Native American Rights

The Native Vote and The New Empowerment

The Native Vote experience is a fairly new, post-modern phenomenon. And while it does reflect a certain growing savvy and sophistication in Indian country, it also belies a much deeper and more profound collective loss. It is the loss of an inward-focused insulated and vibrant traditional culture, fed by the land and the sun and the seasons, wholly self-contained and not wanting for western material society. Yes, this loss began with the Indian Wars, and it has been cumulative and historic.

But the changes have also been sudden, with the loss of culture, language and the practice of traditions in these past two decades. We have witnessed and experienced the shift from a thriving “reservation culture.” with many touchstones of the older, pre-reservation lifestyles and cultural values still intact, to a newer, post-modern way of reservation life. Most of the elders who remembered the early reservation days are gone now. And with them left the simpler times and a comparatively quiet and constant existence.

Media growth and the Internet have brought desperately needed emotional and mental freedoms. They have connected formerly isolated people, surrounded by racist border towns, to the greater world collective experience. They have facilitated the breaking down of old-school redneck strangleholds, and the suffocating feeling that racism is inevitable.

However, the interest in greater society has had its sacrificial lambs. As the elders go, so go the fluent speakers and the old practices. In their place, however, a new form of Native culture is emerging – a youth-based, pop culture version encompassing hip hop empowerment. It includes the pseudo-glamour of gangster lifestyle, the power of easy violence and the flash of media savvy.

It is a strange and bi-polar merging. This new Native wave includes the most modern virtual realities, as the new generation fully embraces media, the Internet and new technologies – while also reaching back and bending down to grab handfuls of Earth and owning their own land-based traditions.

The newest form of empowerment includes it all. Unlike the older generations who have rejected the abilities to have and embrace both realities, the new heartbeat of Indian country finds life in both, necessarily needing them to solidify their new-found foot hold in the global technology-based community, while striving to maintain some critical sense of who they are against this backdrop of a new world experience.

It’s been done before, especially in Indian country, as generations have had to figure out how to negotiate their changing world and survive, but this time is significant in its difference. This generation seeks to empower itself with political grit outside it’s own tribes, it’s own communities, by learning the tools to push the wheels of power to the places they want to go.

Instead of being constantly reactionary, this is about planning, picking up the new weapons of a cyber age and playing a calculated game to take back their power.

The Native Note is one example of this new efficiency. Where past generations rejected participation in the political systems of the greater society because it was “selling out” to the “Feds,” the younger generations are gaining an understanding that participation is a way to make their collective voices heard by those people who do make decisions affecting their lives and the health of their communities, their tribes.

In a perfect and perhaps future reality, Indian people will be truly sovereign, independent, in spirit and reality from the United States government. But in the mean time, exercising the right to choose someone to lead – and casting that vote – is one way to step firmly in the soft earth and walk toward that empowered Native reality.


Brazil faces ongoing protest of Belo Monte Dam at UNPFII, actress Sigourney Weaver joins fray



UNITED NATIONS, New York City – A side event at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues turned into confrontation on Wednesday as a panel discussing the effects of hydroelectric dams on indigenous populations was met with terse responses from the governments of Brazil and Peru. The heated exchanges took place shortly before a planned protest march from the UN to the Brazilian Mission, where actress Sigourney Weaver lent her celebrity power to efforts by indigenous groups to stop Brazil’s Belo Monte dam.

The side event panel, led by Tom Goldtooth, Executive Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, presented evidence of dam-induced destruction of ecosystems and indigenous populations around the globe. Routinely touted as “clean energy” by pro-hydroelectric interests, Goldtooth explained that dams wash out fragile river ecosystems and displace surrounding communities, heavily impacting lifeways and livelihoods.

One of the areas discussed in detail was the Xingu River region of Brazil, where local indigenous people are fighting the proposed Belo Monte dam. If built, this hydro-electric project will be the third-largest in the world, behind the Three Gorges Dam in China and the Itaipu Dam, Brazil-Paraguay. First proposed in 1990, Belo Monte has been fraught with controversy and protest. On April 20, the Brazilian government moved the project significantly forward, awarding the building rights to Norte Energia, a consortium of nine companies led by Chesf, a subsidiary of Electrobras, Latin America’s largest power utility company.

Immediately following the UN panel presentation, the Minister of the Brazilian Mission to the United Nations, Maria Teresa Mesquita Pessoa, responded by saying the information given was “two years old” and did not “accurately reflect the consultations” that had taken place with local indigenous people. Speaking in clear English, Pessoa resolutely defended the merits of the Belo Monte dam project. A representative of the Peruvian Mission to the United Nations requested to speak next, and defended his country’s position on hydro-electricity projects as well. IEN’s Tom Goldtooth later noted that it was unusual for governments to officially respond in such a manner during side events at the Forum.

Following the side event, a group of indigenous leaders representing dam-impacted communities from around the world gathered in a planned protest in front of the United Nations. The group of about 50 people marched to the Brazilian Mission to the United Nations. Walking slowly, they attracted attention and support from passing pedestrians and motorists as they chanted “No dams on sacred lands” and “Respect indigenous rights.” Participants carried placards in English, Spanish and Portuguese and a large black banner with the words, “Stop Dams in Amazon.”

Actress Sigourney Weaver, most recently known for playing botanist Dr. Grace Augustine in the movie Avatar, joined the protest at the Brazilian Mission. Post-Avatar, Weaver has traveled with Director James Cameron to the Xingu region of Brazil, and has met with local tribes and government officials in an effort to support the indigenous people of the region and stop the Belo Monte Dam.

When asked why she felt it was important to lend her celebrity status to the survival of indigenous people, Weaver said, “These people clearly feel they have not been part of this (development) process, that they are not being considered, and that their whole way of life would be wiped out…I had this amazing opportunity to travel down and meet all these tribal leaders and sit with the women in the circle and sing the songs and share food with them. And I think it carries with it a responsibility. I want to help get their message out.”

When asked how she felt this related to the experience of being from the United States, Weaver said, “It breaks my heart to see Brazil have the opportunity to do things differently and not take advantage of it. What I felt listening to the tribal leaders (in Brazil) is that we have not listened to our tribal leaders here in the U.S. and it has caused such a rift…Brazil has the opportunity to learn from mistakes that other countries have made and support the ancient way of life of the indigenous people.” Unfortunately in America, we know what happens when people aren’t heard and aren’t included. You can’t go back, you can’t undo the damage done to the original homelands and the original way of life.

Weaver continued, “Dams are a nineteenth Century model. In the US we are dismantling our dams, it’s been a disaster for the environment…We say to Brazil, and other countries, ‘You don’t have to make the same mistakes that we’ve made. You can move toward renewable energy.’”


An Overview of Indian Education (written for the Bureau of Indian Education, Safe Schools Summit, Dec. 8, 2009, Washington, DC)

Torlino_Before-After_PortraitsHistorical Overview of Indian Education

The beginning

Indian Education began early in the history of the United States. As a concept, the efforts to educate were rooted in the attempts to move the Indian from a foreign adversary to a participant in the building of a new nation. As a reality, Indian education by the federal government necessarily had to be an assimilating force, as the Western way of life was so completely foreign to all tribes living in what is now America. Existing cultures were sacrificed in the name of nation building and peace-making.

Education was a bargaining point in many treaties signed by the federal government, and thus the value of education was recognized and understood. The role and quality of that education, however, was always shaped by the current relationship of the United States government to tribes, and the shifting philosophies of the role of the federal government in relationship to Indian people.

