WASHINGTON - A shadow tracked the footsteps of leaders of the United South and Eastern Tribes during their annual Washington lobbying week recently. As the elders and councilmen called on Congressional offices and government agencies, youth from their tribes also walked the marble corridors.
Some 80 high school students from 18 eastern tribes came to Washington during the USET Impact Week in a program conducted by the Close-Up Foundation, a non-profit civics education group dedicated to showing youth how government works at first hand. The foundation, started in 1970, conducts weeklong field trips to Washington. For the past few years, it has devoted a trip to Native students, working in tandem with USET.
The youths in this year's trip in early February were learning not only about Washington but also about inter-tribal unity. Their visit started, as it has for the past six years, with a keynote address from Keller George, president of USET, the highly effective lobbying coalition of 24 tribes. Before visiting Washington offices, they devoted an evening to an exhibition of information about their home tribes. Early in the week, each delegation mounted a display about its history and culture in a conference room at their base, the Days Inn of Alexandria, Va. The exhibits, ranging from hand-lettered posters to elaborate photo montages, were dismantled at the end of the evening and moved later in the week to the USET conference center at the Crystal City Marriott up the street for a presentation to the USET delegates.
The session "is showing that we should help each other out," said Teyekahli:yos Edwards, Wolf Clan, of the Oneida Indian Nation. She was interviewed along with Michele Scott of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, standing in front of the Mashantucket display of posters replying to the "Twistery" of its critics. Although Edwards had blue eyes and a light complexion and Scott was dark, they spoke of their common Indian heritage.
Both girls were old hands at the program, coming back for their second year. "Last year was very overwhelming for me," said Edwards. "This year it's more comprehensible."
Scott explained how the Mashantucket display tried to counter misconceptions about the tribe that were widespread among its non-Indian neighbors and much of the press. (Although other tribes might envy the financial success of the tribe's Foxwoods Casino Resort, the downside has been a backlash from neighboring towns, fueled by a variety of state politicians.) "If you give them the facts, you hope we can get them to understand," she said.
"Different tribes have to deal with different problems," said Scott. "But we're all Indian."
At the end of the evening, the students swapped impressions in a discussion led by Close-Up Foundation program supervisor Rachel Lipner. She asked what they had learned about their own tribe and about the others. A youth from the Poarch Band of Creek Indians said he learned that his tribe had two other names before winning recognition. A girl from the Seneca Nation said she discovered that "our Great Law was the first draft of the U S. Constitution."
When Lipner asked what they had learned about their differences, a lad from the Maliseet Nation in Maine wearing a backward-turned baseball cap replied that some tribes sent their members a check each month. "We don't get that," he said. "We get a bag of salt."