On a recent television show, there was an exchange that caught my attention. A U.S. Marshall walked into an Indian bar in Albuquerque and asked the bartender to name all of the occupants of the bar. He politely declined. The Marshall threatened to go ;'all Great White Father from Washington and Little Bighorn'' on him. The barkeep patiently explained that first of all, the whites lost at Little Bighorn; and second, it was his first day, so he didn't know any of the occupants of the bar.
It helps to know your stuff when you strut into unfamiliar territory.
Given how little mainstream America understands its relationship with Indian nations, what can we expect from the presumptive presidential nominees? According to their Web sites, both are proponents of Native sovereignty, self-governance and self-determination. And each has unique interpretations of what that means.
Sen. Barack Obama's interpretation is easy to find. This passage is taken directly from his Web site:
''Native American tribal nations are sovereign, self-governing, political entities and enjoy a government-to-government relationship with the United States federal government that is recognized expressly in the U.S. Constitution. Self-Determination: Barack Obama supports the principle of tribal self-determination, with recognition that the federal government must honor its treaty obligations and fully enable tribal self-governance.''
Now from Sen. John McCain:
''I believe the federal government has a special ethical and legal responsibility to help make the American dream accessible to Native Americans.'' Also, ''McCain believes in protecting tribal sovereignty and recognizes the unique government-to-government relationship with Indian tribes and the trust responsibility.'' McCain ''has long championed tribal self-governance, taking power out of the hands of Washington bureaucrats and placing it in the hands of tribal governments.'' This document was a press release dated March 18. It could not easily be found on McCain's Web site.
I wish I could provide a simple, 10-second sound bite that would work to establish 500 years of cross-cultural contact and communication. Unfortunately, many Americans believe the indigenous people of this hemisphere have been conquered and that the U.S. had the right to dictate history.
Each candidate has a chance to improve relations between the federal government and indigenous nations whose homelands eventually became the United States. It is a chance to honor, not just recognize, the sovereignty of those who have always been here. Sovereignty is not something that was bestowed on the Indian; it was the very nature of the relationship between a fledgling nation and many, long-established indigenous nations. It is a chance to honor the treaties which, according to the U.S. Constitution, are the supreme law of the land. This is a unique opportunity for each candidate to engage each indigenous nation, to begin to heal the wrongs of the past by acknowledging those wrongs rather than referring loosely to them as ''Indian country issues.''
It's an opportunity for the candidates to consider practices that have been part of the Haudenosaunee worldview since long before contact. In every deliberation, we consider our responsibility to those yet unborn, the seven generations to come. Also, our notion of consensus is at the foundation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.
It might seem overwhelming to wrestle with this notion of what it means to be responsible to the seventh generation, especially in light of a president's four- to eight-year residency in the White House. It can make deliberations very difficult. That's why it is important.
Many of my students first engage this concept in a literal sense, asking, ''How are we supposed to know what the world will be like seven generations from now?''
Most Americans only consider what the costs and repercussions of their decisions are for their generation, maybe their children's, and at the very outmost, their grandchildren's. Now imagine agonizing over the burden of a multitrillion-dollar war and its effects on the great-grandchildren of today's generation. What are we doing to stem that rising tide of debt?
America has the potential to do much more for the betterment of humanity, if only it would do away with bottom-line thinking (not to mention its air of hypocrisy). After polluting the world's environment as a byproduct of industrial gain, the U.S. now scolds China, Russia, India and other developing global powers about using cheap, polluting fuels that contribute to climate change.
Indigenous people realized that what we do now echoes into the future, and pondered what those seven generations from now would say about our stewardship of the world that they inherited from us. How will America answer those unborn generations? How will we as indigenous nations answer them?
The notion of consensus seems to be even more misunderstood by people. Many have often incorrectly assumed that it meant unanimity, and that it was easy for Indians to practice it due to their smaller numbers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Consensus is first and foremost about allowing every person's voice to be heard, understood and acknowledged. Then it is about contemplation and consideration of everyone's viewpoints and offerings, even children's voices. This tends to take a long time, but it is necessary if every citizen is not only to feel invested in the process, but truly heard and valued by the larger group. Lastly, it is about arriving at a point where an individual places the future of the group above their own self-interest. It does not, nor did it ever, mean that everyone had to agree on every level.
Both presidential candidates need to understand that Indian country is not one homogenous group, but comprised of distinct nations. Furthermore, that each indigenous nation has a unique and historical relationship with the United States. From there we can begin to build the future of our relations moving forward into the 21st century. A good start would be to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, passed in September 2007, without reservation, rather than remain one of only four nations that voted ''no.'' Now wouldn't that signal a shift toward a longer view in federal-Indian relations for the new president?
Kevin J. White, Ph.D., Akwesasne Mohawk, is an instructor at SUNY Oswego in the Native American and American Studies programs and a columnist for Indian Country Today. He has been involved with the Pinewoods Community Farming Inc., Iroquois White Corn Project since 1999. He can be reached at email@example.com.