The beginnings of a formalized method of “Indian Education,” with any identifiable consistency, took place during early Westward expansion in the nineteenth century. These earliest efforts were carried out by Christian missionaries with the inferred consent of the federal government. Both Catholic and Protestant churches were represented, and which group gained entry into a particular Indian territory was largely guided by which European nation had made first contact and established relationships within that tribe, establishing trade and learning the customs and language. The English brought Protestantism with them, the French and Spanish, Catholicism.

There are very rich and detailed first–hand accounts of missionaries working to create Indian schools in the territories, and while their intent was to offer some semblance of Western education, primary motivation was clearly to “save souls” and bring the “wild and heathen” natives to salvation. A great push was made to raise the funds necessary to support these efforts, and it became an ongoing “good work” of parishioners in Europe and established American cities to tithe funds for the salvation and education of Indian children.

The Boarding School Era

The first dramatic shift in the federal government’s laissez-faire approach to educating Indians was brought about by Army Captain Richard H. Pratt, who founded the Carlisle Indian School at an abandoned military post in Pennsylvania on November 1, 1878. His model for training prisoner–students became the basis for the Off-Reservation Indian boarding school.

Famous for the phrase, “Kill the Indian and save the man,” Pratt intended to prove that Indians could be taught Western European ways and therefore be made into citizens rather than die at the noose or the firing squad. In a closely watched “experiment,” he employed military tactics of discipline, isolation and repetition to “re-educate” Indians.  His work was considered to be a success, and Pratt’s methods became the early model for Indian boarding schools nationwide.

Pratt was a veteran of the Indian Wars, and therefore had extensive exposure to Indian people, mostly as prisoners. In 1875, Pratt was in charge of 72 Apache prisoners at Ft. Marion near St. Augustine, Florida, and he made a concerted effort to teach these men how to “elevate” themselves by learning the white European way of life. When the prisoners were released, in 1878, Pratt was successful in convincing 22 of them to continue their education. Records indicate that several of them went to The Hampton Institute, a school for freed slaves in Virginia.

With this “success” in hand, Pratt was allowed to resign his Army commission and continue to develop his ideas on Indian education, which were considered liberal at the time. He advocated this re-conditioning policy to the US Secretary of War, who then allowed him to establish the Carlisle Industrial Training School, the first co-educational, multi-tribal Indian boarding school.

The General Allotment Act of 1887, commonly known as the Dawes Act, incorporated the Carlisle model into government policy.

Thomas Jefferson Morgan was appointed the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1889 with his support of the Dawes Act and the educational policies set forth therein. During his appointment acceptance, he announced:

“When we speak of education of the Indians, we mean that comprehensive system of training and instruction which will convert them into American citizens, put within their reach the blessings which the rest of us enjoy, and enable them to compete successfully with the white man on his own ground and with his own methods.” He later wrote, “We must either fight the Indians, feed them, or else educate them. To fight them is cruel, to feed them is wasteful, while to educate them is humane, economic, and Christian.”

In 1890, the federal government published their Indian education policies in “Rules for Indian Schools.” It states the overall objective of Indian education to be “preparation of Indian youth for assimilation into the national life.”

By 1902 there were twenty-five federally funded non-reservation boarding schools in fifteen states and territories modeled after the Carlisle’s military methods. Total enrollment was over 6,000 students. Attendance at boarding schools was mandatory in some areas, and children as young as age three were taken from families and placed in boarding facilities for education and assimilation into mainstream Euro-American society.

While Pratt had good intentions of saving Indians from slaughter by creating a reform system, what ensued during the Boarding School Era was a painful tug-of-war between Indian people and the federal government. Sacrificing family and cultural ties for assimilation and education was coldly dealt out as a means to provide long-term survival for native people.

However, for those families whose children were forcibly removed, it seemed an unreasonable sacrifice. For many of the children who attended the boarding schools – which were developed under a policy founded in military conditions for adult prisoners – the reality of the transition from home to school was especially cruel.

These boarding school children went from the warmth of family life and familiar culture and language to the sterile and disciplined environment of a militarized boarding school, where they were expected to learn a new language, adopt a new way of life, and leave behind all traces of their familiar culture. In order to make the new training “stick,” many children were not allowed to see their families for years at a time, and when they did return home, were unable to fit back into life as they once knew it, sometimes loosing their language and therefore their ability to communicate with their own families.

A systematic suppression of American Indian culture occurred during this era, which included the banning of American Indian spiritual practices and the speaking of native language, all of which held severe punitive repercussions.

When the families did resist the boarding school system under Morgan, he responded with swift discipline. In 1892, he wrote to his superior, the Secretary of Interior, that “whenever it seemed wise, resorted to mild punishment by the withholding of rations or supplies, and, where necessary,…directed (Indian) Agents to use their Indian police as truant officers in compelling attendance.”

In justifying his punitive actions, Morgan wrote, “I do not believe that Indians … people who for the most part speak no English, live in squalor and degradation, make little progress from year to year, who are a perpetual source of expense to the government and a constant menace to thousands of their white neighbors, a hindrance to civilization and a clog on our progress have any right to forcibly keep their children out of school to grow up like themselves, a race of barbarians and semi-savages.”

Training Indian Youth for Economic Survival

The next major litmus of the state of Indian Education came in 1901 with the new director of Indian Education, Estelle Reed. She concluded that the goal of assimilation had not been fulfilled, and as a remedy for this perceived failure of Indian Education, Reed prescribed a renewed curriculum based on making Indians “self-supporting as speedily as possible.” Her focus was the training of Indian students for vocations rather than giving them standard academics. She wrote, “literary instruction should be secondary, and industrial training of primary importance in the system of Indian education.”

Reed introduced the concept of training Indian youth to be agricultural workers, and included a focus on the cultural arts for the first time in the Rules of Indian Education. Her primary concern was economic self-sufficiency, and she saw the benefit of commodifying the native traditional cultural arts such as basket making. The unintended benefit, however, was a preservation of some traditional art forms, the evidence of which is prized by collectors and held in museums today.

Reed held her position until 1910, and her legacy of emphasizing vocational training lasted long past her tenure as director of Indian Education. In 1915, the book of Rules once again limited academics, favoring handiwork skills over even the basic instruction of the English language and reading.

Public Interest Spurs Changes in Indian Policy

During the economic boom time of the 1920’s, public interest in the life of Native people rose dramatically. The Santa Fe Railroad had effectively invented tourism to the American West, and travel posters beckoned the traveler to explore previously unseen Native lands. This public interest, driven by tourism marketing and the railroad industry, led to increased coverage of Indian life in newspapers and magazines.

When the public became aware of the state of native youth and Indian Education, pressure was laid on the federal government to improve conditions. Intense public criticism led the current Secretary of the Interior, Hubert Work, to commission a report by the Brookings Institute to investigate Indian education. The resulting document, published in 1928, came to be known as the Meriam Report, after principle author Lewis Miriam.

This study, entitled The Problem of Indian Administration, harshly criticized the condition of the schools, the care of the students, and the philosophy and execution of the schools’ curriculum: “Very little of the work provided in Indian boarding schools is directly vocational in the sense that it is aimed at a specific vocation which the youngster is to pursue, or based upon a study of known industrial opportunities, and vocational direction in the form of proper guidance, placement, and follow-up hardly exists at all.”

