minority populations of this country need to work together for their mutual benefit...
In Rare Move, the Justice Department Drafts a Bill of Its Own--To Ensure Native Voting Rights
BY STEPHANIE WOODARD
A new DOJ draft bill recognizes that getting to the polls can be challenging for tribal voters. This is certainly true in Alaska. Leading up to the 2014 election, Stephanie Poulsen, left, and Angel Ayojiak, at the wheel, were among 27 voter-support specialists hired by Bristol Bay Native Corporation to help villagers like Sean Williams, seated, and Chad Myas, right, get to the ballot box. With Native-language ballots and the new early-voting capability, turnout was up throughout Native Alaska. In some villages, virtually everyone voted. (Stephanie Woodard)
Advocates say the bill could be a ‘game-changer’ for a population that must sometimes cross hundreds of miles—and even mountains—to vote
The Department of Justice has put its considerable muscle behind new draft legislation to ensure that American Indians and Alaska Natives have the same opportunities to vote as other Americans.
On May 21, the Justice Department announced the Tribal Equal Access to Voting Act. “I am calling on Congress to help remove the significant and unnecessary barriers that for too long have confronted American Indians and Alaska Natives attempting to cast their ballots,” said Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch.
It’s unusual for the Justice Department to propose legislation, says spokesperson Wyn Hornbuckle, and it’s “a measure of how important the department feels this issue is.” To move forward, the legislation will require sponsors in the House and Senate.
The act would place at least one election office in each tribal community that requests it, thus reducing the vast distances, often over forbidding terrain, that many Native voters face.
Here’s one example from the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), which has praised the bill: Voters on the Duck Valley Reservation in Nevada must trek more than 200 miles round-trip to the polls in Elko.
Or, from “The Missing Native Vote,” my 2014 In These Times investigation into barriers to Native voting access: American Indians on three Montana reservations traveled two to three times farther than whites to get to the polls in their county courthouses—despite being far less likely to have a vehicle for the trip, or even sufficient gas money.
Some Alaska Natives must cross a river or mountain range to cast their ballots, notes Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Sam Hirsch.
“These are problems that would be unfathomable to suburban voters,” Hirsch says. “They’re blatantly unfair.”
The problem with the current system, according to Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Pamela Karlan, is that elections are for the most part run by state or local governments, which are also responsible for staffing polling places. Often, tribes had to resort to expensive, protracted litigation to get the equal access guaranteed under the Voting Rights Act. The goal of the DOJ proposed bill is to set a clear federal guideline for where a polling place must be established, reducing the need for lawsuits.
“The Justice Department’s sponsorship definitely brings heightened awareness to the substantial [election] barriers that our people continue to experience,” says Nicole Borromeo, general counsel for the Alaska Federation of Natives. Last year, Borromeo, who is Athabascan from McGrath Native Village, was part of an intensive effort to bring early voting for the first time to more than 100 remote Native villages.
Some tribal leaders expressed doubts about some requirements in the legislation—for example, that tribes must request a polling place in order to get one—noting that no other people have to ask for their voting rights.
“Our rights should be automatic, like everyone else’s,” said William “Snuffy” Main, former president and Gros Ventre cultural leader at Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, in Montana. “Counties and states run elections, so they should be required to contact us and say, ‘Do you want an office? And where should we put it?’ ”
Main also wondered why the bill appears to shift a few federal-election functions, such as some pollworker training, from the states and counties to the tribes. The latter now handle only tribal-election activities. “These problems need to be fixed upfront,” he says. Hornbuckle, of the Justice Department, responded that the bill won't transfer responsibility to the tribes but rather will increase their role, something “which runs to the heart of the proposed legislation.”
Other prominent Indian-country figures agreed that the draft is just a beginning. “This draft legislation will open up much-needed conversations between the tribes, states and federal government, which will probably improve it,” says OJ Semans, the Rosebud Sioux co-director of Four Directions, which has worked on voting rights for more than a decade in South Dakota, Montana, Nevada and Arizona.
The path to the proposed legislation has been a long one, beginning when indigenous people became citizens and voters in 1924, only to have states and counties erect obstacles. Some mandated that American Indians who wished to take part in non-tribal elections must first show they owned “white” houses and clothes, or had renounced their tribes. When protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act were extended to Native people in 1975, South Dakota’s then-attorney general called Native voting rights an “absurdity” and told the state’s top voting official to drag her feet on implementation.
Despite scores of lawsuits by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), the Justice Department and others, states and counties continue to hinder Native voters. In 2014, voters on the portion of Pine Ridge Reservation that overlaps Jackson County, South Dakota, had to sue for a satellite voting office that would give them access equal to that of white residents of the county. Also in 2014, the Justice Department stepped in to prevent a New Mexico county from eliminating election information in the Navajo and Keres (southern Pueblo) languages. In Alaska, NARF won a lawsuit that required the state to provide federally mandated language assistance and translated ballots to those who are fluent in Native languages, though not English.
Native people may be just under 2 percent of the U.S. population overall, according to the U.S. Census. However, they can have unexpected clout at the polls, due to the concentration of their population in a few states, such as South Dakota, which the Census tallies at about 10 percent Native, Montana, at 8 percent, and Alaska, at 19 percent.
In 2014, access to early voting contributed to much higher turnouts among Alaska Natives than in the 2010 midterms. This, in turn, likely helped Alaska elect a Democratic governor and lieutenant governor (who is Native) and contributed to the huge margins of victory for initatives to protect the vast Bristol Bay region from mining and increase the state minimum wage. Nationwide, the numerous elected officials with strong Native support include Democratic Sens. Maria Cantwell (Washington), Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota) and Jon Tester (Montana) and Republicans John McCain (Arizona) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska). Though Native voters tend to vote Democratic—overwhelmingly so in many precincts—they cross the aisle for candidates who respond to their issues.
The proposed Tribal Equal Access to Voting Act is already drawing attention on Capitol Hill. Finding bipartisan backing is essential, according to NCAI’s general counsel, John Dossett. It is hard to tell how long the process will be, Dossett said, noting that it took several years to extend Violence Against Women Act coverage to Native women.
Sen. Heitkamp tells In These Times that she looks forward to taking up the bill. “For far too long, Native Americans have had their voices silenced at the voting booth,” she says. “Everyone in the United States should have the same right to vote, and they shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to do it.”
Heitkamp said she would work on the proposed legislation with fellow members of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which includes Cantwell, Tester, Murkowski, McCain and others from states with significant Native populations. One committee member, Republican Steve Daines of Montana, responded to In These Times’ query about the proposal by pledging “to ensure that our tribes have equal rights under the law.”
A committee staffer noted that the draft bill has arrived and has not yet been officially introduced or scheduled for hearings. The Huffington Post reports that Tester will offer his own Native voting rights bill next month.
Natalie Landreth, a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma and a staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, said NARF looked forward to working on the legislation with Congress and the Justice Department and would make suggestions to maximize its impact.
“As the saying goes, every journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” says Blackfeet tribal member and political strategist Tom Rodgers, of Carlyle Consulting, in Washington, D.C. “Is [the] draft bill perfect yet? No. But after we have all contributed to improving it, it could be the biggest game-changer in Native enfranchisement since we got the right to vote.”
Stephanie Woodard is an award-winning journalist whose articles on American Indian rights and other topics have been published by many national publications and news sites.
The Missing Native American Vote
Native Americans -- the on-going genocide
Native Americans in the US Today: Oppressed and Ignored
An Unbroken Chain of Injustice
War Crimes Against Native Americans
Native Americans Confront History of Dispossession
Friday, 26 December 2014 13:10 By Bill Moyers, Moyers & Company | Video Interview
Earlier this month, as part of the $585 billion defense bill for 2015, Congress passed a measure that would give lands sacred to American Indians in Arizona to a foreign company. The deal gives the Australian-English mining firm Rio Tinto 2,400 acres of the Tonto National Forest in exchange for several other parcels so it can mine a massive copper deposit.
This week, Bill speaks with Robert A. Williams Jr., a professor specializing in American Indian law, about how deals such as the one with Rio Tinto are a part of American Indian’s tragic history of dispossession. “Very much like African-Americans, the history of America is taking away resources, whether it’s labor or whether it’s land from one racial group to give them to the dominate racial group,” Williams, who is of Lumbee Indian heritage, says.
He adds that the Arizona land set to become the “largest copper mine in the world” is one of the most sacred places of the San Carlos Apache Tribe. “These are folks that have been fighting the federal government over their land rights and cultural rights for a long time,” adding, “and here you have this little, small tribe of Apaches, one of the poorest tribes… trying to stop this.”
BILL MOYERS: Welcome. Mention America's original sin and most of us will quickly think of the enslavement of black people, with a bitter fruit we're still harvesting. Rarely, though, are we summoned to think about the fate of indigenous people, the Indians, who were already here when Europeans “discovered” the so-called “New World.” Even the controversy over the name of the Washington Redskins fails to hold our attention for very long.
And you can safely bet that not many school children are taught that these native people wound up in the Declaration of Independence as “merciless Indian savages” – right there in the birth certificate of our nation. How is it they came to be mythologized as so ignorant and primitive they didn’t even know the value of Manhattan island, which they sold on the cheap to the Dutch? And how is it they became stereotyped as monolithic when in fact, opinions and beliefs among the 550-plus tribes are as diverse as any other society’s?
For example, suppose you were to think all American Indians share a belief that untouched land is sacrosanct. Then you wouldn’t be surprised, that the Rosebud Sioux in South Dakota oppose the Keystone XL Pipeline. Or that Apaches in Arizona are furious that Congress just slipped through a law turning over sacred land to the foreign corporate giant Rio Tinto for mining copper. Or that Navajos in Arizona have protested the Snowbowl ski resort’s use of recycled sewer water to make snow on sacred mountainsides. Yet at the same time, in the same state, Navajo leaders want to build the Grand Canyon Escalade, a tramway nearly a mile and a half to the floor of the canyon to facilitate tourism. To some Indians that would be sacrilegious. So -- monolithic? Hardly.
And that’s why my guest is Robert Williams, who is out to change how we think about Indians and to challenge the laws that embody bigotry against them. Robert Williams teaches law and American Indian studies at the University of Arizona. He’s represented tribal groups before human rights courts and the US Supreme Court, and he’s written such groundbreaking books as “Like a Loaded Weapon,” about the legal history of racism against Indians in America, and my favorite, “Savage Anxieties: The Invention of Western Civilization”. Robert Williams, welcome.
ROBERT A. WILLIAMS, JR.: Thank you, Bill. Thank you for having me.
BILL MOYERS: That land deal that gives the big mining company land in Arizona, what's your take on that?
ROBERT A. WILLIAMS, JR.: It involves land that is really part of the most sacred land to the San Carlos Apache tribe. Many members of San Carlos trace their ancestry back to Geronimo and some of the famous Apache warriors. These are folks that have been fighting the federal government over their land rights and cultural rights for a long time.
It's going to be the largest copper mine in the United States. And here you have this little, small tribe of Apaches, one of the poorest tribes, poverty rates and unemployment rates double, triple that of the rest of Arizona, trying to stop this. They brought in a large coalition, National Congress of American Indians, tribes from all over the US to try and fight it. But they couldn't overcome the power of the copper industry, quite frankly, and the economic benefits that this would purportedly bring.
BILL MOYERS: When you say sacred land, help me understand what you mean by that from your history.
ROBERT A. WILLIAMS, JR.: Yeah. In many tribes, all land is sacred in the sense that it sustains the tribe. But some sites have particular historical and religious significance. It may be, for example, for the Navajos, in that development that you were talking about, the Escalade project in the Grand Canyon, many Navajos believe that that point of the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado River was the point of emergence of the Navajo from, blessed by the creator.
So you can go on reservations and ask, is that mountain sacred? And maybe half of the folks will say, yeah, that's a sacred mountain. The other half will say, no, it doesn't mean anything to me. So it's very difficult for a tribe to sort of sit down and come to a consensus on which particular pieces of land are sacred. Each different clan or family will have a different idea.
