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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Inspiration, wisdom, resilience. Those are some of the qualities of six tribes the Honoring Nations program of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development praised recently.

“Honoring Nations is a national awards program that identifies, shares and celebrates outstanding examples of excellence in tribal governance,” said program director Megan Minoka Hill of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin.

She said the 2020 awards ceremony was put on hold due to the pandemic, making this year’s event all the more reason to celebrate, “learn from, and to be inspired by six outstanding programs that are serving their citizens. They're serving their nations, and they're serving the regions in really powerful ways. And they have lessons for local governments everywhere.” She called the finalists “bright shining lights, representing the very best.”

The awards come with cash in the amounts of $5,000 for each finalist recognized with high honors and $2,000 each for honors. The six recipients described their programs at a virtual awards ceremony held Nov. 10.

Rendering of ONE FIRE new living quarters,(Cherokee Nation)

Cherokee Nation ONE FIRE, Cherokee Nation (High Honors)

“One of the most basic roles of any government is to make sure we protect the vulnerable,” said Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. “It's an exercise of sovereignty to protect the vulnerable members of your community.”

The challenge for all governments, he said, “is that as we grow up our programs, whether it's in criminal justice, whether it's in healthcare, whether it's in social services, housing – any of the services that might be relevant to someone who's encountered a violent crime, is a victim of violent crime, a survivor of domestic violence, and other types of crime – is that we often have government programs in silos not working together.”

The ONE FIRE (Our Nation Ending Fear, Intimidation, Rape, and Endangerment) program was created to break down barriers and get all the relevant programs operating together in a central hub, he said.

“This can be done at relatively low cost, but it does take cooperation between departments. But what that ends up doing is it gets these departments to work together so they aren't just achieving success for the victims. They're also achieving success within their own programs,” Hoskin said. ONE FIRE Victim Services also provides services to address the root causes of violence.

Honoring Nations: Shown here, is a vista from Flag Mountain of Pe’ Sla at the edge of the high mountain prairie.

Pe’ Sla, Great Sioux Nation (High Honors)

At the heart of many Native cultures is the desire to preserve traditional homelands, and especially sacred sites.

Pe’ Sla, 2,000 acres of high mountain prairie in the Black Hills in South Dakota, is traditionally considered the center of the universe for the Lakota people. When it was put up for sale in 2012, the Sioux people feared the land would get split up and developed.

Buying land and placing it into trust is a long, difficult and costly process that’s out of reach for many tribes. Keith Anderson, Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux, said land preservation in this case was made even harder because the land was to be put into trust for eight tribes who would be jointly responsible for it: Rosebud, Crow Creek, Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, Yankton, Oglala, Sisseton Wahpeton, and the Shakopee Mdewakanton.

Before settlers came, these tribes would meet once a year at Pe’ Sla. “And today the sacred site continues to bring us together. It serves as a powerful example of our sovereignty as tribal nations and what we can do when we come together,” said Anderson.

The tribes have worked with local and state governments on rights-of-way, invasive plants, and emergency and other services. They are bringing the site back to its natural state.

“We've also brought back a growing number of traditional ceremonies to Pe’ Sla. So we've had ceremonies, Buffalo dances, repatriation ceremonies, naming ceremonies, and we want to help our young people understand their history and culture. That's why we also organize programs for the Native youth, including a summer camp,” Anderson said.

Land taken for more than 200 years, is “now back under our control. It's under the control of the Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires of the Lakota, Nakota, Dakota Oyate, or Great Sioux Nation) and we’ll preserve it, we’ll preserve it for generations to come,” he said.

Swinomish Tax Authority, Swinomish Indian Tribal Community (High Honors)

Honoring Nations Board Member Michael Lipsky said the Swinomish Tax Authority in northwest Washington both expands the tribe’s exercise of its sovereignty and brings in revenues for tribal government services.

After a 2014 court ruling declared state and local property taxes couldn’t be imposed on tribal trust land, services funded by those taxes were facing a budget crisis. The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community created the tax authority to assess and collect taxes on permanent improvements on trust land and to decide how the revenues would be used.

Weston LeMay, Swinomish, staff attorney for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, said

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“The authority also strengthens ties with neighboring governments through voluntary and regular contributions to local school, fire, and library districts, providing valuable services to on- and off-reservation residents.