The Meriam Report called for a complete revision in federal Indian Education policy, including an overhaul of the very nature of education in Indian schools. It reported on the apparent failure of vocational training, and recommended that the government arrest the work to assimilate the Indian child, replacing it with a child-centered approach that would be attentive to the needs of each individual student.

The report challenged the department of Indian Education to employ vocational, academic, and cultural studies to the full benefit of the Indian student.  In a bold move that reflected the general public’s interest in Native America, the Report suggested that Indian schools incorporate “key elements of Indian life and culture” into the curriculum.

Meriam marked a significant turning point in Indian education. Not only for it’s findings, but also for it’s role in displaying the power of public opinion and “modern” media in the forming of federal Indian policies. Good Housekeeping Magazine, which was very popular and well–read across America during this time, ran a series of articles about Indian education based upon the Meriam Report.

The resulting public outcry led to the Hoover administration’s almost doubling of federal appropriations to Indian schools between 1928 and 1933. These collective developments were referred to as the Indian New Deal, and were considered part of the social reform movement that swept through the United States in the aftermath of the Great Depression.

For the next generations of Indian school children, life was a little easier at the off-reservation boarding schools. While conditions and educational standards were not on par with mainstream public schools, children were no longer subjected to the earlier militaristic assimilation policies, and were often allowed to return home during the Summer months.

While these are small concessions for native youth who were separated from family, environment and culture, they were vast improvements from previous Indian Education policy.

The Meriam Report stated, “The Indian family and social structure must be strengthened, not destroyed…” and while efforts were made to change policy, the reality of application did not always measure up. In hindsight, it is clear that while the overt intention shifted away from “kill the Indian to save the man,” the boarding school experience continued to irrevocably change the realities of Indian life with each passing generation, adding to the cumulative loss of culture, language, and the unique experience of being Indian and part of the extended network of tribal family.

The increased federal funding during the New Deal period went to “local districts, reservation day schools, and public schools which had been established on Indian trust lands.” These additional federal funds allowed for Indian children to get an education while staying closer to home.

This period of Indian education lasted about twenty years, until the federal termination policies took hold during the 1950’s. During this time, federal Indian policy literally terminated the recognition of some Indian tribes, with the eventual goal of again assimilating native people into the mainstream society.

With the era of tribal termination came extreme budget cuts, reversing much of the progress for Indian education that had been in place since the New Deal. Many of the local tribal day schools were closed due to lack of federal funding.

The educational life of thousands of Indian children, over many decades, has been at the mercy of the fluctuations in federal policy, and the expansion and contraction of Congressional appropriations. As children’s lives are so shaped by the time spent in school, these shifts in policy and their practical application have had direct influence on generations of Indian children and their families.

The Civil Rights Era and Modern Indian Education Policy

The next phase in Indian Education policies coincided with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. Historically, a resurgence of focus on social services across the board tends to include renewed energy and funding for Indian programs, including education.

President John F. Kennedy was committed to both the support of Indian Nations, and the elevation of education for all American youth. This combination created a new era for Indian Education, and in 1961, Kennedy’s Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, appointed a Task Force on Indian Affairs. The resulting report recommended “a wide range of new activities in Indian education, from increased funds for scholarships to the encouragement of Indian parent participation in the formulation of school programs.”

In 1966, the Presidential Task Force on Indian Affairs outlined new emphasis on Indian Education, placing responsibility for improving life for native people on the improvement of the educational system, strongly endorsing Indian control of the school systems and the need for quality education. In 1968, a Special Senate Subcommittee on Indian Education, under the Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, conducted an extensive hearing on Indian education. The resulting report, “Indian Education: A National Tragedy – A National Challenge” was published in 1969.

This comprehensive document, commonly known as The Kennedy Report, focused national attention on the state of education for American Indian and Alaska Native students. The 60-point report recommended increased tribal control in education policies and across-the-board improvements in indian education, including the creation of a National Indian board of education, which spurred the creation of the National Indian Education Association (NIEA). It also called for the creation of an exemplary federal school system for Indian students.

The report included historical analysis, and stated that “the coercive assimilation policy has had disastrous effects on the education of Indian children…” It pointed to the results of generations of assimilation policies, including scathing criticism of a failed government responsibility to educate Indian children and be respectful of cultural differences.

The Kennedy report stated, “1. The classroom and the school system (have become) a sort of battleground in which the Indian child attempts to protect his integrity and identity as an individual by defeating the purposes of the school. 2. Schools that fail to understand or adapt, and-in fact-often denigrate cultural differences. 3. Schools that blame their own failures on Indian students and reinforce their defensiveness. 4. Schools that fail to recognize the importance and validity of the Indian community, causing both the community and its children to retaliate by treating the school as an alien institution. 5. A dismal record of much absenteeism, many dropouts, negative self-image, low achievement, and, ultimately, academic failure for many Indian children. 6. A perpetuation of the cycle of poverty, which undermines the success of all other federal programs.”

Nixon Ushers in Tribal Self-Determination in Indian Education

The next major milestone for tribes and Indian education policy came on July 8, 1970, when President Nixon delivered a message to Congress ordering a new approach on Indian policy, condemning forced termination and specifying recommendations for Indian self-determination. A direct result of Nixon’s declaration was the Indian Education Act of 1972, which established the Office of Indian Education and the National Advisory Council on Indian Education.

This landmark legislation outlined a comprehensive approach to meeting the unique needs of American Indian and Alaska Native students. Most significantly, it mandated the consultation of Indian people in the creation of Indian education policy and management.  The Act specified that “all projects funded under the legislation must be developed and conducted with the cooperation of tribes, parents and students so that the Indian future in education can be determined in full conjunction with Indian desires and decisions.”

The Act primarily sought to uplift the academic performance of Indian and Alaska Native students while honoring unique tribal identity and maintaining cultural traditions, thereby giving them the tools to succeed in modern society without the intent of assimilation into mainstream Euro-American culture.

Subsequent legislation has built upon the Indian Education Act of 1972, and has included the following revisions and reauthorizations: In 1974, PL 93-380 amends the Act to add a teacher training program and a fellowship program; The 1975 Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act; 1988: PL 100-297 makes BIA funded schools eligible to apply for formula grants. Also creates an authorization for Gifted and Talented education; 1994: PL 103-382 reauthorizes Indian Education as Title IX Part A of ESEA.

The formula grants reauthorization is amended to require a comprehensive plan to meet the academic and culturally related academic needs of American Indian and Alaska Native students; 2001: PL 107-110 Indian Education is reauthorized as Title VII Part A of the No Child Left Behind Act. The formula grants are to be based on challenging State academic content and student academic achievement standards that are used for all students and designed to assist Indian students in meeting those standards.

The unique aspects of the original authority have been retained through subsequent legislative reauthorizing statutes, with the latest revision occurring with the amendments made by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which reauthorized the program as Title VII Part A of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The Indian Education legislation is unique in the following ways:

1.    It recognizes that American Indians have unique, educational and culturally related academic needs and distinct language and cultural needs;
2.    It is the only comprehensive Federal Indian Education legislation, that deals with American Indian education from pre-school to graduate-level education and reflects the diversity of government involvement in Indian education;
3.    It focuses national attention on the educational needs of American Indian learners, reaffirming the Federal government’s special responsibility related to the education of American Indians and Alaska Natives; and
4.    It provides services to American Indians and Alaska Natives that are not provided by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The Current State of Indian Education

Today, 56 community-controlled schools operate under contract from the BIA (OIEP schools). In addition, 20 tribally-controlled community colleges have been started. The 103 elementary and secondary schools still operated directly by the BIA now have local Indian school boards with a voice in the operation of the school, including the selection of staff.