BILL MOYERS: So this small tribe fighting the Rio Tinto land swap in Arizona, they consider the sacredness of the land, by their definition, more important than the jobs that it would produce?
ROBERT A. WILLIAMS, JR.: In this particular case, yes.
BILL MOYERS: The opposite in the Grand Canyon, right?
ROBERT A. WILLIAMS, JR.: In the Grand Canyon, absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: The Navajos want to build this.
ROBERT A. WILLIAMS, JR.: That's right. And at the same time the Navajos are also fighting a sacred lands battle, as you mentioned, involving a ski resort. And so, again, the tribe has to come to a consensus, what's important to us? In some cases, that particular piece of land may not have so many associations with it that we can't let it go and let it go to development. But in other instances, particularly where things might be associated with the Apache, with a famous battle between the Apache and the US armies where Apaches died--
BILL MOYERS: Like Gettysburg to--
ROBERT A. WILLIAMS, JR.: Yeah, it would be very similar if somebody neighboring Gettysburg wanted to build an amusement park. People would be offended.
BILL MOYERS: You represent tribes in land disputes such as these. What do these particular stories: Arizona, Grand Canyon, Rio Tinto, the ski resort, what do they have in common?
ROBERT A. WILLIAMS, JR.: Today what we see is tribes moving into the 21st century and facing real 21st century problems of globalization, of multi-national, national resource development, of jobs, of the need, you know, tribes have elected leaderships. They're elected to do a lot of things.
They're elected to protect sacred lands. But they're also elected to provide jobs, improve quality of life. And so these are the types of situations tribes are confronting on a daily basis. And you find lots of different attitudes, lots of different conflicts, lots of different controversy within tribes. Is this piece sacred, is that piece sacred? How sacred is it, to which particular part of the tribe, for example. So you're going to find a lot of diversity. And tribal governments have to manage that diversity and have to do what's best for the tribe.
BILL MOYERS: So is the Rio Tinto deal that just has gone through familiar to you? I mean, is it a pattern?
ROBERT A. WILLIAMS, JR.: Oh yeah. That land was taken away from the tribe. And many people in the tribe will tell you to this day that it was illegally taken away. But once Congress signs a treaty or issues an Indian Claims Commission decision and pays off on it, that's it. Your rights are exhausted. I've looked at a lot of treaties. And I keep seeing the same guy sign that treaty again and again. And I ask my students what that guy's name is, X. You know, and it's--
BILL MOYERS: And that says?
ROBERT A. WILLIAMS, JR.: Yeah, and what it says is that the tribes didn't, they had a document handed over to them. They didn't know what they were signing. They were lied to. Often times it was fraud induced. Sometimes treaties would be ratified even though the required signatures weren't there. And so for Indian tribes, the fact that there may be a treaty, the fact that they may have been quote “compensated” for these lands in a process that didn't even award them interest from the date of the taking doesn't mean the case is over.
US law and international human rights law have radically diverged in the past 20 years in terms of the recognition of indigenous people's rights. International human rights law now looks at not whether or not the tribes have formal ownership or legal title in a Western legal conception might have it, but rather they look at the tribe's historical connection to that land.
BILL MOYERS: So US courts couldn't address it.
ROBERT A. WILLIAMS, JR.: No they wouldn't be able to address it. In fact, the way that legislation is written, the environmental review process is going to be concluded before the land is transferred. And then of course once it's transferred there's a mandatory transfer date, those processes really have little meaning anymore.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, once the land is transferred, environmental laws don't-- it's because private property and federal environmental laws don't apply.
ROBERT A. WILLIAMS, JR.: Yeah, you've really hit on it. It's this idea of private property. You know, when Europeans came to the New World the first thing they said is, well, Indians don't appreciate property. They're savage. They're backwards. They're uncivilized. And so we really don't have to pay them for it or if we give them a treaty we really don't have to give them what the land is truly worth.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. Tribes have very clear conceptions of their traditional boundaries, they maintain their rights and their claim sovereignty over the lands according to their own honored traditions and tribal elders. And so, you can go out there on the reservation, and there might be a reservation boundary established by the United States. But then there's traditional land boundaries. The Navajo, for example, regard their traditional lands as within the four sacred peaks. One of those sacred peaks is the San Francisco Peaks where the ski resort, one of the holiest, sacred mountains in Navajo cosmology. And here you've got the city of Flagstaff selling reclaimed water to make snow.
BILL MOYERS: Sewage water.
ROBERT A. WILLIAMS, JR.: Sewage water. I mean, it's considered a horrible desecration. I mean, you know, put it into another cultural context and you wouldn't be able to think of that being, with any other racial group. But for Indians because, you know, we think they really don't care about land or they have primitive ideas or they don't have ownership, we completely disrespect that.
BILL MOYERS: This has been your passion, almost your obsession, to help us understand how American law came to embody this whole notion of savagery. Your book, "Savage Anxieties" just opened my eyes to this long, 250-year history that you talk about as institutionalizing savagery as a concept to discriminate against Natives.
ROBERT A. WILLIAMS, JR.: That's right. And what I tried to show in that book is that this idea of this fundamental conflict between savagery and civilization goes back to the very beginnings of Western history. I go back to the Greeks, I go back to the Romans. You can read Homer. And of course Homer has his great heroes involved in this myth, this wonderful mythic contest with savage tribal peoples, half-human monsters on distant parts of the world. When you think about the Roman Empire, what was it made of? It was made of conquest of the tribes of Central Europe, the Germans, the, the Celts. You have tribal wars of Charlemagne in the Middle Ages, fall on behalf of Christianity.
Western civilization has been at war with tribalism for 3,000 years. And that war was brought to the New World by Columbus, by the Spanish conquistadors, by the English colonists. And what you find is that a very early point in American law Chief Justice John Marshall is asked to decide the status of Indian tribes. And what he does is, I like to tell my students, he goes to the S-card. He calls them savages who lack the same rights as the white people who came over here, the Europeans, and colonized their land under this, what many Americans might regard as an obscure legal doctrine called the Doctrine of Discovery. But it is still the most important doctrine in American constitutional law.
BILL MOYERS: The Doctrine of--
ROBERT A. WILLIAMS, JR.: Discovery.
BILL MOYERS: --which holds?
ROBERT A. WILLIAMS, JR.: Which holds that when Columbus and John Cabot and the other European explorers came to the New World and then sailed along the shores and claimed it for their crowns so long as those lands were occupied by heathen, infidel and savage peoples their property rights did not have to be recognized.
Marshall says in this famous 1823 case of Johnson v. M'Intosh, he says when “the great nations of Europe” discovered this continent they “were eager to appropriate to themselves so much of it as they could respectively acquire,” but “the character and religion of its inhabitants” made them “a people over whom the superior genius of Europe might claim an ascendency." In other words, what he's saying there is, when we discovered America it was occupied by a bunch of backwards uncivilized brutes and we were going to make better use of the land than them so we could take it from them.
BILL MOYERS: I grew up in Texas in a town named after John Marshall. Marshall, Texas. No one ever told me what Chief Justice John Marshall said in that 1823 decision that you just mentioned in which he refers to Indians as heathens and fierce savages. And you say this is one of the most important Indian rights cases ever handed down through the Supreme Court.
ROBERT A. WILLIAMS, JR.: Oh, absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: Because?
ROBERT A. WILLIAMS, JR.: Because it defines the property rights of indigenous peoples in this country. And what it says is that upon discovery the European nation, or the nation that secedes to its interest, the US from Great Britain, holds superior title and sovereignty to the land belonging to the Indians. They have a mere right of occupancy. And what Marshall says is that right of occupancy can be taken away by purchase, conquest or any other means.
And so the reason that this case is so important is it really sets the foundation for this radical approach to understanding the basic human rights of Indian people to hold and control the lands that they occupy. It gives the US government the right to relocate, it stands at the bottom of the ethnic cleansing campaigns, for example, in the removal era.
And it's continued to be cited today by the Supreme Court. Even Justice Ginsburg, the most liberal member of the court, in footnote one of opinion she wrote several years ago involving the Oneida Nation cites the Doctrine of Discovery. The court never questions it.
BILL MOYERS: The Doctrine of Discovery, the fact that the white Europeans quote “discovered” the New World.
ROBERT A. WILLIAMS, JR.: That's right.
BILL MOYERS: Carries with it an inherent right to dominate the people who live there.
ROBERT A. WILLIAMS, JR.: Oh absolutely. It's exactly why Congress can pass legislation as it did with the Rio Tinto land mine deal because Congress took the land from the tribes, ignores their sacred connections to it, their cultural connections and does whatever it wants with it. It's why Congress can order tribes removed in the 1950s. Congress terminated tribal status for more than 100 tribes. Basically said, you're not a tribe anymore and we're not going to pay attention to the treaties. The Supreme Court has held that when Congress breaches a treaty with an Indian tribe it's not judicially reviewable. It's called a political question. And if tribes have a problem with that, go back to Congress, the very people who broke your treaty.
BILL MOYERS: You write about another case Cherokee Nation v. Georgia. The chief justice, John Marshall again, describes Indians as constituting a race of people who were quote "once numerous, powerful, and truly independent,” but who had gradually sank "beneath our superior policy, our arts, and our arms." I mean, this from one of the most brilliant men of the founding generation, fought with Washington at Valley Forge, became the chief justice. And this is what he's saying about the Native--
ROBERT A. WILLIAMS, JR.: That's right. And that was the opinion shared by the founders to a man. In fact, George Washington two weeks after the Treaty of Paris is signed ending the Revolutionary War is asked about his opinions on Indian policy. Washington had been an Indian fighter since the French and Indian War.
And a lot of folks, particularly in the red states, the Southern states that had suffered a number of Indian depredations wanted to remove all the Indians to Canada. Let them go with the English. And Washington said, well, you can try and chase the Indians off their land but the savage is like the wolf. They're return immediately you turn your back. And so better, he said, more expedient to negotiate treaties with them because, and again this is what the founders believed to a man, Indians are a vanquished race. They won't be here two to three generations.
BILL MOYERS: When I talked to the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates recently here he said that African-Americans today are bound, tethered by the reality, the mythology and the legacy of slavery. What is, what are you saying is the equivalent of that phenomenon for Indians?
ROBERT A. WILLIAMS, JR.: It's the history of dispossession. You know, very much like African-Americans, the history of America is taking away resources, whether it's labor or whether it's land from one racial group to give them to the dominate racial group. So in that sense, there is a very similar experience.
But the dispossession experience that, you know, African-Americans were dispossessed of the land by being brought over here in slave ships, whereas Indians were on the land and fought literally wars against Europeans for control of that land. And that history of dispossession, you know, if you look at the treaties, it's very interesting. Everyone thinks that Indians were ripped off in their treaties. If you look at the first round of treaties from about 1800 to the Civil War, tribes secured over 150 million acres. I think it may have been 144 million acres in those treaties. That's a large amount of real estate.
In the 1880s after tribes were finally defeated in the Indian Wars and put onto reservations, Congress passed the 1887 General Allotment Act. And that act ended up dispossessing tribes of 90 million acres. Most of it turned over to white homesteaders. Most of those acres being primed the best lands on the reservation. And so that history of dispossession was also accompanied by a history of forced assimilation whether it was in residential schools, whether it was in dismantling traditional tribal governance structures. And so it's that, it's what's been taken away. And the justifications for that is that you're not as good as us. Our systems are better. Our modes of education. Our ways of owning land, our ways of working have been continually cited to Indians as the reason for these government policies.
BILL MOYERS: You're savage and we're not. Even though we come from a continent, Europe, that was racked by blood and violence and cruelty beyond measure. But that term savage never stuck to the white European the way it did to the American Indian.
ROBERT A. WILLIAMS, JR.: No that's right. And it was a generic term. It was used wherever-- you see the term used in Australia to describe the aboriginal people.
BILL MOYERS: Savagery.
