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Language and culture instructor balances fashion and sports worlds on the side

In August, Jayli Fimbres was gliding down the runway at the Lauren Good Day fashion show in Santa Fe wearing a brightly patterned dress alongside some of the top models and actors in Indian Country.

A day later she was featured on the Vogue magazine website.

Nearly a month later, she entered a different kind of spotlight in the boxing ring for her debut fight at the Four Bears Casino and Lodge in New Town, North Dakota.

“I’ll be making my professional boxing debut,” Fimbres, of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, told ICT before the fight. “It’ll be a debut on MHA nation soil, the place I call home. This is a dream that has come to fruition. I’ve envisioned this day countless times and I’m eager to see my vision become a reality.”

She had almost given up on boxing, deciding her future would be in teaching language and culture while doing some modeling on the side for a friend.

“I thought I was done for good, honestly,” she said. “I took about nine years off. The last time I boxed was in 2013.”

Active in sports since she was young, Fimbres was drawn to martial arts and then boxing in high school.

“I started boxing at 16 and I was really active in a lot of other sports throughout high school,” she told ICT. “I was running cross country and playing basketball, and I've always wanted to do martial arts, and the closest I could get to it was boxing. I boxed on and off for six years, but I didn't have a lot of time to fully commit to it.”

She found other options, however, and is now teaching weekly Hidatsa language classes at the MHA Culture and Language Department in New Town.

“I went to school and now I'm working as a language apprentice within a culture and language department program here with the tribe,” she said. “And my goal is to become a language teacher to help revitalize our language and bring it back.”

But boxing was still in her blood. READ MORE — Sandra Hale Schulman, Special to ICT

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Legendary Native activist dies

Actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather — whose calm protest to the world at the Academy Awards nearly 50 years ago put an enduring spotlight on the treatment of Indigenous people in the film industry — died Sunday, Oct. 2, at her home in California surrounded by her family. She was 75.

Her death from metastasized breast cancer came just two weeks after she received an in-person public apology from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the harsh treatment she received after refusing an Oscar for best actor on behalf of Marlon Brando at the Academy Awards ceremony on March 27, 1973.

Littlefeather, Apache and Yaqui, was the first Native person to appear at the podium at the Academy Awards and drew international attention as well to the American Indian Movement protests at Wounded Knee.

“When I am gone, always be reminded that whenever you stand for your truth, you will be keeping my voice and the voices of our nations and our people alive,” she said in a 2018 documentary about her life, “Sacheen: Breaking the Silence.”

A Catholic Requiem Mass will be held later this month at St. Rita Church in Fairfax, California, according to a statement released late Sunday on behalf of her family. She is expected to be buried next to her beloved husband, Charlie Koshiway, Otoe/Sac and Fox from Oklahoma, who died in 2021.

Littleather spoke with ICT via Zoom just a few weeks before her death about the unprecedented apology and her life after she was largely blackballed by the entertainment industry. She became a holistic medicine expert and activist who helped found the American Indian AIDS Institute in San Francisco and worked to share the importance of incorporating traditional medicine with mainstream treatments.

Her health, she told ICT at the time, “could be better,” but she spoke clearly and firmly for nearly 45 minutes. She said she had no regrets about the protest speech and the way it changed the trajectory of her life.

“When I was young and gorgeous back in the day, I promised myself I would never be bored,” she said. “And I never have been.”

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She appeared in person on Sept. 17 at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles for “An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather,” where she received a public apology for her treatment and those of other Indigenous people in the film industry. READ MORE — Dianna Hunt, ICT

Elders ask Supreme Court to hold government "accountable" for destruction of religious site

Two Pacific Northwest tribal elders are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a case involving the destruction of a religious site near Mount Hood in Oregon.

Two elders - Carol Logan, Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and Hereditary Chief Wilbur Slockish, Yakama Nation - want to "hold the federal government accountable for bulldozing" a sacred site in 2008 to make room for a highway expansion project, according to a Tuesday news release from Becket, a law firm that has worked on the case on behalf of the duo. Two Oregon nonprofits also are part of the case, which was filed on Monday.

Indigenous people have used the land around Mount Hood to hunt, gather food, fish, bury their dead, and perform religious ceremonies for centuries.

Logan and Slockish, and another elder who has since died, had sought to protect the site, which they had used for decades to pray, meditate honor their ancestors, near the mountain from damage from the highway project by making changes to plans, like moving a turning lane, that could avoid harm to the site. The site, known as Ana Kwna Nchi Nchi Patat, or the “Place of Big Big Trees," was part of an ancient trading route that included a burial ground, campground, old-growth trees, and ancient stone altar, according to the law firm's release, the two have said in lawsuits over the issue.