While not as prevalent, the American Indian boarding school still exists, although attendance is voluntary. Most schools now work closely with surrounding American Indian tribes, employing tribal members as staff and reflecting the culture of American Indian students as part of its educational programming.

Locally controlled, BIA-operated, and public schools have all sought to hire more Indian teachers and administrators and to engage in local curriculum development. A few schools now provide initial reading instruction in tribal languages, and most schools that serve Indian children teach some tribal history and culture.

In most recent years, tribal councils implementing self-determination policies have been expanding their influence and decision–making power into the education system. Tribal education policies are created to express a strong commitment to educational excellence as well as tribal languages and cultures. For example, the Navajo tribal educational policies of 1985 declared that the Navajo language was an essential element of the life, culture, and identity of the tribe and mandated school instruction in both Navajo and English.

On November 6, 2000, President Bill Clinton issued and signed Executive Order 13175, mandating Consultation and Coordination with Indian Tribal Governments in the formation of federal Indian policy.

In a significant step toward the next phase of development in Federal Indian Policy, President Barack Obama signed an Executive Memorandum on November 5, 2009, during the White House Tribal Nations Conference held at the Interior Department’s headquarters in D.C, that directs all Federal departments and agencies to develop a “plan of actions” to implement the policies and directives of Executive Order 13175.

President Obama issued his executive memorandum supporting tribal consultation as “a critical ingredient of a sound and productive Federal-tribal relationship.”

Larry Echo Hawk, Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs, Department of the Interior, said, “The effort we are undertaking today to develop Interior’s plan as called for by the President will begin a new and positive chapter in the history of Federal-tribal relations.”


While much progress has been made in Indian education since the Kennedy Report and Nixon’s era of Tribal Self-determination, Indian and Alaska Native students are still struggling with achievement levels far below the national average. In addition, the full effect of psycho-social ills seen in poverty–stricken communities is widely evident. These effects include widespread drug and alcohol use, endemic problems with gang activities, truancy, anecdotal violence within the school population, the nation’s highest rates of teenage suicides, and other forms of anti-social, addictive, self-medicating and self-destructive behaviors.

There have been many attempts to analyze and address the problems endemic in Native youth, both within the schools systems and in the tribal communities. It is clear that the problems facing Indian and Alaska Native students are monumental, and the contributing factors of historical maltreatment of Indian people cannot be underestimated.

The renovation of tribal communities and the family structures is an on-going process. However, the key to addressing current needs of Indian and Alaska Native students is to deal with the immediate high risks to the health and safety of those 44,000 children being served by the Department of Indian Education.

There is an opportunity to create a significant change, expeditiously, for those students being served by the education system, by providing access to education, support services, and tools related to those threats to personal health and safety that have invaded schools nationwide. Students can only thrive when they are in a safe and nurturing environment. It is through the continued development of the optimal learning environment that Indian children will recognize their true potential and have the opportunity to excel.


Ward Churchill, agree with him or not, has become an internationally-known symbol of Native American protest against the United States goverament, the “establishment ” and against anyone who would challenge his right to speak freely.

Churchill’s controversial writings and speeches, and subsequent termination from his tenured position as an Ethnic Studies Professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, have gotten unprecedented media coverage world-wide.

His very status as American Indian has been challenged, by Native and non-Native alike, yet he persists in current affairs as the number-one most recognized Native American voice in the mainstream media.

Churchill is representing Native America, in some respects, to the greater public and the world, with media coverage literally circling the globe. A quick Google search turns up stories from every major news agency in America, plus coverage on Al-Jazeera, the Chinese newswire, and news programs in New Zealand and India, to name only a few.

The first question a recent visitor to our offices from Germany asked was “What do you think of Ward Churchill?” Partially because of his references to Nazi’s, she said, “He really has people talking about Native Americans and what they went through historically. There is a lot of debate around this guy, even at home (in Germany).”

He is the center of a firestorm of controversy, and many Native people have become frustrated by the attention he has garnered in the name of Indian people. He has certainly been accused of making things harder for Native people in the Rocky Mountain region, as AIM support has given the impression to some that he does stand for Indian people at large.

Ward Churchill’s supporters, including Russell Means and the Denver Chapter of AIM, are fiercely loyal. They stand behind Churchill to support not only the man, but also his messages.

The day after Ward Churchill was fired by the Colorado University Board of Regents, he invited us to come out to his home in Boulder to interview him and talk about the issues. Russell Means was there, and became part of our conversation, which went long into the afternoon and covered some unexpected ground.

We look forward to your comments and feedback, some of which we will print in the upcoming editions of The Native Voice. Please send your emails to:

A Two-Part Interview

The Native Voice: A lot of people know of you from the headlines, but they don’t know you as a person, per se. You’ve become more of a symbol.

Ward Churchill: Sure.

TNV: Your work at the University of Colorado in Boulder has been presented as radical. When you first started working as a professor, as a teacher, were your goals different then, from what they became in recent years, what we see today?

Churchill: No It’s kind of like this interview. It may have been different in a sense that I may have had different points of focus because, if you work enough at a base to try to rectify the Indian-White relations, or how ever you want to frame that, there are almost an infinite number of points of focus that you have to select from, so you can move from one to another to another and basically you’re doing the same thing. It’s just that your framing is going to be different.

The truth of the matter is, I’ve been standing on the same bedrock, the same foundation all my adult life. Whether in the formal academic sense or an activist sense or a combination of the two, which has usually been the case.

TNV: Can you explain where that foundation comes from?

Churchill: In a way, it’s a paraphrase: In ’74 when they convened the International Treaty Council – the meeting, not the organization – what came of that was they gave the pipe to Russ (Russell Means) and he accepted it with a responsibility to take the 1868 Treaty in front of the community of nations to get involved in that particular discourse and to be considered in that way.

From the 1868 Treaty, then, by extension, you’ve got all these other sets of treaty relations between the Feds and indigenous peoples. In the end that translates to global treaty study that was undertaken by Alphonso Martinez during the later part of the 1980’s. That’s how these things hook up, but it was to take what was known to people in a particular context and put it where it belongs, which is in the international discourse because it is an international relations issue.

My thing has always to been take “Indian affairs,” as that term is applied by a federal government, the sets of relations that are involved there and the history of that, and put it into the discourse of the consequence of people.

More broadly, it is that consideration of indigenous people – their relations, their rights, and so forth – as not some esoteric side line field, but as part of the old world flow of the whole. That doesn’t land in a standard university Indian Studies position where Indians are developing knowledge and putting it in these Western forms for their own purposes, for internal education (that’s valid for as far is it goes, and I actually participated in it, but its not my focus).

It’s also not to try to make Indians a part of the greater whole in the sense of being minorities. Indians speak from their own position with the same integrity and right to be heard and considered in connection and comparison with other minority groups as anybody else.

TNV: So, who is your audience? Indians? Non-Indians?

Churchill: I’m always talking to Indians, to White folks, and Africans, Puerto Ricans and everybody else. We’ve got points in common. For one, we’ve got a common oppressor.

TNV: White folks too?

Churchill: A lot of these groups even including some of the White groups, have our different histories. We understand our differences and our commonalities clearly among ourselves. We have a basis for interacting and respect in the real world.

How do you get to that understanding? Well, you don’t do anything without consciousness, okay? Because consciousness is not insular, nor is it homogenous, like stirring cream into coffee.

