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Kolby KickingWoman
Indian Country Today

Tribes across the country are fighting battles on multiple fronts on any given day. Take today. Tribal leaders are working to keep their citizens safe from the coronavirus while juggling attacks on tribal sovereignty.

The National Congress of American Indians hosted a webinar Tuesday on “Protecting Tribal Land and Sacred Places: Current Threats Across Indian Country.”

Five tribal chairmen highlighted ongoing challenges ranging from the destruction of sacred sites to affronts on tribal sovereignty and encroachment of tribal lands.

Even though the obstacles facing every tribe may be different, the tribal leaders said Indian Country needs to stand together on a unified front.

Dealing with a crisis within a crisis is nothing new to Indian Country, Mashpee Wampanoag Chairman Cedric Cromwell said.

Cromwell compared the current environment with the coronavirus pandemic and Mashpee’s current land into trust issues with the Interior Department to when his tribe dealt with smallpox and land being stolen 400 years ago when the pilgrims landed in their ancestral homelands.

The Mashpee Wampanoag have been locked in a battle to maintain their more than 300 acres of land in trust. Earlier this month, a judge in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., blocked the federal government from rescinding the Massachusetts tribe’s reservation status.

Related: Mashpee Wampanoag ruling a 'win for all of Indian Country'

As one of the first contact tribes, Cromwell said the judge saw through the Interior’s arguments to the facts.

“We are one of the most documented tribes in the history of this country, established in this country. And for them to say, you do not meet the definition of Indian, that's absurd. That's completely absurd,” Cromwell said in reference to the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act.

“We know who we've always been. We still remain, we still live here. And the judge saw that,” he said.

Tribal chairmen take part in NCAI webinar on "Protecting Tribal Lands and Sacred Places: Current Threats Across Indian Country" (screenshot)

In their fight with the Interior Department, Chairman Mark Fox of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation said the department reversed more than 80 years of precedent that the tribe owned the Missouri River riverbed that passed through its land.

Fox says the tribe has spiritual and cultural connections to the river but the greed of the state of North Dakota led to the reversal.

The state was granted ownership of the riverbed with, “a sweep of a pen,” Fox said. “They have access now to all that revenue and to all, all the assets that are going to come away. They're basically given away our trust assets.”

He alleged that illegal drilling has taken place under the Missouri River riverbed and that millions of dollars have been put into escrow accounts maintained by oil companies.

The tribe used assets that came from the riverbed to rebuild and improve the tribe’s economic standing. Fox said it’s always been the tribe’s goal to lessen their dependence on the federal government and tribes should give each other assistance to make that a reality.

“We need that help from all the tribes, stand together and we stand with you.” Fox said.

One state south, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota has been facing backlash from the state and federal government in regards to checkpoints it put up along the highway to protect its citizens from COVID-19.

Chairman Harold Frazier said the checkpoints were up for three weeks before he heard anything from the state’s governor and by that point, they were too far along to look back.

Frazier said he found it humorous that the federal government sided with the state that they owned the road and highways going through the reservation.

“So I asked for their deeds, show me the deed that South Dakota owns these roads. And they can't produce that. They can't produce any right of ways, easements,” Frazier said. “So therefore, you know, they really can't do nothing when it comes to our checkpoints.”

Related: Tribe sues Trump administration over checkpoint interference

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He went on to say that the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the federal government need to fade away and the only reason the former gets involved is to exert control over Natives and ultimately erode sovereignty.

The tribe has an eight bed facility that can provide limited care and the nearest critical care center is a three hour drive away. The checkpoints were set up for better contact tracing and protection for tribal citizens.

“When we started this back in March, we realized, and we've even talked about it, there's nobody going to come help us,” Frazier said. “All we have is ourselves.”

As President Donald Trump visited Arizona Tuesday to praise construction of the border wall, Tohono O’odham Nation Chairman Ned Norris Jr. said there has been little to no government-to-government consultation when it comes to the wall’s construction.

The Tohono O’odham Nation shares 62 miles of international border with Mexico.

Norris Jr. said the tribe has continuously asked to be kept in the loop so it can protect sacred sites and burial grounds.

“We want to consult. We want to know what you’re doing. We want to know when you’re going to do it,” he said. “We want to know which areas of the border are you going to start blasting and destroying so that we can make sure that you understand whether or not there is archaeological significance or sacred or cultural significance to that area. So that we can hopefully do what we need to do to protect those sites.”

It’s not out of the ordinary for the tribe to work with the federal government when it comes to border security and that they share concerns of the illegal activity that occurs at the border.

Norris Jr. said Congress must act to limit the Department of Homeland Security’s waiver authority that gives them nearly absolute power to “trample the rights of the Tohono O’odham Nation.”

Until that power is reined in, the tribe will continue to do whatever they can to protect their sacred sites.

“We will continue to fight. We will continue to do what is necessary to protect our sacred sites and whatever you all can do to help. We would very much appreciate that,” Norris Jr. said.

Also in Arizona but unrelated to the wall, the San Carlos Apache Tribe is facing the threat of the Resolution Copper Mine planned for an area known as Oak Flat.

The site was part of a land swap engineered by members of Arizona’s congressional delegation in 2014, that gave the mining company 2,400 acres of copper-rich federal land in exchange for 5,000 privately held acres in southeastern Arizona.

“Although the tribe’s lawyers are cautioning not to discuss litigation matters, I will tell all of you that the tribe will continue to fight to stop this land transfer,” that tribal chairman Terry Rambler said “will destroy sacred sites.”

Besides the cultural value of the land, Rambler said that the mine would lead to environmental damage in the Tonto National Forest, including groundwater pollution and “poisoned lands.”

Related: Oak Flat is the ‘worst mining project I have ever encountered’

In a recent meeting, Rambler said a cultural resource representative said putting a price on these sacred sites and resources and accepting that money is akin to “taking blood money.”

For tribes across the country to protect its lands, getting to the ballot box is crucial according to Rambler.

“By exercising our right to vote, tribes can ensure candidates are put in office that respect tribal sovereignty, uphold the treaty and trust responsibility and protect our native lands,” Rambler said.

Over the years, tribes have had to continually fight to protect their land and cultural resources and don’t appear to be backing down any time soon.

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Kolby KickingWoman, Blackfeet/A'aniih is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is from the great state of Montana and currently reports and lives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email -

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Cronkite News contributed to this report.

(Indian Country Today, LLC., is a non-profit news organization owned by the non-profit arm of the The National Congress of American Indians. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently.)