ROBERT A. WILLIAMS, JR.: Savagery. You--
BILL MOYERS: It's in the Declaration of Independence.
ROBERT A. WILLIAMS, JR.: It's in the, yeah. It was a word that Westerners used to, again, to consciously differentiate them from non-Westerners, to assert that superiority, that cultural superiority. It goes back to the British Empire, and again, you know, what was the purpose of the British Empire? To bring civilization to the savage no matter where they were, whether it was India or Asia or Australia or whatever. It's that civilizing mission that characterizes so much of the history of Western colonialism.
So what this ideology, what this myth did was really excuse America for the disappearance of the Indian. It wasn't our fault. They were just an inferior race. And so Marshall adopts that. And the tragedy and the present-day circumstances of that decision are that those racial attitudes are so deeply embedded in these foundational principles of American Indian law.
BILL MOYERS: So has there been any improvement in the way Native Americans are treated in the John Roberts court more recently?
ROBERT A. WILLIAMS, JR.: No. In fact, Native American Rights Fund has a project called the Supreme Court Project. And quite frankly, it's focused on trying to keep cases out of the Supreme Court. This Supreme Court, Justice Roberts is actually, hard to believe, was probably worse than the Rehnquist Court. If you look at the few decisions that it's issued.
And Justice Rehnquist as before he became chief justice had written several highly negative stereotype charged opinions about Indians. One was a horrible case called Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe which denied tribes the right to criminally prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes on their reservations. That decision has had horrible consequences for law enforcement on Indian reservations. But in that opinion Justice Rehnquist cites language from the 1830s to explain why whites didn't trust tribes to exercise criminal jurisdiction. They were savages.
BILL MOYERS: I was shaking my head as I read “Savage Anxieties” and “Like a Loaded Weapon” to realize the real meaning of that term, “the long arm of the law." Because what you're describing here, a Supreme Court decisions in 1823 and 1830 and that era that still shape how the Indian, the people who were here before John Marshall and the others, are seen, perceived, and governed.
ROBERT A. WILLIAMS, JR.: Well, I did my job then. Thank you. Well, I actually developed that title thinking it worked both ways. You know, if you're an Indian, you could be very anxious about some of the Supreme Court's decisions, some of the decisions of policy makers, so maybe a little bit of irony there. But I think our “Savage Anxieties,” when I titled the book, I really wanted to focus people on the challenge that tribes in this country, as well as indigenous peoples around the world, are confronting Western civilization with.
And that's the challenge of them saying, we don't want to go your way. You know, we want to maintain our culture. We want a land base. We want a right to govern ourselves. And everybody who steps onto that land base, according to our ways, according to our traditions, according to our law. And that's something that the West has never accepted.
What we've had is 500 years of taking away from tribes. And it's going to be very hard to start giving back and to start recognizing those things were taken from tribes. Indian people don't regard that as a permanent situation. It's just a project that needs to be worked on. And that is the project. And that continual work that Indian leaders, indigenous peoples are doing throughout the world, is getting back what was taken away.
BILL MOYERS: If there were one stereotype you could immediately change what would it be?
ROBERT A. WILLIAMS, JR.: That Indians are lawless people, okay. And I would change that because it's probably the most harmful stereotype. I'll give you one other example about the San Carlos case. One of the prime backers of that land bill was a Republican Congressman, a Paul Gosar. And when he was challenged by an Apache on this bill, he said, well, you know, Indians are wards of the federal government. This happened recently. A member of Congress from Arizona whose district includes lots of Indians characterized Indians as wards of the federal government. That's a 19th century notion.
That congressperson is obviously stuck in the 19th century when he thinks about Indians. How is that person going to legislate and treat Indians fairly and respect their rights when he has this sort of infantilized image of Indians as not being, you know, up to the same level of responsibility as everybody else? But I make this point in my books: until we start attacking the root of the historical problems of discrimination against Indians, and those Indians begin in these stereotypes, that Indians are less civilized than us, they're less able to exercise self-governing functions. Until we get to the roots of those problems, we're not going to change legislation. We're not going to change the hearts and minds of the Supreme Court.
BILL MOYERS: The past is really the invisible hand at our back, isn't it?
ROBERT A. WILLIAMS, JR.: Well, and that's the problem today. Many of the situations that we've talked about whether it's the San Carlos, whether it's the Navajo fighting for their land rights or fighting to develop their land to try and provide decent jobs on the reservation.
The backdrop to all that, the reason that we have those battles is that history of dispossession. The story isn't over for American-Indians. You may think, you know, Americans may think, well, you know, Indians are in the past, we don't have to worry about that anymore. But like those guys that signed that treaty with X, Indians knows those treaties were oftentimes negotiated under duress. You know, how can you give away a sacred land? You know, how could any tribal member think about giving away something that means so much to the tribe?
It's just impossible to conceive. And so whether or not it may have been through the Indian Claims Commission in the 1950s or whether through a treaty or through Congressional legislation, the fact that the tribes may not have Western fee simple title of that land doesn't mean there's still a strong connection there. And you're going to see tribes continue to assert that.
BILL MOYERS: Robert Williams, let’s continue this conversation online, and thank you for being with me.
ROBERT A. WILLIAMS, JR.: I'd very much like that. Thank you, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: We’re near the end of our broadcasts – next week will be our last. But we are continuing our website, BillMoyers.com. That's because democracy is in peril -- the moneyed interests are winning, and even public media cowers from exposing their power and calling them to account. We need every possible venue for critical reporting and skeptical voices, and we intend BillMoyers.com to be one of them. So I 'll see you there, and I will see you here, one more time.
Double Jeopard Is Okay... If You Are Native American
Brown & Little Law
If you are Native American and commit a criminal offense on an Indian reservation, it can be a crime in both the Indian community and the federal system. As a result of the United States Supreme Court’s decisions on the matter, the Indian Civil Rights Act, and subsequent legislation, Indians can go to jail (technically, there are no prisons on Indian reservations) and federal prison for the same crime. They can also be fined twice for the same criminal act.
The Supreme Court’s rationale is based on their interpretation of the source of Indian governments’ powers and how they interact with the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court was also understandably concerned that an Indian could quickly plead out in an Indian jurisdiction to avoid federal prosecution.
This often leads to confusing and frustrating problems for a criminal defense attorney practicing Indian law. A guilty plea for your client can be used against him in federal court. Although technically criminal convictions on Indian reservations are misdemeanors punishable by no more than one year per offense, it is not uncommon for an Indian to get many years due to the fact Community prosecutors like throwing as many chargeable offenses as possible at each defendant. If your client pleads guilty, you may have gotten a fair result, but he or she could then face a federal charges. You may have just handed your client to the federal prosecutor with a confession under oath.
This occasionally leads to a dance between jurisdictions regarding who is going to charge the case. It also leads to the questionable practice of the tribe charging a person and keeping them in jail on a high bond even though the prosecutor has no intention of proceeding with the case. Instead, the prosecutor has been told that the feds are going to charge it eventually, so they just hold on to the guy. I’ve seen this happen several times. It gives the feds as much time as they need to investigate while knowing that person they want to charge isn’t going anywhere.
I’ve also had cases were theclient was charged and convicted of the same act by both jurisdictions. Something about that doesn’t sit right with me at all. To make it even worse, I’ve had cases were the client was convicted, served time, and then was put on probation by the Indian community. Then the feds decide to charge him. The client learns of the charges and stops reporting to Indian probation because he knows the feds will be waiting for him. Honestly, I can’t blame him. He did a lot of time and feels he paid the price for his crime. The feds find him a few months later and he does more time and is put on federal probation. Then the Indian community files a petition to violate him for missing his probation appointments. The Indian probation department wants to put him in jail for two more years. If that happens it is entirely possible that the feds would then violate him because he violated his federal probation by either missing appointments (because he is in tribal jail) or for not following through with tribal probation. The end result is a person being put in a cage four times for one offense.
The case history for how and why this can exist is confusing. Here is a starting point for anyone interested in reading some case law. Something needs to be done to stop this injustice.
Written by Adrian Little
We must give the land back:
America’s brutality toward Native Americans continues today
Americans have unjustly taken vast tracts of land. This Presidents' Day, let's uphold our treaties and return it
I write often about liberating Palestine from Israeli occupation, a habit that evokes passionate response. I have yet to encounter a response that persuades me to abandon the commitment to Palestinian liberation.
I have, however, encountered responses that I consider worthy of close assessment, particularly those that transport questions of colonization to the North American continent. You see, there is a particular defense of Zionism that precedes the existence of Israel by hundreds of years.
Here is a rough sketch of that defense: Allowing a Palestinian right of return or redressing the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1947-49 is ludicrous. Look what happened to the Native Americans. Is the United States supposed to return the country to them?
Israeli historian Benny Morris puts it this way: “Even the great American democracy couldn’t come to be without the forced extinction of Native Americans. There are times the overall, final good justifies terrible, cruel deeds.”
This reasoning suggests a finality to the past, an affirmation of tragedy trapped in the immutability of linear time. Its logic is terribly cliché, a peculiar form of common sense always taken up, everywhere, by the beneficiaries of colonial power.
The problems with invoking Native American genocide to rationalize Palestinian dispossession are legion. The most noteworthy problem speaks to the unresolved detritus of American history: Natives aren’t objects of the past; they are living communities whose numbers are growing.
It’s rarely a good idea to ask rhetorical questions that have literal answers. Yes, the United States absolutely should return stolen land to the Indians. That’s precisely what its treaty obligations require it to do.
The United States is a settler nation, but its history hasn’t been settled. Yet most people invoke Natives as if they lost a contest that entrapped them in the past — and this only if Natives are considered at all. As a result, most analyses of both domestic and foreign policies are inadequate, lacking a necessary context of continued colonization and resistance.
For Natives, political aspirations aren’t focused on accessing the mythologies of a multicultural America, but on the practices of sovereignty and self-determination, consecrated in treaty agreements (and, of course, in their actual histories). Treaties aren’t guidelines or suggestions; they are nation-to-nation agreements whose stipulations exist in perpetuity. That the federal government still ignores so many of those agreements indicates that colonization is not simply an American memory.
we've asked this before:
Abandoned Uranium Mines Plague Navajo Nation
By Sonia Luokkala ----- Earth Island Journal
The mesas of Monument Valley rise deep red on the horizon. We are in Diné Bikéyah, land of the Navajo.
"This is John Wayne country," trained Navajo guide Gregory Holiday repeats his lines for an enchanted group of tourists. The view opens boundless to the sacred land of the Diné people, but for visitors it is presented as the iconic west of cowboys and Americana.
The sun sets and the last traveler boards the bus to leave Navajo Nation and head back to Flagstaff and into US-governed territory. With the bus' departure, Gregory's role as the light-hearted Indian guide ends. We take a gravel road to his home in the village of Oljato. During the jolty ride the rehearsed stories of Wild West heroes shift to memories of deceased loved ones.
"My daughter loved to ride her motorbike in the desert," he says.
Two years ago Gregory's daughter died of lung cancer. Her child, Gregory's granddaughter, was a victim of Navajo neuropathy, a rare condition named after the only population in which it occurs. For those suffering from the disease, limbs begin to tingle, then lose all sense of touch, and eventually appear curled as claws. Ultimately, the victim dies of liver failure. One study put the average age of death at 10. First described in medical literature in 1976, there is no cure.
In the 1940s, surveyors discovered significant uranium deposits throughout the once worthless desert landscape of the reservation. Between 1944 and 1986, as the US government aimed to cut off all dependence on imported uranium, nearly 4 million tons of ore were extracted to fuel the Cold War nuclear arm's race. With the end of the war, the mining companies moved out. They were not required to clean up their mess and left behind the legacy of their extraction efforts, including mining waste and abandoned mines.
The incidence of Navajo neuropathy is five times higher on the western side of the Navajo reservation than on the eastern side. Some researchers believe this discrepancy is linked to the land: On the western side, the mines were mostly tunnels, whereas in the west they were primarily open pits. After the uranium companies left, the unfilled pits started to fill with water. Some, as deep as 130 feet, eventually formed into small lakes. Unsuspecting Navajos and their livestock use the contaminated water for drinking.