TNV: So what was the basis of the problem at CU? Why do you think, ultimately, that they built a case against you to fire you?

Churchill: I don’t strive for either of these poles, so there is this tension at CU. But that’s where Indian studies was supposed to fit in the first place. Most people have forgotten this. We’ve got so many damn people trying to be professional according to quote-un quote standards that we were supposed to transcend! Our purpose was to transcend our understanding of Indian studies, to change them, to make them other than what they were through standard education.

TNV: When I was in college taking Native American studies, the first thing the professor said on the first day of class was that “Anything you ever learned in any classroom about Native America was all wrong. For you to be successful in this class past this day with me you have to be able to forget it” and start over to build your knowledge and understanding. I thought it was brilliant.

Churchill: And you’re telling the Indian students, “Well that’s in the past now, can’t you get over it and try looking at it another way?”…

TNV: …No, the professor meant it as a “de-programming” from American public schools…

Churchill: (continuing )…well truth of the matter is they can’t. That’s what’s scary, its not like you give em a pill. But in variable degrees of openness they can unpack a lot of this stuff and they can do it in a hurry if you approach them right.

And maybe that’s what the Creator gave me was an ability to straddle those two things because I can talk to Indian students and other people. I’m consistent with Indian peoples’ understanding, but I can nail these little White buggers right there in their seat and you can almost watch them undergo transformation. It’s like the cartoon of the lightbulb going on its like, “Oh sh*t.” You know, walk em into it. Let them walk themselves into a box of an argument.

And they realize they are in a box and they have to think their way out and it scares them to death because the final product of any course that I ever teach is that you gotta sit down and tell me what was important in the subject matter, and why you thought it was important. Pick anything you want from the whole subject matter. One little point in it or something you connected to from your own experience to the subject matter. But, you gotta explain why that is and then you’re gonna tell me what you’re gonna do with that outside the goddamn classroom in the real world.

It’s traumatic. Nobody ever asked them assign a significance to things. They’re always being told what the significance is, so they memorize, they write in forms, they fill out tests, little bubble circle things, fill in the blank multiple choice. You know, all that sh*t. You’re memorizing information, you’re regurgitating it, you’re never really learning, you forget it soon as you’re out the door, once you got your ticket punched for that school credit…

It propels them to engage, you gotta think your way to a conclusion. They are terrified but ultimately most of them do pretty well

TNV: Do you think that the part of that experience that you have with the students has been the context of the a big, public, state university system that you’re teaching in? For example, different schools have different expectations for their students, how they want them to learn, what they expect them to do with the information, etc. Meaning, a large university system undergraduate college versus a private liberal arts institution?

Churchill: Yeah, and you can still do it in a big school context. But where this does start to break down is with the number of students in the classroom. I’ve taught sections of 200 students, and you can’t really do what I’m talking about with that many students.

That starts to debilitate towards these idiotic instruments where you’re assigning arbitrary scores and you end up with people who are really able to do something with the information, they’ve got a handle on the subject matter, and they get a C because they’re not good at taking tests. And you got people who are total ciphers in terms of moral implications or the ethical implications or so on but they know how to do well taking tests and they are getting A’s. I taught 100-student blocks and I could get closer to what I’m talking about.

TNV: One of the things the media has focused on is how much money you make and how much you have cost CU. It has been reported that you will be paid $96,000 in severance for this upcoming year, and that the court case cost CU $352,000.

Churchill: It takes roughly 25 students at the University of Colorado to pay for a course. Anything beyond that is excess, is profit. So, if I’m teaching a 200 student block then I’m generating three dollars in profit in the institution for every dollar I’m using to deliver the course.

One line on that is the quote that tax payers of the state of Colorado, who anti-up six cents on each dollar of the operating budget for the institution, are paying for me. In fact, they have never paid me a dime, ever.

I’ve been at CU since 1978 in different capacities. In fact, if we were to settle accounts, they could send me a few million dollars that I’ve generated in income for them.

TNV: What about the point that there are two sides to every story, or at least two perspectives.

Churchill: Yeah, that’s what the Nazis said about the Holocaust.

TNV: Well, that’s a whole other discussion.

Churchill: No, it’s not. You said “every story.” That is a story (the Holocaust). No one expects that there will be another side to that story.

TNV: I’m talking about the story of what’s happened to you at CU, that there’s…

Churchill: …That’s just another story. There’s not necessarily another side. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. The other side could be absolutely fraudulent. There is no other side.

TNV: People frame the truth based upon their own perception and perspectives and justifications and agendas. Now you start with a theory of what you were saying…

Churchill: …I’m not accepting that there’s two sides to every story. I’m saying that there can be the truth and there can be bulls*** and that’s the two sides.

TNV: Interpretation can be the whole issue…

Churchill: Then what the Nazi’s said about the Holocaust. How do you interpret their “truth?”

TNV: I don’t know how to answer that question.

Churchill: Nobody does, and there’s no expectation that they should which puts the lie right off the bat to this sort of liberal. “There’s always two sides and they should be treated equitable.” When you treat the Nazis equitably, bring a Jewish survivor from a camp to talk about that experience, it’s expected that will be counterbalanced by the testimonial of one of the guards? Then you can say that, but no one ever says that. So why is it that we gotta have perpetrators’ points of view given equal weight or even superior weight in historical understandings of what happened to Native people or the political understandings or the economical understandings? “Well, there’s always another way of looking at it.” Yeah, there is. There’s the Nazi way of looking at it.

TNV: So you are using the Nazis in comparison to what happened to you at CU? Well, there are justifications, and …

Churchill: Nazis have no justifications.

TNV: Absolutely not. I’m not saying that they are correct, or that you’re accusers are correct, I’m saying that people use different interpretations to justify their positions…

Churchill: …Well what I’m saying is that there’s no expectation that the other story has the integrity to be told.

TNV: I’ve looked at all the reports in the news, and someone likened it to…it’s a bad analogy, but their analogy was that it was worth using whatever means necessary to get you fired, and they compared it to getting a mob gang leader on tax evasion,…

Churchill: …And sometimes they fabricate something.

The way that it looks is that there were lots of little pieces of evidence pulled together to create a comprehensive body of evidence against you, in terms of your scholarly work. And its seemed that they had to take a little piece from here, and a little piece from there, etc., to remove you from your tenure at the University. (Professors who have been tenured have a secure position, for life, or until they retire. It is very difficult to terminate a tenured professor.)

Churchill: They had to create a pretext and an illusion. The pretext is that they were up and concerned about my footnotes (in published writings).

That was not the issue but that’s what they needed to say the issue was in order to do what it was they wanted to do for another reason.

TNV: And you have denied all wrong doing.

Churchill: Absolutely. Yes.

TNV: There is some concern over how your firing creates an imposed threat against being radical or controversial within the university context. There are other professors, who are may or may not agree with your politics and may or may not agree with the way that you would express yourself, who are concerned with what happened to you. They say your firing is a result of people disagreeing with your politics and your platform.

Churchill: Then where are they?

TNV: They’re quoted in the local newspapers, The Boulder Daily Camera and The Rocky Mountain News.

Churchill: I’ll give credit amply due, and to I could name them all, but there’s no need to take up the tape recorder…

TNV: There were only a few willing to speak out against your firing on the record.

Churchill: There are a number who come up to me in the grocery store or at McGuckin’s Hardware or when I’m buying flowers down at Frujos. They confide to really be behind me, but what are they really saying is that “I agree with you, I value what you’re doing and I don’t really value anything about it, so why don’t you carry the weight for us.”

