Presidential conversations

On this Presidents’ Day, let’s take a minute to consider the President of the United States and a complicated history for the people Indigenous to this land and the governments that were here first.
Author:
Publish date:

Presidents once spent a great deal of time thinking about the Native people in this country. A century ago, the appointment of the federal government’s Indian Commissioner and local Indian agents were still a big deal.

Gradually, though, presidents spent less and less time thinking about American Indians. More and more of policy was delegated to Congress, the courts, and the Interior Department.

On this President’s Day perhaps it’s worth considering what a country knows about its Indigenous people.

On April 29, 1994, President Clinton became the first President to invite the leaders of all federally recognized Tribes to the White House. He said, at the time, he pledged to work with tribal leaders to establish a true government-to-government partnership.

Well, to put it in a bigger context, the Obama administration kind of reached new heights. They started a Tribal Nations Conference that happened every year and had direct consultation with the tribes in a way that was unprecedented. And so they set the bar really high. And the Trump administration has rolled back most of that and either not done the same sort of level of discourse with tribes or just ignored tribes. Where the Trump administration has put most of its energy is into the resource extraction issues and working with the tribes that have coal and oil, for example.

When we are students, most of us learn about city, county, state government. But what we don’t learn is how tribes fit into our national system. Treaties, and tribal sovereignty, are complicated concepts that we hear about later, most often in news stories that involve conflict over jurisdiction, natural resources or some other potent issue.

Something to think about on this holiday.

The powerful asset of tribal lands

Who has a seat at the table? That impacts everything from public policy, corporate culture and, for tribes across the country, who controls their land. In this episode, we look at issues that impact the future and well-being of tribal nations, through a sovereignty lens.

In California, the site of one of the oldest and largest Ohlone villages is being threatened by developers. A proposed housing complex would destroy what's left of the village, which is the first place along the San Francisco Bay area where people lived.

The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation are two of many Tribes across the country that have comprehensive plans to expand their land base. The Indian Land Tenure Foundation is a national, community-based organization focused on American Indian land recovery and management.

California has a new law requiring corporate boards to diversify their members to include minorities. Only a few Native Americans have a seat at the board.

Native Americans took to social media in dismay over law enforcement’s reaction to the insurgence at the U.S. Capitol, January 6. ICT puts that in perspective from the Alcatraz takeover in 1969.

A Mohawk potter reflects her culture in clay.

Corinna Gould, Tribal Leader, Confederated Villages of Lisjan, Oakland, California:

Most of our sites are covered with asphalt and buildings and our, our sacred landscapes are almost disappeared in the naked eye. And so it's important for us, not only as Lisjan people to take up this site, but for people that now live in our territory to realize these amazing, sacred places in their myths.

Cris Stainbrook, Indian Land Tenure Foundation President:

It's important that examples like Umatilla and Leech Lake are out there, so people can see that it's not, it's not howling at the moon--it's actually happening and you just have to put a plan together and move forward.

Rebecca Adamson, Cherokee Economist, Fredericksburg, Virginia

It was because an Indian person was there that it was able to really address those things that are so crucial to us like self-determination. So we have to have some kind of unified way to look at board diversity with Indian country being part of that equation.

Robert Warrior, Acting Chair, Department of American Studies, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas

That's one of the things that we're all doing right now with what happened in DC last week is seeing that, that we thought we were coming out of something with the Trump administration ending, but I don't know that people thought that this would be entering into a new watershed moment. And it seems like that's a real possibility here of what's going on in in, in 2021, is that sense that we don't know what's going to happen next. And I think that's the real similarity with Alcatraz as well.

Meet Katsitsionni Fox, Bear Clan from the Mohawk Nation. She is an artist, filmmaker and educator. You can follow her pottery at #lifegiverspottery

ICT Phone Logo

Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, is editor of Indian Country Today. On Twitter: @TrahantReports Trahant is based in Phoenix.

Indian Country Today is a nonprofit news organization. Will you support our work? All of our content is free. There are no subscriptions or costs. And we have hired more Native journalists in the past year than any news organization ─ and with your help we will continue to grow and create career paths for our people. Support Indian Country Today for as little as $10