A 1990 study of Navajo neuropathy ruled out water contamination as a possible cause of the disease. However, that study has since been cast into doubt. In 2006, the Los Angeles Times reported that the study "did not fully consider the role of uranium mining." Interviewed for the LA Times story, Steve Helgerson, lead scientist for the study, said his team had ruled out water contamination because families impacted by Navajo neuropathy were supplied by multiple water sources. He said the team did not explore whether these multiple sources shared common contaminants.
As the Los Angeles Times also reported, in 1986, Thomas Payne an environmental health officer for Indian Health Services, along with a National Park Service ranger, took water samples at 48 sites surrounding Cameron, AZ, a town in Navajo Nation. These samples revealed uranium levels in wells as high as 139 picocuries per liter. In abandoned pits, the levels were as high as 4,024 pinocuries. The EPA limit for safe drinking water is 20 picocuries per liter. At the time of his study, Helgerson was not aware of these results.
No further studies have been conducted on the possible links between the environment and Navajo neuropathy. The source of the illness remains formally unknown, although similar symptoms were seen in the children of Chernobyl and in the victims of Minamata disease in Japan, both caused by environmental factors.
Conditions in Holiday's hometown, Oljato, resemble those of a third world country. Residents have limited access to clean water and live in houses constructed of uranium-contaminated gravel.
Six abandoned uranium mines that still emit dangerous gamma rays surround the village. In 2014, the EPA scanned almost 500 mines across Navajo Nation for radiation; the majority measured levels at least 10-times greater than background radiation levels, some as high as 25-times background radiation. Many of the highest radiating mines were found to be located within a quarter-mile of inhabited structure.
Gregory draws a deep breath through an oxygen mask attached to a tank standing beside his couch. A few years ago he also was diagnosed with a now common occurrence in Navajo Nation, lung cancer.
In the 1950's, cancer rates in the Navajo population were so low that the people were thought to be immune to it. An article titled "Cancer immunity in the Navajo" was published in a medical journal in 1959. A decade into the mining era, cancer rates had more than doubled. According to a report by the Navajo Epidemiology Center, by 2004, cancer had become the leading cause of illness and death for the Navajo, a generally nonsmoking population.
"Everything here makes us and the animals sick," Gregory said.
In his youth, Gregory was one of thousands of Navajo men lured to work in the uranium mines and mills. For him, as well as many others, employment as a miner or millworker was his first contact with the US wage economy. At the time, the miners were grateful.
But the Navajo saw little of the huge profits from uranium. Copies of miners' pay stubs show payments of minimum wage or less: wages varied from an hourly $0.81 to $1.00.
Moreover, in 2011, journalist Judy Pasternak reported in her book Yellow Dirt: A Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed that the miners suffered radiation exposure four times that of the Japanese targeted by nuclear bombs during World War II. Navajo language had no word for radiation and few Navajo people spoke English before the mining began. Officials knew uranium exposure posed serious health risks but made no effort to educate their workers. Protective clothing, masks or ventilation were never provided. Miners returned to their families daily with clothes covered in the yellow dust of uranium.
"Others working with me died a long time ago" Gregory says.
The table is set with traditional Navajo soup made from Gregory's family's sheep. His is a story not heard by the 400,000 annual tourists crossing Monument Valley off their bucket list just 10 minutes out of town.
Today, more than 1,200 uranium mines lay abandoned within the borders of Navajo Nation. Some are barred with rubble, but most are left exposed.
The task of cleanup is daunting. EPA coordinator Lillie Lane told me the cost to clean just two mines is estimated to be $131 million. Navajo Nation EPA is currently researching and identifying the mining companies responsible for the waste. The paper trail is long, but under the Superfund Act, these companies can be held accountable for the cost.
"It is going to take 100 years," said Lillie Lane, referring to the task of tracking down the responsible parties.
Last week, those working to clean up the mining waste received a boost from the federal government: The Justice Department announced that the US will place $13.2 million in a trust to pay for the evaluation of 16 abandoned uranium mines on Navajo land. The contribution is part of a settlement agreement with the Navajo Nation.
In the meantime, fragile communities continue to live amid the poisoned wells and contaminated earth, and the uranium riddled sagebrush flats are home for the next generation of Navajo children. That is, at least until those responsible are held to account and the landscape is restored to what it once was, before profits were prioritized above the land and its people.
Sonia Luokkala is an environmental journalist from Finland, where during the past 10 years she has written about issues such as the civil and land rights violations against the indigenous Sámi people of Finnish and Swedish Lapland. She moved to the United States two years ago, and is currently leading a nomadic lifestyle with her baby daughter, dog and husband.
Toxic Legacy: Uranium Mining in New Mexico
By Dahr Jamail, Truthout
Most people are unaware that the third-largest nuclear disaster in world history occurred in New Mexico.
Less than four months after the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor meltdown in 1979, three times as much radiation was released when a spill at a uranium mill at Church Rock, New Mexico, dumped 94 million gallons of mill effluent and more than 1,000 tons of acidic, radioactive sludge into an arroyo that emptied into the Puerco River.
The only two nuclear disasters that have released more radiation were those at Fukushima and Chernobyl.
Like other indigenous peoples whose reservations happened to have uranium deposits the federal government, and later private companies, desired, the Navajo were not warned of the dangers of radiation.
The Navajo Nation, where the spill occurred, is riddled with 521 abandoned uranium mines across the three states included within the reservation, according to the EPA; 450 of those mines and eight former uranium mill sites are in New Mexico, and three of these are designated superfund sites. These sites are the source of contamination for tens of millions of gallons of groundwater and countless acres, the brunt of which is on Navajo land.
Like other indigenous peoples whose reservations happened to have uranium deposits the federal government, and later private companies, desired, the Navajo were not warned of the dangers of radiation.
Unexplained Respiratory Problems
Larry King is one of them.
"I just got through two months of battling respiratory problems that had me in the hospital," King told Truthout. "There was an unofficial survey done by an organization working to log former miners, and they found a lot of us were complaining of unexplained respiratory problems. That's what I have, unexplained respiratory problems, but I know where they came from."
King attributes his sickness to his former job working in a uranium mine as a surveyor for United Nuclear Corporation (UNC), the company responsible for the 1979 Church Rock spill.
"I strongly believe I'm sick because of the years I worked underground," King continued. "My job was to be behind miners, and I had to make trips into tunnels not ventilated, which had high readings of radon gas, and being exposed daily to contaminated water, Radon, diesel fumes and dust."
For months after his job ended, King said he was "coughing up black stuff in my phlegm, or it was coming out of my nose."
Now on to his second doctor trying to find proper treatment, his efforts continue to be unsuccessful, and his health continues to decline.
"I can't work for a long time or I get fatigued and short on breath," King said. "I was breathing contamination for seven hours a day for years, and I explained this, but my doctor just keeps giving me antibiotics and inhalers."
And King is far from alone. Thousands of former uranium mine and mill workers remain sick with symptoms that have now been attributed to their work, as well as countless other people, mostly indigenous, who live in close proximity to these contaminated sites.
Navajo families have bathed, showered, washed clothes in, played in, and drank radioactive water. Their men worked in the mines while breathing carcinogenic gasses, then spread radionuclides throughout their families simply by returning home from work.
In New Mexico, a disproportionate number of unremediated uranium mine and mill sites are on lands traditionally used and occupied by the Navajo. Thus, a disproportionate amount of pollution from uranium sites occurs in Navajo communities, so the Navajo continue to bear the brunt of the health problems associated with these toxic sites.
Navajo families have bathed in, showered in, washed clothes in, played in and drunk radioactive water. Their men worked in the mines while breathing carcinogenic gases then spread radionuclides throughout their families simply by returning home from work. But it wasn't until the spill was designated as a superfund site in 1983 that the Navajo who were being irradiated and sickened for more than 30 years learned the truth.
Chris Shuey, an environmental health specialist with the Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) in Albuquerque, has been working with Navajo communities affected by uranium mining and milling for more than 30 years. "The health of people living near the uranium mines and mills, and the communities impacted by uranium mining and processing have not been well-studied," Shuey told Truthout.
Many Navajo families live within 50 feet of old uranium mine and mill sites. (Photo: New Mexico Environmental Law Center)
But he and SRIC have been studying the impacts since the uranium-mining era ended by the mid-1960s.
"What has been known for decades is the men working in the early mines were suffering from excess risk and incidence of respiratory disease, malignant and nonmalignant lung cancer and disease at rates far beyond rates in the rest of the US," Shuey said.
But that is only the beginning of the problems.
A History of Radiation
Uranium mining in New Mexico kicked off near the beginning of the atomic age when, in the 1950s, a Navajo man discovered uranium while herding his sheep. This was what essentially launched the uranium-mining boom in the West. At first, the federal government was the sole purchaser of uranium for atomic weapons and experimental nuclear power.
"During that time, there were a tremendous number of uranium mines in New Mexico and throughout the Southwest," Eric Jantz, a staff attorney with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center (NMELC) in Santa Fe told Truthout.
Columbus’s Real Legacy: The Brutal Disparities Suffered By Native Americans
BY BRYCE COVERT ------ Think Progress
Every year, many schools and businesses across the country close on the second Monday in October to celebrate the Italian Christopher Columbus’s arrival in what are now called the Americas on October 12, 1942, or the “discovery” of America. Of course, Native Americans were already here. And Columbus, while remembered as a hero by many, was brutal to the native people. In his quest to find gold, he enslaved them, working thousands to death; brutalized them; and murdered them.
The native population was nearly wiped out. In A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn writes, “In two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead.” Columbus’s efforts amounted to genocide. Native people “were worked at a ferocious pace, and died by the thousands,” Zinn writes. “By the year 1515, there were perhaps fifty thousand Indians left. By 1550, there were five hundred. A report of the year 1650 shows none of the original Arawaks [on the Bahamas] or their descendants left on the island.”
Native Americans in what is now the United States would continue to be killed by later settlers in enormous numbers, have their land stolen by the government, and see their rights trampled on. This is Columbus’s legacy, and the effects of his violent campaign and the decades of oppression afterward can still be seen today in the huge disparities between the Native American population and the population in general.
Poverty and employment
In 2012, one in four American Indians and Alaska Natives lived in poverty, compared to a national rate of 14.5 percent. For those who identify these groups as their only race, their poverty rate was just over 29 percent. Poverty rates are even higher on big Indian reservations: Among the top ten largest, rates range from 20.2 percent for individuals to as much as 53.5 percent. And extreme poverty on these reservations is, on average, four times as high as the national rate.
On top of these high poverty rates, Native Americans experience far higher unemployment rates. The unemployment situation right now is four times worse among the Native American population than it was for the entire country during the recession. The employment rate for the native population in its prime working ages was less than 65 percent between 2009 and 2011, 13.4 points lower than for white workers. During the same time, the Native American unemployment rate averaged 14.6 percent, nearly 7 points higher than the 7.7 percent rate for white workers. Things have been bad for a while: Native Americans have suffered double-digit unemployment rates ever since 2008, with a current rate around 11 percent, compared to a national rate under 6 percent.
The achievement gap between students of color and white students has been steadily closing, but not for Native students. Native Americans, including American Indians and Alaska Natives, have seen their gaps widen. In 2011, 18 percent of Native fourth graders were proficient or advanced in reading on the National Assessment of Education Progress, compared to 42 percent of white fourth grades, a gap that has stayed flat since 2005. Just 17 percent of Native eighth graders scored at those levels in math, compared to 43 percent of white ones. Other racial groups saw improvements during that time that far outpaced Native students.
Beyond middle school, less than 70 percent of Native students graduate high school in four years, compared to 83 percent of white students. Only a quarter score at a college-ready level on the ACT math and a third on reading, compared to half and two-thirds of white students, respectively. Just half of Native students enroll in college, compared to three-quarters of white students, and once there less than 40 percent of Native students will compete a four-year college degree in four years, compared to 62 percent of whites.
Part of what’s going on is that schools on or near Indian reservations rely on federal Impact Aid for their budgets, since they don’t collect the same property taxes that fund other public schools. But that aid has been cut. Last year, sequestration reduced funding by $60 million, leading hundreds of schools to lay off support staff and teachers and increase class sizes, some to eliminate academic programs and extracurricular activities, and a few to close outright.
Life expectancy for American Indians and Alaska Natives is 4.2 years less than for the American population as a whole; they die at 368 percent higher rate of chronic liver disease and cirrhosis and a 177 percent higher rate from diabetes. They also have an 82 percent higher rate of dying from assault or homicide and 65 percent higher rate of dying from suicide. Over 13 percent of Native Americans report being in fair or poor health, much higher than for other groups.
An important cause of these gaps is that they have less access to high-quality health care. More than a third of Native Americans lack health insurance, compared to the national rate of 17.2 percent. The government has contractual obligations to provide for the health of Native Americans, but, according to a 2006 report from the American Journal of Public Health, it “is consistently funded at a dramatically lower level than other government health programs.” The Indian Health Service was funded at just 54 percent of what was needed in 1999. The report concludes that it’s likely that the disparities in Native American health outcomes “are related to the inadequate funding of [American Indian/Alaska Native] health programs.”
The discovery of America was followed by possibly the greatest demographic disaster in the history of the world." Research by some scholars provides population estimates of the pre-contact Americas to be as high as 112 million in 1492...
Edited by William M. Denevan
The Keystone XL Pipeline: How Tribes are Still Fighting for Their Land
by JOHN PAUL BRAMMER ----- Blue Nation Review
“Genocide” is a word that’s difficult to wrap your brain around.
Maybe that’s why the word never appeared in the history books I read as a kid, where it was replaced by “discovery” and “colonization,” manifesting itself in the names of battles, then treaties – then, finally, in numbers.
Incredible numbers. Numbers so high and unimaginable they might as well be the “bajillion,” that number you made up as a kid.
That was the number of Native peoples in the Americas who died, and that’s how we learned it – us, in our school in rural Oklahoma, where nearly half of the tiny student population were members of recognized tribes and the Comanche Nation headquarters was a fifteen-minute drive away.
The history books never said “genocide,” but the history itself did.
Buffalo skulls stacked into chalky, white mountains – genocide. People, chained and prodded along in lines – genocide. Sacred lands with names and meanings, stolen, renamed – genocide.
We might as well call it what it was.
Treaty after treaty was broken, and Native lands continued to shrink into their modern reservations. You probably know the general idea of what happened.
But these facts, however terrible, only exist to many of us in history books. They are ghosts, grim reminders of a dark mark on our nation’s history, and though it perhaps doesn’t receive the significance it deserves, we know we would never, ever allow such atrocities to happen again.
And yet, it remains the case that Native American tribes in the United States must continue to fight for their land.
One recent and prominent example of this is the Keystone XL Pipeline project, which plans to cross Sacred Treaty Lands, digging up ditches and trenches on grounds considered sacred to the tribe and violating the human rights of Native Americans, Native Sun News reports.
It has been called by some Natives “the final Indian war in America.”
The Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota peoples, who are among the poorest in the nation, have turned down $1.5 billion offered to them to settle the Black Hills Claim. That’s how much this land matters to them.
And recently, a House vote to force approval of the pipeline has been called “an act of war” by a Sioux tribe leader.
“The Lakota people have always been stewards of this land. We feel it is imperative that we provide safe and responsible alternative energy resources not only to tribal members but to non-tribal members as well. We need to stop focusing and investing in risky fossil fuel projects like TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline. We need to start remembering that the earth is our mother and stop polluting her and start taking steps to preserve the land, water, and our grandchildren’s future.” – Rosebud Sioux Tribe President Cyril Scott
Knowing what we know about Native American history, knowing that they have historically been the victims of broken treaties, we cannot allow this to happen.
We cannot, in good conscience, violate the human rights of a people who have received one of if not the most staggering injustice in the history of our nation, a people who continue to battle for their right to exist on lands they had first.
I stand with the tribes fighting the Keystone XL Pipeline. I stand against any action on the part of the United States government that would seek to desecrate Native American lands in the name of corporate greed.
Cyril Scott plans to close the reservation’s borders should the Keystone XL try to enter it. It shouldn’t have to come to that.
Let’s make it clear that the Rosebud Sioux and the Native tribes fighting for their land don’t stand alone.
H/T: The Huffington Post
John Paul Brammer is a Contributing Editor at BNR. His writing on LGBT and Latino issues has appeared in The Advocate and Huffington Post. Find him on twitter: @jpbrammer
$3.4 billion Native American land-trust settlement causing anger
Settlement payments among hundreds of thousands of Native Americans whose land-trust royalties were mismanaged by the government for more than a century have been held up by more than 2,400 appeals by people who were ruled ineligible to participate in the settlement. At issue is the second of two distributions in one of the largest U.S. government settlements in history, prompted by a lawsuit filed in 1996 by Cobell.
HELENA, Mont. - Laura Juarez is supposed to receive close to $1,200 as her share of a $3.4 billion settlement among hundreds of thousands of Native Americans whose land-trust royalties were mismanaged by the government for more than a century.
The Bakersfield, California, notary public was going to pool that money with her husband's share, along with a portion of what was coming to her father's estate, to send her 17-year-old daughter to a student-ambassador program in Australia.
But the money, which she expected in December, still hasn't come and her daughter isn't going on next month's trip.
The payments have been held up by more than 2,400 appeals by people who were ruled ineligible to participate in the settlement. As the special master appointed to the case goes through those appeals, Juarez and other American Indians are growing increasingly frustrated over what they see as justice delayed.
"It seems as if the Native Americans are being screwed again," said Juarez, a 39-year-old member of the Comanche nation. "I know several others who have given up on it. It's created a sour taste in their mouths. We get our hopes up just to have it knocked down."
The 493,724 beneficiaries identified as of the beginning of May already know how much they are supposed to receive from the settlement - the individual payments range from $850 to nearly $10 million - and many had earmarked those amounts to splurge on big purchases or simply pay their bills.
The delays have resulted in complaints to the claims administrator, an online petition and even a letter from Montana Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh about a lack of transparency and misinformation regarding the payments.
"This delay is placing a financial burden on Montana families, and forcing many who are expecting payments to take out loans that they are now unable to repay," the April 3 letter to the settlement's claims administrator, Garden City Group, said.
Jennifer Keough, Garden City Group's executive vice president and chief operating officer, did not return a call for comment.
The attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit, recognizing the frustration, plan to ask a federal judge this week to allow the distribution to take place before the appeals are finalized.
"The agreement says that no trust administration class payments can be made until all the members are identified," said David Smith, an attorney for Kilpatrick, Townsend and Stockton LLP. "There are a lot of appeals, and many are extremely lengthy. We want to make sure everybody has a chance to participate in the settlement and it's not a rush job."
At issue is the second of two distributions in one of the largest U.S. government settlements in history, prompted by a lawsuit filed in 1996 by Blackfeet elder Elouise Cobell of Montana. Cobell sued the government after realizing that many Indians who owned land held in trust for them by the government lived in poverty with no accounting of the royalties they were due when the Interior Department leased their land for development, exploration or grazing.
The lawsuit claimed the Interior Department mismanaged and squandered billions of dollars that were supposed to go to the landowners since the 1880s, but incomplete and missing records prevented them from determining how much was lost.
It took about 14 years to reach a settlement with the government, then another year for Congress to approve the deal in December 2010. It wasn't until December 2012 that all the appeals over the settlement were dismissed and the first monetary distributions were mailed.
Those 339,106 beneficiaries, called the historical accounting class, received a flat payment of $1,000 apiece. That was the easy part.
The second round of distributions go to what is called the trust administration class in varying amounts based on a formula that looks at 10 years of the highest earnings in the royalty accounts held by the government, which are called Individual Indian Money trust accounts.
Identifying the people in that second class - which also contains members of the first class - has proven to be a challenge due in part to the Interior Department's incomplete record-keeping, Smith said. For example, the Interior Department had no records for thousands of people in Oklahoma who had made claims, leading to an extension of the appeals period while they tried to prove their claims by going to the state courts for documentation.
Plus, there were no known addresses for 65,000 people identified as beneficiaries, which Garden City Group has been able to whittle down to about 14,000, Smith said.
The search for those still on the list continues, though it won't hold up the payments, he said.
That's little consolation to the beneficiaries who are waiting. Not only are their payments delayed, but their checks are diluted when more class members are added.
In Juarez's case, she was told last summer she would receive $1,260. As of February, that had been reduced to $1,197 with the addition of more beneficiaries.
"If they're entitled to that money, that's great - awesome - but the timing is taking way too long," Juarez said. "A deadline is a deadline. They are holding up so many people."
Defense Bill Passes, Giving Sacred Native American Sites To Mining Company
Michael McAuliff ---12/12/2014 -- Huffington Post
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate passed a measure authorizing the nation’s defense programs Friday, and along with it managed to give lands sacred to Native Americans to a foreign company that owns a uranium mine with Iran.
The $585 billion National Defense Authorization Act of 2015 is one of the must-pass pieces of legislation that Congress moves every year. But like they did in attaching extraneous riders to the must-pass government funding bill, lawmakers used the defense bill as a vehicle to pass a massive public lands package.
The bill sailed through on a vote of 89 to 11.
Many of the land measures were popular. But one, the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act, had twice failed to win support in the House of Representatives, blocked both by conservationists and conservatives.
The deal gives a subsidiary of the Australian-English mining firm Rio Tinto 2,400 acres of the Tonto National Forest in exchange for several other parcels so it can mine a massive copper deposit.
The Iran connection comes from a uranium mine in Namibia, in which Tehran has owned a 15 percent stake since the days of the shah.
Rio Tinto, which removed Iran’s two members of the mine board in 2012, has argued that Iran gets no benefit from the property, that there is no active partnership, and that it has discussed the issue with the U.S. State Department to ensure that no sanctions against Iran are violated.
A State Department spokesperson confirmed that officials had discussed the site, but declined to say that they could assure there were no violations of sanctions.
“We are aware of the mine in question and have discussed relevant compliance issues with the company,” the spokesperson said.
The official also declined to say if, as might be expected, Iran would be able to benefit from the mine if Secretary of State John Kerry is successful in negotiations to limit the regime’s nuclear aspirations, and sanctions are lifted. “We are not going to speculate on any hypotheticals,” the official said. A Rio Tinto official also declined to speculate, but noted that under the current sanctions and Namibian law, it's impossible to buy out Iran's share or sever the tie.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) mounted a bid to strip the entire lands package from the bill, but secured only 18 votes in his favor.
It’s not only people concerned about any benefit Iran might get who were worried about giving American forest land to a foreign firm that has such a connection.
Native Americans, particularly the Apache tribe in the area, say digging a massive mine under their ancestral lands will destroy sacred ceremonial and burial grounds.
Rio Tinto says it will work closely with the tribes to ensure their concerns are heard, and will work with the U.S. Forest Service to protect the environment.
The measure was added into the NDAA largely thanks to the efforts of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who, along with fellow Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, sees the project as an economic boon that will create 3,700 jobs over several decades.
Flake acknowledged that the deal never would have passed on its own, even as he lamented the process that got it through the Senate.
“It’s never good to see big packages with so many things in them -- that’s what we want to get away from,” Flake said. “But it’s been very difficult to move individual pieces of legislation over the last few years.”
In this case, the addition of the Arizona swap and the other land measures were never discussed in public, and were added during secret negotiations between the House and Senate Armed Services Committee. the deal was never publicly revealed until the House started work on passing the entire defense bill last week.
