Big Coal Targets Alaskan Natives

If you'll indulge me a quick personal note, some of you may be interested to know that I'm now writing for a second national blog, I'll be posting there about once per week on environmental issues in the mountain west and Midwest, and will put the links in Breaking Blue when they're politically relevant. My first post went up Sunday morning, and highlights the fight between a major coal company and a small Alaskan Native tribe.

Usibelli Coal Mine Inc. has obtained the initial permits to build a coal road along Alaska’s Moose Creek, a site sacred to the Chickaloon Tribe. If the project proceeds as planned and the permits are renewed for 2012, 200 trucks a day will haul coal along the road for as long as 20 years, polluting the river and erasing all gains made by the tribe’s $1 million salmon restoration project.

The tribe sees this as a direct attack on both their way of life and their freedom of religion... Yet while Big Coal shows off its best George Custer impression, some in the government seem to be looking the other way.

Legislative progress in Indian Country

Here’s a legislative update on three big bills working their way through Congress with major ramifications for American Indians*. One has passed, one is making progress, and one is stalled.

You may remember a post I made in May highlighting the fact that 1 in 3 Indian women will be raped at some point in their lives thanks to a Supreme Court ruling that stripped tribal governments of criminal jurisdiction over whites on Indian lands. Well, both houses of Congress have passed Senator Byron Dorgan’s Tribal Law and Order Act, with the House moving this month. The new law won’t solve the criminal jurisdiction issues, but at least it will beef up tribal resources. From the newspaper Indian Country Today:

In both chambers, it was attached to the Indian Arts and Crafts bill [HR 725], which strengthens the ability to prosecute those who unlawfully sell purported Indian goods.

Under the bill, tribal courts will be allowed to impose sentences of up to three years, but their authority is affected in some ways, like being required to follow U.S. court system procedures. Also, tribes prosecuting individuals for crimes that could land them in jail for more than a year must provide defendants with the same right to a lawyer that they would have in state or federal court…

The bill will also provide tribal police greater access to criminal history databases such as the National Crime Information Center, and will require tribal and federal officers serving Indian country to receive specialized training to interview victims of sexual assault and collect crime scene evidence.

Further, it requires Indian Health Service facilities to implement consistent sexual assault protocols, and requires federal officials to provide documents and testimony gained in the course of their federal duties to aid in prosecutions before tribal courts.

I’m pleased that this bill passed so overwhelmingly, and a bit surprised. Tribal power is a touchy subject with so many mistakenly thinking that it’s about race rather than history and federalism. To see this kind of bill pass with such bipartisan support at a time when obstructionism is the name of the game is really affirming. It’s a shame that we still have to wait for an Oliphant fix – ie, a bill that would allow tribes, like states, to prosecute all criminals on their own land rather than waiting for the never-arriving feds – but for what it does, this is a good bill. I have written my Congressman, Walt Minnick (D-ID), to express my appreciation for his aye vote on this bill.

Another bill, this one making its way through Congress, would ensure that tribal lands are allowed to grow after a 2009 Supreme Court decision basically said certain tribes could only let their land shrink. It is referred to as a “Carcieri fix” because the decision misinterpreted Congressional intent. From another Indian Country Today article:

A legislative Carcieri fix has been successfully inserted into the current House Interior appropriations bill with a similar Senate action expected to be attempted soon...

Tribal officials said a proactive measure is needed to remedy a February 2009 Supreme Court decision, which found that tribes recognized by the federal government after 1934 cannot have lands put into trust for them by the Department of the Interior.

Most tribes, even if not directly affected by the decision, are deeply concerned about the usurping of tribal sovereignty and self-determination.

The article goes on to point out that critics are trying to defeat the bill by linking it to Indian gaming, even though the bill has nothing whatsoever to do with gaming. As is often the case with federal Indian law defeatists, it seems they don't understand the complexities of the issues involved.

Finally, perhaps the weightiest of all these bills is going nowhere for now. You might have heard of Cobell v. Salazar, a case old enough that it was originally called Cobell v. Bennett. This is the prominent lawsuit that charges the Department of Interior with mismanaging countless billions in Indian royalties and trust funds. The latest development is that a legal settlement for over $3 billion has stalled in the Senate. The ICT write-up blames the failure on Democratic in-fighting and Republican partisanship.

The delay may or may not be a good thing. On the one hand, Ms. Cobell supports the settlement, but on the other hand, some tribal advocates claim it needs work, specifically more protections for individuals. I myself don’t know enough about the bill’s contents to pick sides, but I will say that while I usually take the pragmatic side of things, the legal group National Congress of American Indians is siding with the detractors and I do respect the NCAI.

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Military Lands Black Hawks At Wounded Knee Gravesite

I just got back from a three-day trip to Rapid City and the Lakota Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. On Saturday morning, I drove out to Wounded Knee to pay my respects with a friend who lives in Pine Ridge. Wounded Knee is the site of the 1890 massacre where 7th Cavalry soldiers killed as many as 300 innocent Indian men, women, and children, and of the 1973 American Indian Movement (AIM) standoff with federal agents. And now most recently, it is the site of a 2010 military blunder. Early Saturday afternoon, three Black Hawk military helicopters tried to land on the 1890 mass burial grave. Numerous blogs report these helicopters were affiliated with the 7th Cavalry, although that is unclear. What is clear is that while their intentions were educational and pure, they were also miscommunicated. A peaceful protest prevented their landing and many reservation residents remain justifiably outraged by the disprespectul choice of a landing site and the display of military force on sacred ground.

I was right there, but left moments before it happened with no clue of what was about to occur. I only wanted to feel the history and pay my respects, and did not stay long because the museum was closed and a crowd (the protesters, it turns out) was gathering by the current cemetery. My friend thought maybe it was a family gathering or a funeral, and out of respect stayed in the car. As we drove back towards the town of Pine Ridge, we saw three black helicopters flying extremely low to the ground. It was very confusing and a little troubling to see.

It turns out those helicopters were military Black Hawks, and just minutes after we saw them they attempted to land at the Wounded Knee burial ground. Protestors ran beneath two of the helicopters, which then flew away. In an Argus Leader story picked up nation-wide by the Associated Press, tribal president Theresa Two Bulls later said that the helicopters were bringing members of the Colorado National Guard to the reservation to learn about the Wounded Knee massacre and improve relations, an admirable purpose that was not properly communicated to area residents. That miscommunication reminds me of the fear many New Yorkers felt when Air Force One buzzed the Statute of Liberty last year. Even if it had been better disseminated, however, the presence of war machines at the massacre site would have remained highly inappropriate and disrespectful. The indigenous blog Censored News provides detail, and a video of the incident is below the fold:

The first helicopter landed a few feet from the mass grave. The Lakota men ran up to it, holding their staffs, yelling at the military to leave Wounded Knee, the elders did not want them there. As the other two helicopters began to descend, four women ran to get under the choppers, waving red banners and a United Nations flag. The helicopters came lower, the women did not budge. They yelled at the soldiers hanging out of the helicopters, “Leave, you are not wanted at Wounded Knee.” The three black helicopters flew away.

“Military transport coming to Wounded Knee? Why, to intimidate us? I came here to talk about my family, but now I am thinking, I am 80 years old, I pray every day. The Chairlady said to come here and talk about our families, but for people to make money off of this place, they shouldn’t do that. This is a place to pray, the military have no place here” said Stanley Looking Elk, an elder and former Tribal President.

Marie Not Help Him loudly questioned the people present, “Why are you doing this? I invited them here! My great grandfather Dewey Beard survived this. I wanted to tell our story,” saying she belongs to the Wounded Knee Survivor’s Association…

Olowan Martinez said, “The Tribe did not even tell us they were doing this, we found out last night, me and my children live right down the hill. The US military can go elsewhere to hear the story. Our ancestors at Wounded Knee were killed by the US military and my father, a Veteran of Wounded Knee 1973, lies buried there, they have no respect to come back to where they put the blood of our relatives on the ground.”

I am glad that the military wanted its soldiers to learn about the 1890 incident. That desire to improve relations is a good sign, but the way it was implemented is ironic proof of just how badly that education is needed. Why fly to sacred ground when you could fly to Rapid City, Pine Ridge, or any one of several nearby Nebraska airfields and drive the rest of the way? For the military, possibly even the 7th Cav, to bring in heavy war machines to the very ground where a previous 7th Cav had murdered hundreds of innocents was the height of insensitivity. To land by the burial ground itself was the height of disrespect and arrogance.

I'm not on the rez anymore, but from what I can tell online, tensions are running high. Russell Means, the legendary Sioux activist who led the 1973 standoff, said: “We the Lakotah People, do not want our massacred dead bodies of Men, Women and Children at the mass grave at Wounded Knee used for publicity by the United States Government nor their colonial corporation, the Oglala Sioux Tribal Government.” (In all fairness, when Means labels the tribal government a pawn of the U.S. government, it should be noted that he has come very close to winning the presidency several times, including against Two Bulls in 2008.) Several YouTube comments liken the U.S. landing at Wounded Knee to the Lakota landing in Arlington National Cemetery. And the Aboriginal News Group writes,

This domestic military action is a deliberate insult and an obvious message of ongoing colonialism, state-sponsored racism and apathetic Indigenous genocide to all Indigenous peoples across the Fourth World; to the whole of the Lakota/Dakota Nation; and to the Indigenous residents of Pine Ridge and Wounded Knee. The symbolism of dispatching the Seventh Cavalry to Wounded Knee in an attempt to land weapons of mass destruction on Aboriginal sacred ground tells us how little this government, and this particular administration, respects the people of Indian Country and our significant historical perspective as survivors of the racist Euro-settler xenophobic purges waged against the Indian in the Americas

A resolution is being presented to the Tribal Council today that lays out the history of Wounded Knee and would continue the tribe’s attempts to get 20 Medals of Honor from the 1890 massacre revoked. It would also “not allow the United States Military from this time forward to come anywhere near the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre Mass Grave in order to demonstrate Honor and Respect for the Lakota people buried there, and to ensure a peaceful, nonviolent, weapon-free zone for the Mass Gravesite area.” Whether this resolution passes or not, the base commander of wherever it is in Colorado those helicopters were from would do well to apologize, and the Pentagon should revoke those 20 medals. Too little too late, but at least it would be something. And on the personal level - I wish we'd turned that car around to find out what the helicopters were doing. I would've asked those gathered if they wouldn't've minded a white boy joining the protest.

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R.I.P. Wilma Mankiller

You may not be familiar with Wilma Mankiller, the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, but she was a strong leader not just for women and Native peoples but for all who seek justice and work to build stronger communities everywhere. She passed away today of pancreatic cancer at the relatively young age of 64.

Chief Chad Smith said in a statement, "Our personal and national hearts are heavy with sorrow and sadness with the passing this morning of Wilma Mankiller. We feel overwhelmed and lost when we realize she has left us but we should reflect on what legacy she leaves us. We are better people and a stronger tribal nation because her example of Cherokee leadership, statesmanship, humility, grace, determination and decisiveness."

Her obits aren't that detailed yet, so instead I'll give you (a slightly cleaned up) Wikipedia:

Mankiller faced many obstacles during her tenure in office. At the time she became chief, the Cherokee Nation was male-dominated. Such a structure contrasted with the traditional Cherokee culture and value system, which instead emphasized a balance between the two genders. Over the course of her three terms, Mankiller made great strides to bring back that balance and reinvigorate the Cherokee Nation through community-development projects where men and women work collectively for the common good... These projects included establishing tribally owned businesses such as horticultural operations and plants with government defense contracts, and improving infrastructure, such as providing running water to the community of Bell, Oklahoma and building a hydroelectric facility.

Under the US Federal policy of Native American self-determination, Mankiller was able to improve federal-tribal negotiations, paving the way for today's Government-to-Government relationship the Cherokee Nation has with the US Federal Government....

Her first book, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People, an autobiography, became a national bestseller. Gloria Steinem said in a review that, "As one woman's journey, Mankiller opens the heart. As the history of a people, it informs the mind. Together, it teaches us that, as long as people like Wilma Mankiller carry the flame within them, centuries of ignorance and genocide can't extinguish the human spirit.

Mankiller was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998. The absence of her leadership and presence will be strongly felt.

Idaho Debates Justice in “Lawless” Indian Country

This post is from Wednesday, but as it recieved less time on the front page than normal and is a rarely covered but incredibly important topic, I'm giving it a weekend bump on a slow Sunday. -N

1 in 3 American Indian women will be raped at some point in their lifetime, twice the national average. In Idaho, if state lawmakers don't pass a bill before them now, the problem will get worse before it gets better.

In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe that sovereign Indian nations do not have criminal jurisdiction over non-Natives traveling or even living in Indian Country. For a variety of nonsensical and unprecedented legal reasons, Tribal police and courts only have authority over other Indians. This is akin to telling the Montana State Police that the law doesn’t apply to Minnesota residents passing through on I-90.

Except for a few “Public Law 280” states, state and local authorities also lack jurisdiction on Indian reservations, per the Constitution’s commerce clause and a number of Court precedents. That means jurisdiction falls to the feds, who don’t do their job. As Chickasaw Tribal Police Chief Jason O’Neal told NPR in 2007, “’Many of the criminals know Indian lands are almost a lawless community, where they can do whatever they want.’…  A 2003 report from the Justice Department found that U.S. attorneys take fewer cases from the BIA than from almost any other federal-law enforcement agency.”

The real world result? 1 in 3 American Indian women will be raped at some point in their life, compared to 1 in 6 women nationally. 41% of those women report being raped by a stranger rather than an acquaintance, compared to 16.7% nationally. As Chief O’Neal points out, these strangers are not from within the Indian communities, so we can’t point to reservation issues as the problem - 80% of attacks against Indians are from non-Natives. Overall, the violent crime rate in Indian country is twice the national average. (All numbers are from various Justice Department reports.)

Last month, it looked like things were going to get worse for American Indians in northern Idaho before they got better, but thankfully the state is taking the right steps. To make up for the lack of federal activity, tribes can make deals with local or state law enforcement agencies to cross-deputize tribal  officers and give them the necessary jurisdiction. Last month, however, Benewah County Sheriff Bob Kirts, whose county includes the southern half of the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Reservation, refused to re-instate a cross-deputization agreement with tribal police. If that wasn’t bad enough, he also said he would no longer respond to tribal calls for help, leaving the southern half of the Reservation completely lawless. Of the 10,000 people on the reservation, over 8,000 are non-Natives now free to break the law.

The proposed solution now before the legislature and more below the jump.

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