“Historically, the tribe’s relationships with local government entities have been difficult at times. In these agreements, those same entities acknowledge tribal sovereignty, and they've even gone so far as to agree to defend the tribe in court should the tribe’s tax ever be challenged,” LeMay said.

“It's fair to say that $6 million buys a lot of goodwill but the point here is that these non-tribal institutions now have a vested interest in the tribe’s success, specifically in the exercise of the tribe’s sovereignty, and that makes for better neighbors overall,” LeMay said.

Honoring Nations: Third grade teacher Ramona Frost shares a lesson from the Agua Caliente People curriculum with her students at Sunny Sands Elementary in Cathedral City, Calif. (Photo courtesy of Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians).

Agua Caliente People Curriculum, Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians (Honors)

A true partnership was key to the success of a project to correct misinformation and counter stereotypes for students in the Palm Springs Unified School District in southern California. That’s according to Kate Anderson, Potawatomi of Shawnee, Oklahoma. She’s director of public relations for the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.

Anderson said the school district, tribe, and the school's foundation developed appropriate and informed curricula for several grades. They “knew that the best way to tell the tribes’ story was from the tribe itself. We all had common goals coming to the table. This was a collaborative effort from the very, very beginning, and even almost five years into our partnership, we are still working strongly together today.”

The lessons about the tribe’s history, culture, traditions, and modern way of life are told through the tribe’s voice.

The result is curricula for the 3rd and 8th grades, with one for the 11th grade in the works. The project has been a model for others in the area.

“The school curriculum is currently impacting about 1,600 3rd grade students, more than 1,500 8th grade students, and is being taught in multiple classrooms across the school district,” Anderson said.

Honoring Nations: Aerial view of solar array and Mad River at Blue Lake Rancheria. (Photo courtesy of Blue Lake Rancheria).

Energy Lifeline Sector Resilience: Low-carbon Microgrids, Blue Lake Rancheria (Honors)

Wiyot, Yurok, and Hupa people of the Blue Lake Rancheria in northwestern California wanted robust power: good, reliable electricity. The tribe also wanted to cut its carbon emissions to zero by 2030. In 2016 it installed two low-carbon, community-scale solar-plus-storage microgrids and quickly saw lower emissions. Annual energy costs also dropped by a quarter of a million dollars.

Director of Sustainability and Governmental Affairs for the tribe Jana Ganion said the microgrids support the tribes’ “most important economic enterprises and the other lifeline sectors, as we define them: water and wastewater systems; food production, storage, and distribution: and communications. This includes broadband cellular, internet connectivity, emergency communications systems and transportation.”

In October, 2019, a Pacific Gas and Electric 30-hour power shutdown (to prevent wildfires) affected millions of people across California. “Because of its micro grids, the Blue Lake Rancheria was able to support the entire region with emergency response capabilities, including saving four lives in the event due to the ability to provide power for medical equipment,” Ganion said.

Honoring Nations: Sitka Tribe of Alaska Environmental Research Lab student intern collects a phytoplankton sample on a sunny day. (Courtesy of Sitka Tribe of Alaska).

Sitka Tribe of Alaska Environmental Lab, Sitka Tribe of Alaska (Honors)

Ensuring the safety of food gathered and shared with others is important to Alaska Native people. A Tlingit tribe in southeast Alaska has set up a lab to test shellfish as warming oceans increase the risk of harmful algae.

The Sitka Tribe of Alaska led the formation of the Southeast Alaska Tribal Oceans Research (SEATOR) group, a regional consortium of 16 tribes. The tribes operate an environmental lab that tests for harmful algal blooms and monitors ocean acidification.

Environmental Program Manager and Consortium Coordinator Kari Lanphier, Native Hawaiian, for the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, said the goal is to achieve sovereignty through science. The group also leads youth programs to build citizen scientists.

Lanphier said, “Shellfish are filter feeders. And if they eat any of those harmful algal bloom species that are in the water column, they themselves are going to have those toxins inside. And if we consume those toxins, then we can get sick. It's so dangerous. It's not even that we might get sick, it's that people can die.”

She said as the climate changes, people need to adapt to deal with risks to marine resources, “because the ground beneath our feet is shifting. Things are changing so rapidly, not just here in Sitka, but in all of Indian Country, all of the world,” Lanphier said.

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