It will become law as soon as President Barack Obama signs it. Rio Tinto, though subsidiary Resolution Copper, will take possession of the land a year later. Although the land will then be private property and federal environmental reviews will no longer be enforceable, the company said in a statement after the measure passed that it would abide by such reviews. It also pledged to be a good neighbor:
“Resolution Copper Mining is pleased that the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act passed the House of Representatives and the Senate with strong bipartisan support. Passage of the legislation means that Resolution Copper can move forward with the development of this world-class ore body which will create approximately 3,700 jobs, generate over $60 billion in economic impact and result in almost $20 billion in state and federal tax payments,” said project director Andrew Taplin.
"There is much more work to be done before commercial mining can begin and Resolution Copper looks forward to working with all stakeholders as we continue to progress through the regulatory review process toward responsible development and operation of a world-class copper mine that will safely produce over 25 percent of the current annual demand for copper in the United States.”
Once the legislation is signed into law by President Obama, Resolution Copper will focus on the comprehensive environmental and regulatory review under NEPA, where there will be broad public consultation, government-to-government consultation with Arizona Native American tribes and a comprehensive valuation appraisal of the copper deposit as required by Congress.
Resolution Copper plans to work to expand existing partnerships and create new ones with neighboring communities and Native American Tribes. The company will endeavor to hire locally and regionally whenever possible.
The heart of the legislation is the exchange of 2,400 acres of federally owned land above the copper deposit for 5,300 acres of land owned by Resolution Copper composed of valuable recreational, conservation and culturally significant land throughout Arizona. Congressional leaders made significant improvements to the legislation to address community, environmental and tribal concerns. These changes include provisions for completion of a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) prior to the exchange of title, extraordinary protections for historic Apache Leap, and safe access to the Oak Flat Campground after the exchange has been completed.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.
The Indians get screwed – as usual
By Steve Meissner
I’ve avoided writing about this because … well because it was so inevitable.
Someone finds mineral wealth on land that either belongs to Native Americans, or is held sacred by them.
The Native American gets screwed, and some rich people become even richer.
Thanks to Arizona’s Congressional delegation it happened again.
Along with tax breaks for corporations and provisions that fatten political bank accounts (as if the rich bastards need even more control of the electoral process) the so-called “Cromnibus” bill that just slipped through the House and Senate included a land swap. It allows Resolution Copper to develop land near Superior, AZ, into one of the largest copper mines in the U.S.
The land in question includes Apache Leap. That plateau gained its name when some tribal members, mostly women and children, apparently, leaped to their deaths rather than submit to slaughter by the U.S. Army. Before the swap it was land that belonged to the federal gummint, who got it fair and square by killing off indigenous people. Now Resolution will own the mineral rights.
I’ve written about this before. This is sacred ground for the Apache, as well as other tribes. It was culturally significant before it became a giant headstone for a whole bunch of victims. How would you feel if someone got permission to drill for oil under the Vatican? That’s how the Apache feel about this property.
Now my obligation to “walk in another man’s shoes” (I won’t insult my indigenous brothers by using a word that refers to their footwear) applies in this case too. Yes, the town of Superior, and rural Arizona in general, needs an infusion of good old-fashioned jobs. It seems (at the moment, any way) that they’ll get the jobs. And yes, Arizona and the U.S. of A need more copper. The world runs on computers and electronics.
So Superior gets the mine. The Apache? They get the shaft.
Arizona’s Congressional delegation put aside the usual partisan slap-fest to slip this measure into the “Cromnibus.” The exception was my friend and fellow leftie, Raul Grijalva, who stood up for native peoples and environmentalists. Thanks to some green clout in the Senate, the swap was being blocked in the hope that a fairer deal could be obtained. Thanks to all youse who didn’t vote in 2014, the GOPers will soon control the Senate, so there went the opposition.
Superior is in the 1st Congressional District of Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, a Democrat who relies heavily on Native American votes to stay in office. She let bygones be bygones and played kissy-kissy with Rep. Paul Gosar, the Republican who beat her in a 2010 election and the idiot who just called tribal people “wards of the federal government.”
Gosar’s ignorance on these issues is no surprise. But Kirkpatrick? This is the woman who grew up amidst the White Mountain Apache, wore camp dresses as a little girl, says Apache was her first language, and got insulted as a little girl when a playmate pointed out she was white.
I’m thinking that Apache playmate was wise ahead of her years.
Back when I was still a journalist, I was once talking to … I think he was a Yavapai.
“Any time we have to do business with you white people, we know we’re gonna get screwed,” he told me. “It’s just a matter of when and how. We get ready ’cause we know it’s coming.”
I didn’t try to argue with him then. I still can’t.
I was thinking about something today.
We see so much conflict in the Middle East over the country of Israel and the land they occupy. Their divide with the Palestinians is a constant struggle and a constant thorn in the side of not only their region but the entire world. That is no big secret though. This has been going on for decades and other than a select group of Arab countries, most of the world supports their statehood. What I don’t understand is that if the Jewish people were given their state because it was theirs originally and therefore they should have it back then why doesn’t the United States have to give their land back to the Native Americans? They were here long before we were and their land was forcibly taken, plain and simple, so why is it just for the world, and more importantly, the United States, to support one people being given back what was theirs but not another?
It is a fair question and personally I think it is truly shameful that this is not an issue. I am not saying the entire country needs to move out but how can we justify our support of another group of people being given back their land, forcibly, while refusing to even begin to provide reparations to peoplewe did the exact same thing to??
It is just a horrible example of how people are these days. Think about how years ago there were people who supported reparations for people whose families were slaves hundreds of years ago but screw the Indians right? Again, shameful. The worst part of it is how the government and citizens of this country were so blase about, acting like giving the Native Americans any rights was not even a consideration.
In 1830 our Congress actually passed a bill called the Indian Removal Act….can you imagine how offended pretty much any race would be in today’s politically correct world if they tried something like that in today’s society?
Here’s a scenario to consider. Imagine tomorrow you woke up and saw on the news that the government was going to remove all the Hispanic illegal immigrants by passing a bill called the Mexican Removal Act.
Can you even begin to imagine the outrage that would cause? The protests? The cries of racism? Also keep in mind, we would have that reaction and the people being removed in this case would be illegal and not the original residents here. With that being true, how could there be so much outrage over that but when it comes to the Native Americans, the original owners off this land, people don’t even blink or consider we basically wiped out an entire culture just to take their land.
The worst part about all this is that many people will read this and think I am crazy, say that happened hundreds of years ago so who cares, and again that is just a horribly shameful way to be. Yes, we didn’t have concentration camps like the Nazi’s did but we did intentionally spread disease and conflict all across the lands of an indigenous people with the direct goal of eradicating them from their land.
When you celebrate July 4th this year, Independence day, remember that we left England in search of freedom and to get it we took that very freedom from a whole culture and destroyed it.
Native Americans still being screwed by the government
Common Sense & Wonder
Feds haven't compensated Native Americans 28 years after ordering them to move
Four decades after Congress passed a law forcing the relocation of two Native American tribes, some families have yet to receive the government benefits they were promised in exchange for leaving their homes.
The protracted relocation effort has cost U.S. taxpayers $564 million so far, with as much as $82 million left to go before the special government office established to oversee the process can shut its doors for good, according to the Department of Interior inspector general.
Congress passed the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act in 1974, but efforts to relocate Navajo families living on Hopi land are still underway. That law had placed a five-year time limit on the relocation process once a plan was formulated, which didn’t happen until 1981, the report said.
The specially-created government body tasked with approving requests for relocation benefits, now called the Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation, should have finished by 1986, but 28 years later, it is still determining whether applicants are eligible.
The IG said it expects costs to grow as time passes and “historical and cultural knowledge” is lost.
After a federal court ruled against ONHIR in 2008 in favor of an applicant who claimed he was never notified of his eligibility benefits before the 1986 deadline, the office accepted a second round of applications from 2008 to 2010.
ONHIR staff are still working through the applications they received during those years, said Larry Ruzow, the office's in-house attorney, told the Washington Examiner.
The government opened another window for applicants in order to "catch" anyone who may not have received adequate notice more than 20 years earlier, he said.
Four times as many eligible households as the government had initially anticipated applied for the benefits. The government originally estimated the relocation process would cost $41 million.
ONHIR has accepted 7,211 applications for benefits since its inception, while approving a little more than half.
Lauren Bernally, policy analyst at the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, told the Examiner she believes the government denies applications based on trivial factors. She said cultural differences frequently prevent Native American applicants from understanding exactly what information is required in order to receive benefits.
Applicants had to have been the head of a household in July 1986 and a legal resident of the partitioned lands as of 1974 to be eligible for the benefits.
Of the applicants that have been approved for benefits, 120 have since had their cases closed without ever receiving benefits because the head of the household died without an heir before relocating or was otherwise unresponsive to the office, the IG said.
Nancy Thomas, ONHIR's chief operating officer, said the screening process can be rigorous.
Besides denying benefits to applicants who can't prove they meet the requirements, ONHIR rejected those that were late and those submitted on the last day but without signatures, Ruzow said.
"If they got them in early enough, we would contact them" and let them know there was a signature page in the application, Ruzow said of the applications that weren't signed.
"But if they sent them in the last day, well, I think that was the penalty for waiting until the last minute."
With a staff of 35 and average annual expenses of $9.8 million, ONHIR has relocated an average of just 19 families each of the past five years.
Funding cuts have been the biggest contributor to the slow pace of benefit approvals, Thomas told the Examiner.
"If we had twice as much money, we could probably move twice as many people," Thomas said.
She noted the office tries to give priority to the elderly applicants waiting for their benefits, but said that "most people moved off this land when they were ordered to."
Still, some families remain on the partitioned land.
"We cant go out with a gun and say 'OK, you're off here.' We don't have that authority," Thomas said.
Thomas Benally, deputy director of the Navajo-Hopi Land Commission and himself a relocated Navajo, called the ongoing government effort a "human rights issue." He said the relocation has been "traumatic" for some.
"There's a lot of anger about it," he said of the fact that the government has taken so long to fulfill its promises.
"I think the hold-up is the Navajo families don't want to move," Bernally said. "They're not going to go through this whole relocation process after so many lies from the federal government."
US should return stolen land to Indian tribes, says United Nations
UN's correspondent on indigenous peoples urges government to act to combat 'racial discrimination' felt by Native Americans
by Chris McGreal
A United Nations investigator probing discrimination against Native Americans has called on the US government to return some of the land stolen from Indian tribes as a step toward combatting continuing and systemic racial discrimination.
James Anaya, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, said no member of the US Congress would meet him as he investigated the part played by the government in the considerable difficulties faced by Indian tribes.
Anaya said that in nearly two weeks of visiting Indian reservations, indigenous communities in Alaska and Hawaii, and Native Americans now living in cities, he encountered people who suffered a history of dispossession of their lands and resources, the breakdown of their societies and "numerous instances of outright brutality, all grounded on racial discrimination".
"It's a racial discrimination that they feel is both systemic and also specific instances of ongoing discrimination that is felt at the individual level," he said.
Anaya said racism extended from the broad relationship between federal or state governments and tribes down to local issues such as education.
"For example, with the treatment of children in schools both by their peers and by teachers as well as the educational system itself; the way native Americans and indigenous peoples are reflected in the school curriculum and teaching," he said.
"And discrimination in the sense of the invisibility of Native Americans in the country overall that often is reflected in the popular media. The idea that is often projected through the mainstream media and among public figures that indigenous peoples are either gone or as a group are insignificant or that they're out to get benefits in terms of handouts, or their communities and cultures are reduced to casinos, which are just flatly wrong."
Close to a million people live on the US's 310 Native American reservations. Some tribes have done well from a boom in casinos on reservations but most have not.
Anaya visited an Oglala Sioux reservation where the per capita income is around $7,000 a year, less than one-sixth of the national average, and life expectancy is about 50 years.
The two Sioux reservations in South Dakota – Rosebud and Pine Ridge – have some of the country's poorest living conditions, including mass unemployment and the highest suicide rate in the western hemisphere with an epidemic of teenagers killing themselves.