TNV: Why do you think that is? Because they don’t agree with your politics or don’t like your delivery style?

Churchill: Because they’re scared.

TNV: What are they scared of?

Churchill: Because they’re scared of what the implications of this are. The implications are that the academic institution, which is supposed to be a protected environment of true thought and expression, has now had the attention of the Governor to put pressure on the University to take can of removing someone who they thought was, whatever, making too much noise, getting too much press attention, making too many waves, saying things that made them look bad in some way.

For accusing the United States of genocide, for example.

TNV: You’re not the first one to do that.

Churchill: I know.

TNV: Look at Vine Deloria, for example.

Churchill: Well, you know, from their position in a weird way I’ve done that far more effectively than Vine, and Vine’s my mentor. Vine was my uncle, my friend, so I’m not dissing Vine any way at all here. He had a problem with the word “genocide.” He didn’t really understand it and he used it straight up, for example, with regard to Guatemala, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to that here. And he would do cultural critique in the sensibilities of White people, but but he falls into what I call the “opposition trap of the United States.” That there is always this cast of characters that you can name that are the “evil doers.”

TNV: What is the “opposition trap of the United States” and who are these “evil doers”?

Churchill: Okay, so now it’s Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld and Rice. Now, which one of them ever picked up a rifle and killed an Iraqi or anybody else for that matter? I mean, Bush is a draft-dodger, Cheney’s a draft-dodger…Cheney said he had other things to do.

It requires somebody besides those evil figure heads to actually do it. And who is that? That s grass roots Americans, and a lot of Indian people. I’m fairly harsh on them, and I’m one of them (who served in the military). You are accountable for your actions.

This is the Nazi defense, saying, “Well, ultimately nobody was responsible but Hitler because it was after all the fuhrer’s state, and the orders ultimately issued from Hitler so he was the ultimate responsible party and everybody else was obeying orders, even highly-placed government officials. And, of course Hitler’s dead so there’s no nobody to blame now. So, let’s revile Bush and Cheney and all of them. Let’s state our opposition. Let’s protest against them even while we benefit from it and do not come to grip with the fact that our next door neighbor and the things we even embrace go into making this process work. In that way we’re not an effective opposition, we’re chasing our tail around and around the same rock.

Like alchemist thinking, if we do the same thing often enough it’s going to come out with a different result, rather than doing what actually would be required, which is to change the nature of the system.

When you get out of ritual forms that are approved by the State, it starts to scary ‘cuz there might be consensus for the state which becomes this immoral state that s slaughtering people all over the world.

By virtue of being a pacifist they might hurt you, that’s why cops carry guns. You know that’s why they employed Delta Force at Seattle when things got unruly (at the World Trade Organization meeting in 1999). What is Delta Force? It’s a surgical elimination unit. It kills people selectively. That’s all it is for. They were prepared to do that to maintain the economic state.

Okay, we’re non-violent. We take a pledge of non-violence, so we guarantee that were gonna be goddamn ineffectual…we’re only purer to you because were risking nothing.

TNV: Who specifically are you talking about?

Churchill: Mass movements. Go over here to the Peace and Justice Center in Boulder.

TNV: So you’re encouraging…you’re saying that peaceful movements, nonviolent movements are ineffectual? What about Ghandi? Nelson Mandela?

Churchill: I’m saying that is true if you constrain the realm of your activity to things that are sanctioned by the state, like free speech zones. You have to have a permit to express yourself, to assemble, to all the rest of this. You know what I’m talking about, we’re gonna do eternal prayer vigils with individuals burning incense, change our diets, build bike paths, everything, anything and everything that the state would approve and the one thing that might be effective is just, “I’m gonna exercise my rights and get the f*ck outta my way, I don’t negotiate my rights, I don’t need your permission to exercise a right.”

My whole point is to de-stabilize your point because your process is criminal. I don’t endorse it. I, in fact, oppose it in meaningful terms am I killing people beyond that set of principles.

TNV: So what are you calling on people to do?

Churchill: Am I making some argument where the only purity is an armed struggle? No. There’s no purity in forms of struggle. There’s no purity in pacifism, there’s no purity in armed struggle, there’s no purity in any point in between. Purity is to figure out how to effectively take that which you find to be morally intolerable – morally lethal, in fact, to primarily but not exclusively brown-skinned people the world over. And, we’ve got plenty of experience of that here that’s called day-to-day life – and change it into something that does not have that effect. The current system sanctions only those things which will not disrupt its current function.

TNV: Well, of course its primary purpose is to thrive in it’s own system…Having this conversation with you it is clear that the sentiment and argument against you goes way deeper than any footnotes in any book. You are challenging “the system” at large.

Churchill: And so is the line of historical interpretation which sets things completely on their heads. Everything that was celebrated, anything that was trumped up in American History, I challenge.

DRUM GROUP KICKED OUT OF MOTEL 6 IN RAPID CITY; Accusation of racism in Letter to Editor prompts action by hotel’s corporate headquarters

Questionable behavior by Rapid City businesses toward Indian people is not a new issue for the Black Hills. Complaints about racism are so prevalent in the Rapid City area that the United States Commission on Civil Rights has held hearings here, and the Mayor has created an “Undoing Racism Task Force” to address the White-Indian relations issues.

The good news is that these official government efforts to fix a problem are finally acknowledging that there is a problem. Part of the dynamic of racism that has marginalized people of color in this region of the United States for so long is the simple denial that a problem of epidemic racism – from the personal (such as being “called down” by someone on the street or being followed around in a store) to the institutional (such as racial profiling by police departments and the judicial system) – even exists.

The bad news is that despite well-intentioned efforts by members of government, and both Indian and non-Indian civic leaders, incidents of racism still occur regularly, and go largely un-answered.

Addressing racism in forums and studies can provide solutions, and government leaders do provide positive role models that will encourage change in the long run. This progress makes the long-term view of race relations in South Dakota look positive. However, true social change evolves over decades, not days, and the immediate racism reality of day-to-day life here is still frustrating and bleak from the perspective of the average Indian person.

One of the best signs of racial evolution is that of people taking matters into their own hands to fix problems as they happen. Some people are no longer willing to “be quiet and let it go” out of fear of reprisal, or “forget about it because it won’t do any good to say anything anyway.” No longer content to be victimized by the bad behavior of others, individuals are speaking out – and, in some cases, getting results.

On Thursday, Oct. 6, a well-known drum group, The Bad Nation Singers; were evicted from the Motel 6 in Rapid City for “being too loud,” according to Clark Zephier, the leader of the group. However, the hotel overstepped its bounds, alleges Zephier, and racism “was definitely a factor” He sent a letter explaining the incident to The Native Voice and several other newspapers, including The Rapid City Journal. This letter was received by The Naive Voice on Oct. 15, and as of press time, are the only ones to have responded to Mr. Zephier.

The Incident

The Bad Nation Singers are from the Bad Nation community on the Crow Creek Reservation. A well-known and respected Northern drum, the members are bound together by family and friendship, and they are “all pipe carriers and sundancers.” The group is centered around the Zephier family, Clifford “Clark” Zephier, a Golden Age Men’s Traditional Dancer, his wife Pauline (they are both in their “late 60’s), their twin sons, Gerald Zephier, and Darrell Zephier (age. 27), and a family friend, Chris Condon.

There are six younger members of the drum, but there there have been others…some of whom have been asked to leave for violating the elder Zephier’s “strict no-drugs-or-alcohol policy.” “We try to respect our drum and we let all of our singers know that. We had to let some singers go because they came to the drum under the influence. They left and never came back,” said Clark Zephier.

The Bad Nation Singers traveled to Rapid City for the Black Hills Pow Wow and had reservations at the Super 8 Motel for Friday and Saturday nights, “but decided to get into town a day earlier in order to make Grand Entry on Friday at 1:00p.m.,” said Zephier.

Most of the hotels in Rapid City are sold out every year for the pow wow, they so when Mr. Zephier saw the tall Motel 6 sign at the LaCrosse Street exit advertising a reasonable rate, he turned in to try for a room. The group checked into two rooms, four people to each room, at around 11 p.m., went out to get something to eat, and returned to the hotel after midnight.

“When we got back to the hotel, my wife and I went into the room, and the boys were all standing out in the parking lot, talking and visiting since they hadn’t all seen each other since the last pow wow.”

Clark and Pauline went to their room and went to sleep.

The singers were all visiting outside when two men approached them and told them to go to their rooms. Gerald Zephier said, “My parents went to their room. We were standing outside by my truck, six of us, talking. Two guys came up and told us we had to get in the rooms. So, we listened to them, but they had some kind of attitude. I turned to head toward the room, and kinda giggled. The guy said, “It better not be too funny, ’cause I’m serious.” I said, “Alright,” my brother said, “Alright.”

“We went into my parents room until my buddy Chris came back since he had rented the room,” said Gerald Zephier. “Chris came back and we had been in his room next door for about a half an hour when we got a knock on the door. The security guard came in and told us we had to leave.”

All of the people in Chris Condon’s room were “evicted” from the motel by a manager and his security person.

Then, as Darrell went to his room next door where his parents were sleeping to get his things, Clark woke up and asked what was going on. According to reports, the manager of the hotel then followed Darrell through the open door and announced to the elder Zephiers who were just waking up, “You are evicted, too. “You have to leave now.”

Pauline Zephier was “very upset,” she said. “They came right into our room while we were laying there in bed sleeping in the middle of the night and told us to leave. I just cried.”

Clark Zephier wanted to know “What was going on?” According to the Zephiers, “The Hotel 6 Manager wouldn’t explain anything. He just said we had to get out.”

Darrell Zephier said, “They didn’t warn us, they didn’t call us, nothing. We wasn’t partying, we wasn’t drinking, we wasn’t raising hell or nothing, we were just hanging out.”

“I would understand if they were raising cain, drinking and partying, but they were just visiting. And we were in the room next door and didn’t hear anything. We went right to sleep,” said Clark Zephier.

“I got mad and said, ‘Okay if you’re going to kick my kids out, I just might as well go, too.’ So, I was getting up and ready to go. Then, the guy says, “Oh, you don’t have to go ’cause you were asleep. One of my boys said, ‘Mom, Dad, you guys better stay because you need your rest.’ We’re in our late 60’s, you know. So we decided to stay because we didn’t know where we was going to go anyway. The rest of them left and they had to get another room. They found one down the street at the Foothills Motel.”

The Manager on duty when the motel was called for comment on Saturday, October 15 was Stephen Sissenstein. He offered, “I can’t talk to the press,” and did not want to provide his last name. When asked who was the owner of the Motel 6, he said that it was “corporate owned,” and said that it is not a locally-owned franchise. When asked for the phone number for corporate headquarters, he declined to give out any information. When he was informed that the information was readily available on the internet and that the people in Customer Service would also be told about his unwillingness to give out contact information, he offered a toll free number that he called the “press line.”

Chris Condon was not given his money back. According to Manager Stephen Sissenstein, refunds are given “at its the discretion of the manager, on a case-by-case basis.” Sissenstein was allegedly the manager on duty on October 6, the night of the incident.

The Outcome

Motel 6 hotels are owned by the Accor Hotel Corporation, an international company with over 4,000 hotels ranging from the budget to the upscale property. According to their Director of Public Relations, Janis Maragakis, Accor Hotels has strict guidelines for “providing consistent customer service across the board, to all of our customers.” She also said that Accor offers “Diversity training” on location to all of its hotel chains. “We’ve got a lot of properties and we have a system in place to deal with these things,” and “We are always very conscious about the experience that the guest had…”We’re really big on solving the problems. We want all of our guests treated right.”

Maragakis had been alerted by Sissenstein that there was a complaint about the treatment of the Zephiers, and she said that “It wasn’t just these people that were disturbing (others) or were asked to leave…apparently there were several incidences at this Motel 6 property that night.” However, when the issue of racism came up, Maragakis said, “It’s very unfortunate when something like this happens. We have a whole diversity campaign that is amazing. When we hear this, it is contrary to what we believe and do on a daily basis at Accor.”

During a visit to the Motel 6, Manager Stephen Sissenstein did offer to The Native Voice that there is a procedure to addressing a customer complaint. “I would tell you to talk to the manager, but if it was more than that, I would tell you to talk to corporate, and give you the 800 number to contact corporate. When asked if toll-free customer service number was given out to the Zephiers on the night of October 6, he answered, “I don’t believe so.”

Maragakis said, “We have a whole department that deals with our customers, that’s why we give out a toll free number for them to call anytime.” When asked about the manner in which this particular “disturbance” was handled, she replied, “This incident has caused a lot of focus to be put on this particular property.”

“At this point, we believe this situation could have been handled better in terms of guest relations. However, we believe decisions about which guests were asked to leave were based solely on complaints about noise level.”

“Providing the levels of service our guests have come to expect is our priority at Motel 6. We are working to resolve this situation in a way that allows us to provide that level of service as well as a productive working environment for our employees.”

When asked about the corporate policy for refunds, she said that “Refunds depend on the situation.”

Clark Zephier, who wanted an apology from the hotel, got it from their national Director of Public Relations. He received a phone call from Maragakis, and “She apologized over and over for what happened,” said Zephier, “and she asked for some time to investigate the way things were handled (that night).”

When asked “How was the pow wow, after all that?” Zephier said, “It’s in our Sacred Hills, and our boys took second place in the singing contest, so it was a good pow wow overall.”

The Fight for Rights Goes On: Native American Rights Fund holds the line on threats to tribal sovereignty and Native rights; An interview with John E. Echohawk (Pawnee), Executive Director

Founded in 1970, the Native American Rights Fund has worked to insure the survival of Native American tribes and people by using the United States court system to fight challenges – both overt and subtle – to tribal sovereignty and human rights. During this struggle of the past 32 years, the NARF has worked within the confines of their limited budget to provide crucial legal advice and assistance on issues of national significance to Native individuals, organizations and tribes throughout Native America. Although many people are not aware of the purpose of NARF or their specific efforts, they are aware of very high-profile and significant work that the organization has accomplished, for example: NARF (along with a private co-council) won the stunning victory in Cobell v. Norton, the class action suit that finally held the Department of Interior responsible for the proper management of the Indian Trust Monies, the Katie John case that was a major victory for Alaska Native subsistence fishing rights, and the Alabama Coushatta Tribe of Texas v. The United States land and water rights claim, in which they neared a settlement of $270 million where the Court of Federal Claims has previously ruled that the US should compensate the Tribe for the loss of use of 2.85 million acres of ancestral land in east Texas that was illegally taken without federal approval after Texas became a state in 1845. The work of NARF has been designed from the beginning to impact national Native issues and set important precedence on crucial tribal sovereignty and Native human rights issues.


