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Wilkins: The right to know: Another Deloria suggestion

Northwest Indian College, located on the Lummi Reservation in Washington, recently hosted the 4th Annual Vine Deloria Jr. Indigenous Studies Symposium. The event brought together a bevy of academics, students, and activists who shared research and ideas, and reminisced about how they had been influenced by Deloria’s unparalleled life and work.

This year’s event featured Barbara Lane, a brilliant anthropologist, who served as an expert witness for a number of Northwest Coast tribes in the seminal Boldt (and other) fishing rights litigation in the 1970s and beyond. Walt Lara of the Yurok Nation discussed his key role as a member of the Northwest Indian Cemetery Protection Association that represented several California tribes in lawsuits, including the infamous religious freedom case, Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association (1988).

The protection and enhancement of indigenous sovereignty required an even more comprehensive understanding of our distinctive political, legal, economic, social and geographic status.

Billy Frank Jr., who continues his role in protecting the Native nations and natural resources of the Northwest Coast from his perch as chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission spoke. Also there were Albert White Hat Sr., a respected Lakota language instructor; and Ramona Bennett, former chairwoman of the Puyallup Nation and a leading fishing rights activist. She gave a stirring talk about the harsh anti-Indian environment that existed in Washington state in the 1960s and ’70s, and how the nations were able to morally, strategically and physically fend off those attacks and positively push forward on treaty rights and self-determination.

In between sessions, I strolled into the library to check my e-mail and browse the library’s resources. To my delight I discovered the librarians had put together an impressive display featuring many of Deloria’s publications. Over the years, I’ve collected a majority of his voluminous works, but in thumbing through the display I saw an unpublished essay that I’d never seen before titled “The Right to Know.”

He’d written this short essay in 1978 and apparently presented it at a White House pre-Conference on Indian Library and Information Services on or Near Reservations, held in Denver, Colo. in October of that year. I was intrigued by the title, and quickly claimed it under the “doctrine of discovery,” and copied it before someone else demanded it.

The essay focused on education, the field that initially launched Deloria’s career in indigenous activism. In the first part, he traced the early history of intercultural relations between Native nations and colonial Americans and described the contrasting cultural paradigms of the two peoples: “The English settlers conceived education to be that of memorizing established truths which had been passed down from generation to generation by their forebears,” while Native peoples “sought the maturity of the human personality rather than the transmission of a body of factual knowledge and doctrinal beliefs and [Indian education’s] pragmatic approach encouraged individual development and an attitude of intelligent subsistence in the world.”

He then analyzed the way federal lawmakers inserted education into the diplomatic accords that were being negotiated between the U.S. and Native nations. Counter-intuitively, his analysis showed how at least the earliest educational provisions in treaties were less about the development of specific institutions and more about crafting “a comprehensive and perpetual process whereby the tribes could learn the new ways of survival which the introduction of a strange people into their lands required.”

Deloria cited ample treaty evidence indicating that many Native nations, while intent on retaining their own cultural norms and values, were keenly aware that it made sense to learn as much as they could about white culture as well.

As the Choctaw noted in a letter to John C. Calhoun, the Secretary of War from 1817 – 1825, “We wish to derive lasting, not transient, benefits from the sale of our lands. The proceeds of those sales we are desirous should be applied for the instruction of our young countrymen. ... We are, therefore, anxious, that our rising generation should acquire a knowledge of literature and the arts, and learn to tread in those paths which have conducted your people ...”

Of course, from the 1880s to the early 1930s, federal policymakers’ attitudes toward the role and scope of Indian education transformed, and in general reflected a much harsher view that forcing Indians to assimilate was the most efficient, and the most appropriate process, regardless of how such coercive tactics violated democratic theory or the integrity and sovereignty of Native communities.

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But before, and even during this more debilitating period, there were moments when it was clear that the U.S. recognized the importance of information in the conduct of public affairs. In fact, in 1860 Congress enacted a statute declaring the Choctaw, Cherokee and Chickasaw should be furnished by the Secretary of the Interior “with such copies or volumes of the laws of the United States, journals of Congress, and documents printed by order of Congress as are supplied to the States and Territories of the United States.” In other words, these three nations became official government repositories of all the printed laws and other documents of the federal government.

Deloria concluded by reminding us that treaties, agreements and statutes have often contained guarantees of education, frequently demanded by Native peoples themselves. The broad educational goals usually focused on developing self-sufficient and intellectually inquisitive Native individuals and strong and stable Native governments.

And if these are indeed the goals of Native peoples, as Deloria suggested, then the most important educational imperative was “a need to know; to know the past, to know the traditional alternatives advocated by their ancestors, to know the specific experiences of their communities, and to know about the world that surrounds them in the same intimate manner they once knew the plains, mountains, deserts, rivers, and woods.”

This “need to know” must be supported by the federal government, as the treaty record demanded, and must be amply supplemented by those Native governments who have the financial wherewithal to contribute. Importantly, Deloria said there should be “direct funding from the federal government to tribes for library, information and archival services and every effort should be made in joint planning to transmit the major bulk of records dealing with tribal histories to modern and adequate facilities on the reservations.”

Native nations should also be engaging in similar cooperative arrangements with state governments and colleges and universities to retrieve copies of any vital records that pertain to specific nations.

This would mean many Native nations would need to finally be about the task of constructing their own bona fide archives that could be modeled after the Eastern Band of Cherokee’s outstanding facility, the U.S. National Archives, or any of the many research libraries at major educational institutions.

Of course, great archives and research libraries require highly trained staff persons to manage those facilities, and the necessary equipment for the preservation, duplication and transmission of such information.

Once Native nations have well-established archives, and could guarantee they would be immune from tribal politics, Deloria strongly suggested a detailed survey be conducted of the National Archives and all the regional archival centers to determine what records those institutions possessed. Once compiled, that general report would be made available to all Native nations, who could request duplicates of the important records and documents that could be added to their archives.

The National Museum of the American Indian and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 are good examples of recent developments that have had a profound impact on the cultural values and identities of Native peoples. But the protection and enhancement of indigenous sovereignty, as Deloria knew full well, required an even more comprehensive understanding of our distinctive political, legal, economic, social and geographic status – both internally and inter-governmentally.

It is past time that Native nations develop, with the full and unqualified support of the federal, state and tribal governments, a bevy of modern archival research centers for their nations that will serve as a critical intellectual home for the research needed to address the problems that continue to bedevil us, while creating opportunities that enable us to mature as individuals and as nations.

David E. Wilkins, Lumbee, is a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota.