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Tribal Sovereignty A Hot Topic At Gathering Of Native American Leaders In Spokane

Navajo Nation Washington Office
Flickr -
File photo of National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby delivering the State of Indian Nations in 2014.

There’s been a lot of political buzz this week at the mid-year conference of the National Congress of American Indians in Spokane. Tribal leaders say the next president must understand the importance of tribal sovereignty.

Tribal members can vote, but the National Congress of American Indians is non-partisan. That's why NCAI President Brian Cladoosby said issues are more important than personalities.

“It is up to us to educate Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on the positions that tribes are taking,” Cladoosby said. “And to show not only what we hope them to do for us in the next four or eight years, but to show them all the accomplishments that we have made under president Obama in the last seven years.”

Maintaining tribal sovereignty

Tribes point to things like the 2010 passage of the Indian Healthcare Improvement Act, the 2013 passage of the Violence Against Women Act, and just this month, the Bureau of Indian Affairs finalized long-awaited updates to the Indian Child Welfare Act.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell touched on those accomplishments in an address to NCAI’s General Assembly. Jewell also chairs the White House Council on Native American Affairs.

“We have high level engagement from cabinet members and senior White House officials,” Jewell said. “And I can attest that the cabinet is fully and personally engaged on these issues. They are not forgetting the tribes, they are not forgetting their responsibilities.”

Treaty rights give tribes the right to self-governance. They manage their own land, regulate their own businesses and create their own laws. But Cladoosby said most past administrations have ignored tribal sovereignty.

“We’ve been in a continual battle since 1492 on trying to to maintain our sovereignty as tribal nations,” he said. “And other governments whether it be local, county, state or federal have always tried to erode our sovereignty.”

‘Unfinished business’

The Obama Administration has improved that record according to JoAnn Chase, a citizen of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara nations in North Dakota. She also directs the EPA’s American Indian Environmental Office.

“It’s just been from the top down from President Obama directing his cabinet officials and folks to really ensure that agencies across the federal family are giving honor to the government-to-government relationship,” Chase said. “That tribes have a seat at the table in terms of decision-making where that’s appropriate, that consultation with tribal governments is not the same as public comment.”

In Chase’s office, the staff is working at a furious pace to complete projects before the current administration sunsets -- an inevitable transition Secretary Jewell is well aware of.

“What we have done collectively together is unfinished business,” Jewell said. “It’s very hard to leave unfinished business, but I turn into a pumpkin in about seven months.”

This year, tribal leaders hope to build on the momentum of the last eight.

‘Our first citizenship is to our nations’

Even so, some tribal members like Juana Majel have a different perspective on the federal election.

“So, the president really is the president over all of the United States, but our first citizenship is to our nations,” she said.

That sentiment however, is not well-understood outside the tribal community. Majel chairs NCAI’s Task Force on Violence Against Women. She works alongside Jax Agtuca, a consultant with the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center. They agree Americans need to learn more about treaty rights.

“This nation does not educate its young to its responsibilities to Indian tribes,” Agtuca noted.

“Right, so we can’t fault them for their ignorance and use it as a weapon, because this country itself doesn’t take responsibility in educating them,” Majel said.

Both federal and tribal governments are currently working on transition documents for the next administration.