“For centuries Native Americans have endured the destruction of sacred places by the federal government, and it’s heartbreaking that the court would say this completely preventable destruction was okay,” Logan said in Tuesday's announcement. “All we want is the return of our sacred artifacts, the rededication of the area for our ancestors, and the promise that we can continue to worship as our tribes have done for centuries.”

Lower courts have previously ruled in favor of the federal government, with the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals most recently dismissing the case last November, saying the lawsuit was moot because the site had already been destroyed and that the only agency with the authority to address the elders' concerns - the Oregon Department of Transportation - had already been dismissed from case.

The federal government has also claimed in court that surveys of the site had concluded that no burial sites definitely existed in that area and that no tribal governments objected to the project during the consultation process, though Logan and Slockish have criticized that process as inadequate and done at the last minute.

Logan and Slockish want the High Court to order the federal government to consider all possible options for repairing the site through actions like removing an embankment placed over an ancient burial ground, replanting trees, and allowing reconstruction of a sacred stone altar.

"Native American sacred sites should be given just as much respect and protection as churches, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship," Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, said in the release. "[T]he very least the government can do is to pursue every possible avenue for repairing this site and allowing the plaintiffs’ religious practices to resume." — Chris Aadland, ICT and Underscore News

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ICT News with Aliyah Chavez: On the Tuesday edition of the ICT Newscast, Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernandez talks Navajo fairs and voting in Indian Country. Also: Tribes along the Pacific Northwest coast are in a desperate fight to fend off an invasive species and efforts to find reasons behind mental health issues facing Native youth. 

Yakama Nation celebrates anniversary of land return victory

WHITE SWAN, Wash. – Jim Thomas drew chuckles from the 200 or so gathered inside the White Swan Pavilion on the Yakama Indian Reservation with his practiced imitation of the low, raspy voice actor Marlon Brando used for his role in "The Godfather."

Thomas recalled how he convinced Brando to become a member of a committee working to resolve a land ownership dispute — and how Brando later, using his “Godfather” voice, told legendary newsman Walter Cronkite to meet face-to-face with Thomas and to “treat him with the same respect as you would with me.” Cronkite listened, later highlighting Thomas’ work on the Yakama land dispute during his evening news broadcast.

“We got 15 minutes,” Thomas said on Sept. 23. “Nobody gets 15 minutes on a national program. We did.” Thomas is now a Tlingit elder whose career included working as a White House staff member, a spokesman for the National Congress of American Indians and starting his own Washington D.C.-based public relations office.

But reminiscing about Brando’s legendary acting career and life wasn’t what brought leaders and citizens of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation together on Friday, Sept. 23 with representatives of other Pacific Northwest tribes and non-Native community members. Nor had they come early for the tribe’s annual National Indian Powwow, which would take place starting later on Friday afternoon and go through the weekend.

They had come to commemorate the 50th anniversary of one of the first examples of a tribal nation reclaiming lost land: May 23, 1972, when President Richard Nixon signed an executive order returning to the Yakama Nation the eastern slope of the more than 12,200-foot tall volcanic Mount Adams — revered by the Yakama as one of its most important landmarks.

Marlon Brando played only a supporting role.

The tribe had spent decades fighting the federal government to honor a treaty that included the mountain, known as Pahto to the Yakamas, in its 1.3 million-acre reservation.

“We’re here today to recognize that every branch of government has affirmed once and for all, [that] Pahto will always be a gift from the creator,” Yakama Nation Tribal Council Chairman Delano Saluskin said. “This land is ours and it will always be ours.” READ MORE — Chris Aadland, ICT and Underscore News

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Other top stories:

  • An Anishinaabe woman is competing to be the next Miss USA, while a Standing Rock woman - the first Indigenous person to be named Miss Minnesota - will try to win the Miss America pageant in December.
  • A federal grant program is looking to award between 20 and 35 grants of up to $150,000 to tribal nations looking to improve or develop tribal tourism businesses within their communities.
  • A Montana judge last week found that three recently enacted election administration laws violated the state's constitution and would have severely burdened Indigenous Montanans right to vote if they had been allowed to remain in effect.

We want your tips, but we also want your feedback. What should we be covering that we’re not? What are we getting wrong? Please let us know. dalton@ictnews.org.

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