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USET president sees 'new era of activism' in Indian country

Patterson: Issues of tribal sovereignty, self-sufficiency are universal

CHEROKEE, N.C. - With judicial and state assaults on tribal sovereignty, and failed federal policies in Indian country, the nations need to move toward solidarity in all arenas, according to the president of the United South and Eastern Tribes.

A week after USET's recent semiannual meeting, Brian Patterson, Oneida Indian Nation of New York, said he intends to continue an aggressive campaign to build alliances across Indian country in order for nations to achieve ''true self-determination.''

''I really think Indian country is going into a new era of activism. It will be different from the first round because today our Indian warriors are doctors and lawyers and educated people holding educated decision-making positions throughout the federal government as well as CEOs and presidents of companies. It'll be different because today, Indian country has resources we didn't have in the '60s and the generations prior to that.''

(The OIN owns Four Directions Media, parent company of Indian Country Today.)

A nonprofit intertribal organization, USET represents 25 federally acknowledged tribes regionally and nationally. It operates through workgroups and committees, providing a forum for ideas and information among the tribes, agencies and governments.

The meeting was held at Harrah's Cherokee Casino & Hotel in Cherokee, hosted by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Topics covered included economic development, proposed Class II gaming regulations, health and education issues, federal recognition, political action and more.

Members passed a number of resolutions, including a strongly worded resolution calling on the federal government and Congress to intercede on behalf of Maine's Wabanaki tribes with legislation, if necessary, to restore the tribes' sovereignty ''without interference from any entity'' - meaning the state of Maine. The Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act was intended to reaffirm the tribes' sovereignty, but the state and courts have eroded it almost entirely over the years. The tribes' efforts this year to amend the Maine Implementing Act - the state bill that implements the 1980 settlement act - were quashed by some legislators.

He praised the ''good strong tribal leadership in Maine'' for trying to amend the settlement act.

''I think what happened is the elders who signed that agreement believed the true spirit of the act would be interpreted as the federal laws said it would be - to uphold tribal sovereignty and secure a future for their children.''

But local Maine politicians aren't committed to ''long-term visioning, goals and outcomes.''

''The political climate up there is really hostile and has violated the spirit of the agreement. The state of Maine is hostile to the inherent sovereignty of the tribes, and you can point to examples such as the state's money interest in supporting the paper companies that are polluting the water, which is the icon and cultural identity of the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot peoples.''

The resolution lists a long series of grievances by which the state and courts have caused the federal trust relationship with the tribes to be ''suppressed and distorted,'' resulting in the tribes' not having access to beneficial laws passed by Congress, including the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, but being penalized by restrictive laws.

The resolution reads, in part, ''The Wabanaki Tribes cannot continue to maintain such a system that has failed to be a model for all Tribes nationwide, when powers of Government are constantly challenged in the court and the legislature of another sovereign, the state, corrupts the basic foundation of each of the Wabanaki Tribes; and this type of suppression,'' it continues, ''committed against the Wabanaki population manifests itself in the lack of services, poverty, illness, shortened life expectancy, and general welfare of the Tribes' as resources need to be dedicated to war off State and private party infractions and injustices.''

The situation is similar for the Narragansett Indians of Rhode Island.

''I think all of the world's indigenous peoples need to look at what's going on in Maine and Rhode Island to realize they're coming for Indian people again; they're coming for our land, they're coming for our water, our resources; they're coming to strip our rights and using the court system and state governments to do it. What's ironic is that the Wabanaki and Narragansetts were among the first tribes hit by the invasion, and now they're going through that again.''

Tribes need to look beyond the current BIA definition of self-determination, Patterson said, because it is not ''true self-determination; it's self-determination under the limits of the BIA. Tribes will only be truly sovereign when they escape from the walls of being domestic nations. We need to look beyond those walls.''

Beyond the walls are the indigenous peoples of the world and their growing sense of mutuality and support.

''This country has broken every treaty relationship with Indian people. This country does not meet its trust responsibility for our health, safety and welfare in this trust relationship for taking of our lands and our water and resources - that was their promise. So this country is not going to save us. It's going to be the world league of nations that ultimately rises to support Indian country. The more we can turn our thoughts and actions to these larger issues of long term visioning, the better we will be. It is no more business as usual.''

That's not to say the federal government should be let off the hook with regards to its fiduciary responsibilities to the nations, he said. But every tribe has some sort of resource - one tribe may have casino revenues, while another may have lots of land but no money. The idea is for tribes to meld their strengths to strengthen self-sufficiency for all nations.

''Relationship is paramount, and everything else is derivative.''

He said a consensus exists that the world is looking to the tribes for answers.

''A lot of tribes have prophecies that speak to the times that we are living in. We have to look to those prophecies, and I think the tribal leaders, the elders and the spiritual people of our tribes need to rise to the forefront and exercise strong leadership. Certainly, it then becomes not only an Indian issue, but an issue of people living together with peace and righteousness. That's where the issue has always been.''

Patterson paid homage to the USET's past presidents ''for getting us to where we are. I'd be remiss if I didn't pledge to them to keep moving forward.''