of support for Harper prior to his confirmation, in which they call Harper a role model and an ideal candidate for the job.


Navajo Generating Station, one of three major power plants in the area

Have a Seat on the Federal Bench

Diane Humetewa’s name will forever be engraved in the echelons of American Indian history, as well as United States history. On May 14 the Senate unanimously voted to confirm her appointment as a judge for the U.S. District Court for Arizona. She became the first Native American woman federal judge in U.S. history and the third Native American to ever hold such a position.

RELATED: Diane Humetewa, Confirmed to Federal Bench, Makes History

Following the confirmation, the NCAI said it, “greatly appreciates the efforts of the President and Senate in achieving this historic confirmation.” Praise poured in for Humetewa from all corners of Turtle Island. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana) called her “an inspiration to Native people, especially Native women across Indian country,” and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) said she has “no doubt that [Humetewa] will hold the court to the highest standards, as she has done throughout her career.”


Navajo Generating Station, one of three major power plants in the area

Fluency Matters

Sixteen candidates threw their names in the hat to be the next Navajo Nation president earlier this year prior to the primaries. From the August primaries came two candidates, former Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. and Chris Deschene, but controversy broke out around Deschene when he was accused of not being fluent in the Navajo language – a requirement for all presidential candidates.

RELATED: Native Language Fluency at Center of Navajo Nation Crossroads

Following the primary election, several Navajo citizens and former presidential candidates filed grievances against Deschene, claiming he had lied about his qualifications in regards to fluency. Deschene argued that “fluency” is a matter of opinion… and that matter was discussed at length by the Navajo Supreme Court and the Navajo Elections Authority. The issue ultimately pushed the November election for president to be postponed until December.

Deschene was removed from the ballots by the elections authority in November and replaced with Russell Begaye, who had finished third in the primaries.

RELATED: Begaye Back In the Race for Navajo President; Deschene Off Ballots

That change to the ballot brought a second issue into play. Absentee and early voting ballots had already been returned with votes for either Shirley or Deschene. This meant the whole thing had to be scrapped. The election was postponed, since those ballots need to be reprint, and those votes recast. The election is now scheduled for 2015, with no set date.

RELATED: Navajo Presidential Election Not Until 2015 Now


Navajo Generating Station, one of three major power plants in the area

Washburn Pushes Fed Rec Reform in 2014

Department of the Interior’s Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs Kevin K. Washburn was busy in 2014, and one of his biggest pushes came on reform of the federal recognition process. In May, he announced new regulations that addressed two of the seven mandatory criteria a tribe currently must meet to be acknowledged – proof that it has had maintained continuous political authority over a distinct community of members from historical times to the present.

RELATED: BREAKING: Federal Recognition Reform Moves Forward

Not everyone was happy with these changes. The new federal recognition regulations came with frustrations around a controversial provision that would allow certain third parties to veto a tribe’s ability to re-petition for federal status. The veto was included in the proposed new rules under pressure from Connecticut politicians.

RELATED: Q&A: Kevin Washburn on New Proposed Federal Recognition Rules

Following public meetings and a public comment period that ended September 30, Washburn said the regulations would be reviewed and adjustments, if any, would be made and the final rule would then be published in the Federal Register. That process may take up to two years.

RELATED: Washburn Hears Frustration, Anger Over Third Party Fed Rec Veto


Navajo Generating Station, one of three major power plants in the area

Indian Country and the Mid-Term Elections

Turnout in midterm elections tends to be down, but this year, several groups worked to change that trend from the Native perspective. From New Mexico to key races in South Dakota and Alaska, the Native presence was vibrant, and led to some important results.

In Alaska, the Unity ticket of Independent Bill Walker and Democratic candidate Byron Mallott stood for the Alaska Governor and Lt. Governor seats, respectively. The Unity ticket won over incumbent Gov. Rep. Sean Parnell, and Mallott, Tlingit, went on to be named Alaska Lt. Gov. and Walker named Gov. That meant Alaska Natives were on on the transition team and in the new cabinet.

RELATED: Election of Walker and Mallott Is Historic on Several Levels

In South Dakota, voters decided that the county that contains the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is being renamed from Shannon County to Oglala Lakota County.

RELATED: Welcome, Oglala Lakota County! The Story Behind the Story

In New Mexico six American Indian women jumped into races statewide, and three of them won: Doreen Wonda Johnson, Sharon Clahchischilliage, and Georgene Louis.

RELATED: Native Women Aim to Make Waves in NM Politics


Navajo Generating Station, one of three major power plants in the area

40 Years of Fighting For Indigenous Rights

The International Indian Treaty Council turned 40 this year and its annual conference celebrated the past, shared experiences and cultures of the present, and developed plans and strategies to meet the ongoing struggles of Indigenous Peoples worldwide.

RELATED: Treaty Council’s 40th Conference Celebrates Indigenous Peoples Rights

In 1974, some 5,000 representatives from 97 indigenous nations from across North and South America traveled to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe for nine days as part of the First International Treaty Council of the Western Hemisphere – where the IITC was established. The non-profit organization works with Indigenous Peoples’ human rights, sovereignty, self-determination, and the recognition and protection of treaties, traditional cultures and sacred lands.

This year’s meeting in September was held on the family land of Phillip Deere, a Muscogee (Creek) Nation citizen and one of IITC’s co-founders in Okmulgee, Oklahoma.


Navajo Generating Station, one of three major power plants in the area

Gaining Tribal Self-Determination

When Congress approved the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act in 1996, turning over control of federal housing assistance to tribes, it was a big win for American Indian sovereignty. In November, prior to the “lame duck” session of Congress opening, Rep. Steve Pearce, R-NM, introduced HR 4329, a NAHASDA reauthorization with some key reforms to further assist in tribal self-determination.

RELATED: Tribes Seeks Sovereignty Grand Slam With Reauthorization of Housing Act

The bill passed the House on December 2 and was sent on for consideration by the Senate.

RELATED: House Passes Pearce Native American Housing Bill, Moves to Senate

These reforms “will provide lease-to-own programs aimed at providing rural tribes with the means for self-determination, and allow tribes to focus more on money and development, instead of administrative requirements,” according to a House press release.


Navajo Generating Station, one of three major power plants in the area