"You can see they're in a somewhat precarious situation in terms of their basic existence and the stability of their communities given that precarious land tenure situation. It's not like they have large fisheries as a resource base to sustain them. In basic economic terms it's a very difficult situation. You have upwards of 70% unemployment on the reservation and all kinds of social ills accompanying that. Very tough conditions," he said.
Anaya said Rosebud is an example where returning land taken by the US government could improve a tribe's fortunes as well as contribute to a "process of reconciliation".
"At Rosebud, that's a situation where indigenous people have seen over time encroachment on to their land and they've lost vast territories and there have been clear instances of broken treaty promises. It's undisputed that the Black Hills was guaranteed them by treaty and that treaty was just outright violated by the United States in the 1900s. That has been recognised by the United States supreme court," he said.
Anaya said he would reserve detailed recommendations on a plan for land restoration until he presents his final report to the UN human rights council in September.
"I'm talking about restoring to indigenous peoples what obviously they're entitled to and they have a legitimate claim to in a way that is not devisive but restorative. That's the idea behind reconciliation," he said.
But any such proposal is likely to meet stiff resistance in Congress similar to that which has previously greeted calls for the US government to pay reparations for slavery to African-American communities.
Anaya said he had received "exemplary cooperation" from the Obama administration but he declined to speculate on why no members of Congress would meet him.
"I typically meet with members of the national legislature on my country visits and I don't know the reason," he said.
Last month, the US justice and interior departments announced a $1 billion settlement over nearly 56 million acres of Indian land held in trust by Washington but exploited by commercial interests for timber, farming, mining and other uses with little benefit to the tribes.
The attorney general, Eric Holder, said the settlement "fairly and honourably resolves historical grievances over the accounting and management of tribal trust funds, trust lands and other non-monetary trust resources that, for far too long, have been a source of conflict between Indian tribes and the United States."
But Anaya said that was only a step in the right direction.
"These are important steps but we're talking about mismanagement by the government of assets that were left to indigenous peoples," he said. "This money for the insults on top of the injury. It's not money for the initial problem itself, which is the taking of vast territories. This is very important and I think the administration should be commended for moving forward to settle these claims but there are these deeper issues that need to be addressed."
Frank Waln believes music has a special role to play in the fight for indigenous rights.
Meet the 25-Year-Old Native Hip Hop Artist Who’s Using Music to Combat Colonialism
The Sicangu Lakota artist talks about growing up on a reservation and using music to educate young Native people.
BY JESSICA KOSKI
'The educational system is failing when it comes to the true history of this country and the indigenous people that inhabit it.'
For Frank Waln, 25, an award-winning Sicangu Lakota hip-hop artist, music is medicine. Born and raised on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, Waln made his way to Chicago to earn a degree in audio arts and acoustics and embrace his true calling as an artist. His music embodies indigenous reality and values, bringing much-needed healing and creating pathways of empathy.
With performances and motivational workshops across the country, Waln is inspiring an entire generation of Native American youth to rise up in response to historical injustice. He has been featured on MTV’s Rebel Music and WBEZ’s Vocalo, and profiled in dozens of outlets, including Native Peoples Magazine, Indian Country Today, Cultural Survival, the Chicago Tribune, and USA Today.
In These Times spoke with Waln in Chicago in early April.
As a college student, you transferred universities and changed majors from pre-med to music. How did you come to realize that your path was in music?
I always wanted to heal and help people. It’s something I saw my grandfather doing, and that my mother does now, so it was always in me. I just didn’t know how. Not many people from my reservation go to college, and I was the first from my high school to get this very prestigious scholarship—a full ride, the Gates Millennium Scholarship—to wherever I chose to go. Music was my interest, but everyone said, “be a lawyer,” “be a doctor,” because not a lot of us get these opportunities. So I went to Creighton University in Nebraska to study pre-med.
In the summer, I worked at our Indian Health Service hospital and figured out that it wasn’t for me. Other stuff was happening in my life and I hit rock bottom. I took a year off, went home to my rez, poured my heart into music and found a new school where I could study that. I came to Chicago four years ago, and I graduated from Columbia College Chicago in May 2014 with a B.A. degree in audio arts and acoustics.
After I left Creighton, I told an elder I didn’t want to be a doctor anymore and wanted to do music. He said, “Sometimes music is the best medicine.” And that stays with me today.
What are the challenges as a Native American artist breaking through in the music world?
The culture shock I encountered when I moved to Chicago, realizing that people don’t know about Natives. The first week I was here, I met a girl who thought Native Americans were extinct.
As an artist, the challenges are complex and on multiple levels. My generation identified with hip hop, but there were no opportunities to express that, let alone make music. Another obstacle that I’m still working through as an indigenous hip hop artist is respecting the origins of hip hop in black culture, and not erasing that.
Who has influenced you as an artist?
My first encounter with hip hop was a CD I found on the side of the road: Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP. It was so emotional, getting pain and frustration out. When it comes to the delivery in my music, Eminem was an influence. Kanye West was always a big influence as a producer and rapper. Nas, Dead Prez and Talib Kweli influenced my style of rapping. Robbie Robertson, a musician-songwriter, is another big influence as a Native artist. Lyrically, John Trudell, a Native activist and poet, is a big influence. His album Tribal Voice is probably my favorite. My mother, family and community inspire me—the people who are the reason I have a story to tell.
Your music raises awareness of contemporary Native American issues. What was it like growing up on the rez? And was Native American history taught in school?
It wasn’t easy growing up on one of the poorest reservations in the country. As indigenous people, we’re born into historical trauma and systems that were built on the destruction of our people. I didn’t know I was poor growing up. We had our culture, family and beautiful things, even though there are drugs, alcohol and violence as a result of the history our ancestors faced. Growing up on the rez made me who I am. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I went to public school on my rez and I remember one paragraph about Native Americans in our history class, and it didn’t mention genocide. Kids aren’t learning it in school because the victors tell history and write the books. The educational system is failing when it comes to the true history of this country and the indigenous people that inhabit it. It is failing our whole society. That’s why we get people in college who think Native Americans are extinct.
I grew up next to Pine Ridge where the American Indian Movement occupied the town of Wounded Knee for 71 days in 1973. I was aware of resistance and a messed-up history, but I didn’t see that my reality was a direct result of all of that. I grew up buying into the system where we’re taught to hate ourselves and I thought my music and story wasn’t worth anything.
Going to Columbia College and taking classes like Culture, Race and Media, we would analyze mainstream media’s portrayal of marginalized people and how it affects their realities. I was able to connect the dots and realize that my lived experience, all these hardships my loved ones and I were facing, were a direct result of this atrocious history and things that our ancestors survived.
Could you explain how the Native worldview differs from that of the U.S. mainstream?
A lot of Western culture is about the individual, rather than seeing how everything is connected and related. In a lot of indigenous cultures, it is about community. Indigenous cultures understand that you’re an individual, but you play a part in the whole—and not just the community of human beings, but also part of the Earth. What we do to the land and the water will affect others, our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren. I was raised in a very matriarchal environment, and my family lived off of the land and taught me how to respect it because it takes care of us. That plays into my work.
People say I make protest music and that I’m an activist. I’m just telling my story and talking about the things preventing us from being happy, healthy and respected. If that makes me a rebel, then what are we saying about the systems that cause all of this for us?
The biggest environmental issue for us right now is the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would cut through our reservation. It would endanger the Ogallala Aquifer, our fresh water supply. Don’t we deserve water like everyone else? Haven’t we survived enough? Another threat comes with this, things like man camps [that house oil workers] and increased violence and sexual assault against our women who are already at the top for these statistics. We aren’t against infrastructure and jobs; just focus it somewhere that’s not going to destroy us.
You travel across the United States and Canada performing, especially for colleges and youth. How important is it for Native youth to have mentors like you?
Growing up, I didn’t have mentors around my age, but I definitely had elder mentors who believed in me. I think it’s important that we see people who look like us and come from the places we come from being successful in their own right and doing what they love. By doing what I do, I’m setting an example and just trying to be there for Native youth in any way I can.
The Lakota name given me by my elders is Oyate Teca Obmani, which means “walks with young people.” This came in a ceremony a couple years ago and it’s the path I’m supposed to take. Walking with young people is where I’ll have the most impact.
Can you talk about the power of music as a creative tool for social change?
Music’s role is bringing the emotional element to social justice issues and movements. We can stand up and give speeches all day and talk about facts, which are important and needed, but nothing can tap into people’s emotions like art. Ultimately, we don’t want to be preaching to the choir. A lot of our messages are falling on like-minded people. We need to reach those who don’t see the way we do, who don’t see the destruction of the Earth, and how colonialism and capitalism are destroying our communities.
Jessica Koski, a member of the Rural America In These Times Board of Editors, is Ojibwe from the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC)" of the Lake Superior Band of Chippewa Indians. Jessica currently works for KBIC’s Natural Resources Department as a mining specialist helping to build the capacity of her community to address mining in the Lake Superior basin. Democracy Schools
Code talkers are people in the 20th century who used obscure languages as a means of secret communication during wartime. The term is now usually associated with the United States soldiers during the world wars who used their knowledge of Native American languages as a basis to transmit coded messages. In particular, there were approximately 400–500 Native Americans in the United States Marine Corps whose primary job was the transmission of secret tactical messages. Code talkers transmitted these messages over military telephone or radio communications nets using formal or informally developed codes built upon their native languages. Their service improved the speed of encryption of communications at both ends in front line operations during World War II.
The name code talkers is strongly associated with bilingual Navajo speakers specially recruited during World War II by the Marines to serve in their standard communications units in the Pacific Theater.
Code talking, however, was pioneered by Cherokee and Choctaw Indians during World War I.
Other Native American code talkers were deployed by the United States Army during World War II, including Lakota, Meskwaki, and Comanche soldiers. Soldiers of Basque ancestry were also used for code talking by the U.S. Marines during World War II in areas where other Basque speakers were not expected to be operating.
Adolf Hitler knew about the successful use of code talkers during World War I. He sent a team of some thirty anthropologists to the United States to learn Native American languages before the outbreak of World War II. It proved too difficult for them to learn the many languages and dialects that existed.
Meskwaki men used their language against the Germans while fighting in the US Army in North Africa. Twenty-seven Meskwaki, then 16% of Iowa's Meskwaki population, enlisted in the U.S. Army together in January 1941.
The Navajo code talkers were commended for their skill, speed, and accuracy demonstrated throughout the war. At the Battle of Iwo Jima, Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, had six Navajo code talkers working around the clock during the first two days of the battle. These six sent and received over 800 messages, all without error. Connor later stated, "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima."
willing to fight and die
King described his former company as one being so caught up in the profit making they chose to neglect taking proper safety measures for the workers.
"Proper OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] safety practices were not used on a daily basis," he said. "We were not given respirators to use underground. I know co-workers who drank the water dripping in the tunnels. You're walking down the tunnels and heavy equipment is rolling by and all that dust. There was no safety for us."
"We knew when a safety inspection was coming because all the tunnels not being used were barricaded, workers were told to use respirators and other safety gear and do things that weren't done on a daily basis," he said. "Then after the inspection, a couple of days later it was as back to normal, no safety and no respirators."
According to King, the only time UNC took safety measures was when OSHA announced an upcoming visit to the mine.
"We knew when a safety inspection was coming because all the tunnels not being used were barricaded, workers were told to use respirators and other safety gear and do things that weren't done on a daily basis," he said. "Then after the inspection, a couple of days later it was as back to normal, no safety and no respirators."
In the mid-1980s the uranium market crashed, and most of the mines and mills in New Mexico were shuttered.
The EPA logs 10,400 uranium mine features across the West. This is the Homestake mill site, and the hill in the background is a tailings pile. (Photo: NMELC)
"But even before then, folks suspected there were problems with uranium mining and milling, things like environmental contamination and public health issues, lung cancer and lung disease for the miners," Jantz, whose firm works for clients hoping to have someone address the environmental contamination and human health legacy issues, explained. "So the uranium mining industry started to become suspect from a health perspective."
During the late 1990s, communities affected by the uranium mining and milling contaminants became more engaged.
"That's when folks started to realize that the legacy from uranium mining and milling was not one of promised riches," Jantz added. "But more one of environmental contamination, and they would be stuck with the bill."
Human Health Impact
Despite the obvious health risks associated with exposure to radiation that have been known for decades, very few studies exist that link Navajo illnesses to the uranium mines and mills.
Jantz sees this as neither coincidence nor happenstance.
"As with anything nuclear, good information is one of the first casualties," he explained. "So there's not a lot of information of environmental and public health impacts from uranium mining and milling. I think this is probably by design, because if those data were available nobody would tolerate any uranium mining anywhere. Once the full impacts of uranium mining and milling become clear, it's going to show there is tremendous devastation."
Despite the information blackout, it was clear from the beginning that uranium mining was causing health problems.
In a short time after beginning to work in the uranium mines, Navajo men began to be diagnosed with lung cancer.
By the 1960s, the US Public Health Service identified an association linking cumulative exposure to uranium and lung cancer, clarifying the cause as being exposure to radiation.
"Navajo miners, since they were nonsmoking, their lung effects had more pronounced importance from an epidemiological perspective," Shuey said. "Over the years, it's now very well-accepted worldwide in all scientific and medical groups that underground miners and uranium workers are disproportionately affected by the materials around them, like radon gases and radioactive decay products."
By the 1960s, the US Public Health Service linked cumulative exposure to uranium and lung cancer, clarifying the cause as being exposure to radiation.
Other studies have proven that even decades after they ceased being exposed to radiation, Navajo miners had mortality ratios and risks for lung cancer and other respiratory problems four times higher than nonminers.
Today, thanks in large part to the work of the SRIC, Shuey, Jantz, the NMELC and the DiNEH (Dine´ Network for Environmental Health) Project which works to address community concerns about high rates of kidney disease linked to the drinking of contaminated water within its population, the information base of the health impacts of uranium mining and milling is growing. (The indigenous people of the Navajo Nation refer to themselves as Dine´.)
Shuey explained that his organization, DiNEH, the University of New Mexico and other community groups have been involved in studies about uranium impacts on Navajo communities.
"We found that the closer you lived to mines and the more you came into contact with this waste, it significantly increased your risk to certain illnesses," Shuey said.
The illnesses he refers to are hypertension, auto-immune diseases, high blood pressure, rheumatoid arthritis and kidney disease, all obtained simply by living close to mine waste.
Jantz pointed out other issues as well.
"What we're beginning to see in terms of public health impacts is lung cancer caused by radon gas, and they [former miners and current communities in proximity to mine and mill sites] are seeing breast and kidney cancers."
Studies of both animals and humans have found uranium to be primarily toxic to the kidneys. Arsenic, cadmium and other hazardous metals are commonly found in uranium tailings and generate metal damage to kidneys.
"It's becoming clear that living in proximity to a uranium mine results in a range of health issues from cancer to kidney disease to hypertension, heart disease, and auto-immune dysfunction.”
Uranium is also an estrogen mimicker, as well as an endocrine disruptor, according to Jantz.
"It's becoming clear that living in proximity to a uranium mine results in a range of health issues from cancer to kidney disease to hypertension, heart disease and auto-immune dysfunction," he said, while adding that many of the clients he works with live within just 50 feet of these areas.
While it is obvious that exposure to uranium would be likely to occur around the mines, mill sites can be equally contaminated.
At the mills, uranium ore was crushed then soaked in sulfuric acid to extract the uranium, before even more chemicals were added. What was left was a radioactive cocktail, which was usually stored in vast unprotected ponds that leached and continue to leach contaminants like radiation and heavy metals into the groundwater.
An article titled "Once Upon a Mine" by Carrie Arnold published in February in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives (an arm of the National Institutes of Health), from which many of these citations were borrowed, added:
"A study of 266 cases and matched controls among Navajo births over 18 years suggested that children of women who lived near abandoned uranium sites were 1.83 times more likely to have one of 33 selected defects. Among these were defects thought to be connected to radiation exposure (e.g., chromosomal disorders, single gene mutations) as well as distinctly non related defects (e.g., deaths due to obstetrical complications)."
Other studies have shown how uranium's chemical and radioactive properties can damage DNA.
Meanwhile, radiation, heavy metals, and other contaminants from uranium mines and mills continue to leak, invisibly, into the air, water, and ground throughout the Southwest.
Shuey, Jantz, the NMELC and the DiNEH project continue to sift through reams of data generated by recent studies.
Meanwhile, radiation, heavy metals and other contaminants from uranium mines and mills continue to leak, invisibly, into the air, water and ground throughout the southwest.
A Local and Global Issue
There have been even fewer studies conducted for impacts on wildlife than there have been for humans.
"There is not a lot of information out there and nobody has much information on this," Jantz explained. The closest we have are studies done after the Church Rock tailings spill, a study done on livestock that found significant deposition of radionuclides in organ meat of livestock that foraged around the site. The expectation would be similar for wildlife. These toxins bio-accumulate as they go up the food chain."
Significant amounts of radionuclides have been found in livestock that forage near uranium mine and mill sites. (Photo: NMELC)
Additionally, there have been a few other studies on animals that suggest impacts on their reproductive systems from exposure to uranium.
A study in rats exposed to uranium found the offspring had a higher body burden of uranium than even the dams at the mill tailings areas. These offspring also had higher rates of physiological changes, including, disconcertingly, atypical sperm formation.
Alarmingly, a mouse study produced evidence that uranium in drinking water caused estrogenic activity even at levels below the EPA's so-called safe drinking water level.
Jantz gives fair warning to those who believe that simply because they do not reside near an old uranium mine or mill they need not worry about these issues.
"The nuclear power chain is slung across the world, so folks who may not live near a mine or mill may not be getting those direct effects," he said. "But you may live near a fabrication plant or a nuclear power plant. And if you are one of those people, you are going to be dealing with the radiological effects on that end of the power chain. So the folks in New Mexico and the Southwest are the just first people exposed to the problem."
"Our basic findings are that the closer you live to mines and exposure to the waste, you have almost double the chance of these illnesses," he said. "All the people living in these areas were at additional risk. So if they are at this additional risk, then you can extend that conclusion to other places throughout the West where you have the same geospatial relationships to people with mines."
Shuey said that the EPA logs 10,400 mine features across the West and stressed, "Uranium development has been widespread in the Western US since the 1940s, and it's not just an Indian community problem. It affects indigenous populations in Washington, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and other states. But there are communities almost solely white that were effected by these mining operations in exactly the same way, in addition to the same lack of transparency from the government toward the workers."
According to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), 37 states administer 18,900 licenses for entities working with nuclear materials, while the NRC itself administers another 2,900, and there are currently 99 operable nuclear power plants in the US.
A recent fire and radiation release at a New Mexico uranium repository that receives 17 to 19 shipments every week from sites around the country, including Los Alamos and installations in Idaho, Illinois and South Carolina, underscored his point.
According to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), 37 states administer 18,900 licenses for entities working with nuclear materials, while the NRC itself administers an additional 2,900. There are currently 99 operable nuclear power plants in the United States.
Government, Company Response
The EPA remains involved in cleaning up several sites but at the time of publishing had yet to respond to Truthout's request for more detailed information about its ongoing cleanup operations.
Shuey explained that the federal government agencies involved "are very responsive to the results of our studies because there is now so much evidence that uranium is bad for you."
"I wish I could say I've observed heightened responsibility by the companies, but they are either trying to avoid responsibility or doing what they can to keep their costs for responsibility as low as possible."
However, the mining companies are a different story.
"They will always declaim responsibility or say the effects are not anywhere near what people say they are, or they say people drive cars and there's deaths in car accidents or you get as much radiation on a flight, and do all they can to minimize the consequences of what they are doing," he explained. "I wish I could say I've observed heightened responsibility by the companies, but they are either trying to avoid responsibility or doing what they can to keep their costs for responsibility as low as possible."
An example of this is General Electric, which owns the Chimney Rock uranium mine.
"GE sued the government in 2010 because they claimed the US government was to blame for giving them the permit in the first place," Shuey said. "So the feds agreed to pick up a third of the cost of the cleanup. That means taxpayers paid for it."
The Legacy Continues
The environmental costs of uranium mines and mills have never been calculated, but taxpayers have shelled out billions of dollars cleaning up mill tailings. And even this amount of money has barely put a dent in the problem.
Shuey stressed that "uranium mining waste was never regulated by the federal government," and it wasn't until 1978 that mill tailings finally began to be regulated.
"These are the sands and mill fluid, which has the pH of battery acid, in addition to being radioactive waste," Shuey said. "So these tailing piles were given money to be covered up or removed, and taxpayers covered this. But groundwater and surface water pollution, where radon gases are exhaled into the air by these piles, along with massive areas of contaminated ground and groundwater, have yet to be cleaned up."
People living near a proposed uranium mining site that is marked by the white building in the background. (Photo: Osse Werner)
Nobody has estimated what it would cost to clean up these areas, but between $3 billion to $4 billion already has been spent. Shuey said much more needs to be done.
"The uranium legacy has left thousands of sites around the West that remain unreclaimed and uncontrolled, and the federal mechanisms to clean them up are entirely inadequate," he said. "The EPA is using the superfund law that was never even intended to be used for high-volume waste with a radioactive character."
Nevertheless, the threat of active uranium production remains in New Mexico.
Currently there are no active uranium mines or mills in New Mexico. And by the end of spring 2014, when the last active mill in Utah ceases operations, there will not be any more operating mills in the entire United States.
Nevertheless, the threat of active uranium production remains in New Mexico.
The Mount Taylor mine on the northwest flank of Mount Taylor, about 60 miles west of Albuquerque, operated by Rio Grand Resources, a subsidiary of General Atomics, is slated to go on active status by the end of 2014, according to Jantz.
The company web site says the Mount Taylor project, "a conventional underground mine that contains the largest uranium resource in the United States, is currently on standby." It adds that the mine contains "an in-place resource of over 100 million pounds" of ore and that "the deposit is being evaluated for development as an in situ leach operation."
Truthout asked Rio Grand Resources if the company has plans to restart the Mount Taylor mine but had not received a reply at the time this article was published.
However, thanks to a recent ruling by the New Mexico Supreme Court, companies and permitting agencies will have to consult with tribes and pueblos there before any future mining is allowed, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Nevertheless, the toxic legacy from the mine and mill sites will continue for generations.
"All these uranium waste areas have to be removed or buried and encapsulated, but that just prolongs the longevity of the hazard for future generations to deal with," Shuey said.
He offered a stark warning: "Humans are very capable of getting these materials out of the ground, but we are very unskilled at figuring out what to do with the detritus of this. And we have thousands of waste sites dotting the western landscapes. And over time they become hard to tell where they are, but they are still contaminated. This is the burden we bear now, how to manage what to do with the waste materials and their effects on the environment and our health."
King remains sick, and frustrated.
"I'm definitely angry at UNC for not warning us about the health dangers," he said. "The majority of us were never told about the dangers of working in an underground uranium mine and how this would affect our health in the future."
He remains preoccupied with his health, both physical and psychological.
"I know that being exposed to all that I was exposed to has shortened my lifespan."
"Mentally I'm always thinking about what is wrong with me, and how this is going to affect me in the future," King said.
After a long pause, he added, "I know that being exposed to all that I was exposed to has shortened my lifespan."
Meanwhile, the legacy of the thousands of mines, mills, and other uranium contaminated areas spanning the Southwest remains, their cleaning left for a future fate.
Dahr Jamail, a Truthout staff reporter, is the author of The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, (Haymarket Books, 2009), and Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches From an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq, (Haymarket Books, 2007). Jamail reported from Iraq for more than a year, as well as from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Turkey over the last ten years, and has won the Martha Gellhorn Award for Investigative Journalism, among other awards.
His third book, The Mass Destruction of Iraq: Why It Is Happening, and Who Is Responsible, co-written with William Rivers Pitt, is available now. He lives and works in Washington State.