Can you explain how the NARF got started, and what you would qualify as the goals of the organization?


I think the best way to describe the organization is “The National Indian Legal Defense Fund.” We’re a nonprofit organization [that was] organized 32 years ago in order to provide legal advise and assistance to Indian Tribes, organizations and individuals in cases of national significance where they can’t afford council. So, we raise money and hire attorneys who are expert in Indian law. We’ve been involved in most of the major Indian cases and pieces of legislation that have impacted Indian people across the country.


How do you choose which cases to take on?


We’re governed by an all Indian Board of Directors that sets the priorities for us. They include: protection of tribal existence, protection of our natural resources, and our human rights. These are the major priorities. Within these categories, we get a lot of calls and letters of people asking for help. Of course there is no way we can assist everybody, so we have to screen these requests carefully and select those cases that will establish the largest precedence for the most native people and have the biggest impact. We try to help as many people as possible through our work.


So where did the idea for NARF come from?


The first two or three groups of Indian law students that started law school that I was associated with all saw the potential for tribes in asserting their rights. [In law school] you learn a legal process, so we saw why tribes had not been successful in [defending their treaties and rights] before: because they didn’t have counsel to properly represent them. They were all poor and very few of them had any attorneys at all. So, we knew getting attorneys to the tribes to assert their rights under the treaties and federal Indian laws was very important. We saw that idea being proven by the Indian legal services programs that were started by the federal government on some reservations in the mid 1960’s. But, we recognized that the problem was that those programs, even though they were helping people, were very few and far between. We badly needed a national program to cover those areas that were not being properly represented. That was to be the Native American Rights Fund.


Did you raise money from somewhere?


We took example from the Civil Rights Movement that was going on at the time and the lawyers that were being provided to black people by the NAACP legal defense fund. The NAACP was at that time funded primarily by the Ford Foundation in New York City and, of course, we saw the whole Civil Rights Movement being driven by the litigation brought by this NAACP legal defense fund, so that was the model we used. We went to the Ford Foundation and asked them to fund a national litigation program for American Indians and they agreed – they helped us get started.


The Civil Rights

Movement was driven by litigation? So, behind everything that was in the media protests, civil disobedience, etc. — there was this legal action going on?


Yes, the legal principle being “equal treatment under the law for all people regardless of race and color.” That was a basic American principle that was vindicated in the courts and in Congress during the Civil Rights Movement. Our people asked about having this law as it applies to us upheld, including the treaties, but at that time, the U.S. had a policy of terminating our tribes, ignoring the treaties or breaking them intentionally, not recognizing the rights of Indians, and forcing us to assimilate against our will. So, we basically litigated against that termination policy by asking the courts to uphold the treaties and that’s what they started doing. This led to the Indian Self Determination Policy.

Civil Rights is a legal and political process.


Can you explain what that means to set precedence and how that helps more than one person or more than one tribe?


Well it’s a legal concept that basically means that once a court, like the U.S. Supreme Court, decides a question of law for one tribe, that under similar facts that same ruling is going to apply to other tribes in the same situation. So, what that usually means is that a good number of these cases that tribes bring to trial resolve issues for other tribes, too. We are all in these things together but once in a while there will be cases that are just limited to one particular tribe because of their particular treaty provision or legal issue that they are litigating. A lot of these issues really have precedential effect for all tribes, organizations and individuals.


You mentioned legislation. How does NARF get involved with legislation in Congress…are you consultants? Do you help to get Bills sponsored? What is you role in forming legislation?


Again we are basically lawyers and lawyers work for clients, so we have different clients that we work for in the legislative arena. Right now were working on the tribal sovereignty protection initiative that was organized by tribal leaders last year to respond to some bad Supreme Court decisions that limit tribal authority over non-Indians even on our own Indian lands. The Tribal Leader Steering Committee has asked us to co-chair a Legislative Drafting Committee [in order to] prepare legislation to overturn these bad Supreme Court decisions. We have been working on that for almost a year and are about ready to go public with the draft legislation concept, and to have tribal leaders start discussions with their Congressional and state leaders about the concepts in this legislation, and to try to generate support for it.


It is really good to know that there is somebody out there working on this. Sometimes you hear about issues going on and it is frustrating because you don’t know that there are people out there who are actually working on behalf of the tribes.


Well, it’s hard to keep up with everything, there’s a lot going on.


How does the whole scope of things look right now? How is the whole effort going in supporting and protecting Native American rights and sovereignty?


Well, overall since I started law school 35 years ago I think things have improved substantially for tribes in social and economic arenas. So, overall there’s been a lot of progress but there are always challenges, it’s never been easy.


How can people help this process and support the work being done?


I would just encourage everybody to vote. Look at the records of the candidates and vote for the person who is going to best support the tribes. You really need to look at the candidates and see what their records are and what they support and don’t support.


Whats happening with the IIM accounts, and what’s the status of the litigation?

(The NARF are co-counsel representing the interests of the tribes in the case of Cobell v. Norton, the class action on behalf of 300,000 individual Indian trust account holders)


We have two pending motions before the court. The first is the motion to have the Secretary of Interior and other Interior officials held in contempt of court for failing to follow the orders of the court to reform broken trust systems, and there are just many, many instances of their failure to comply with those court orders. We would like to have them fined and jailed since they won’t follow the court orders. Secondly, we’ve asked the court to appoint a receiver to do the trust reform, to take that away from the Department of the Interior temporarily and have this receiver under the jurisdiction of the court, reform that trust, and then train the Interior people on how to operate that trust. But it looks like the courts are going to have to do it since the Interior people are incapable of doing it themselves.


What about all the missing money? Is that part of the case?


Yes, that is that is the second part of the case besides fixing this broken trust accounting system. Once we deal with that, then we will get around to having the government do an accounting. That is, to figure out how much money should have been in each of these accounts. And we are pressing the court to set a trial date on that. But again, the court has these two pending motions before it right now, so it’s a process.


How long do you think this whole process will take?


Well, I never thought it would take the six years that it’s been going on now. We really thought the government would take this opportunity to do the right thing and carry out our trust responsibilities and settle with the Indians for all the money that’s been lost. But they’ve resisted us at every turn. We’ll continue to move forward and they’ll probably continue to resist, so it’ll probably be another several years before this is over.


Do you ever take cases to international courts, like the Hague or the Geneva Convention? Is there ever any logical sense in going after things on an international level?


We need to establish some clear international law on indigenous rights first.

There’s really not any. There are many people who have been working on this draft declaration of the rights of indigenous peoples forth last 25 or 30 years.


Is that the United Nations effort that’s going on?



We’ve become involved in that lately on behalf of the Nations Congress of American Indians as their legal council. We’re helping them in these meetings dealing with the draft declaration on the rights of indigenous people pending both in the United Nations and in the Organization of American States. Hopefully once we have those declarations passed, we will be able to enforce these declarations in international forums. And also force the U.S. Government to live up to that international law in their domestic policies.


Is there anything you would like to say about the tribes supporting the NARF?


I would just remind everyone that we are a non-profit organization, and that we exist primarily on grants and contributions because most of our clients are not able to pay. So we would encourage tribes, organizations and individuals to contribute as much as they can to our efforts on behalf of those who don’t have any lawyers, and these national efforts where we go in and represent all tribes. Because they are all impacted by all of these decisions, whether they know it or not.


There are rumors popping up from time to time that there are some states trying to introduce legislation to terminate the tribes, the tribal sovereignty. Is that true?


Well, there are occasionally bills that are introduced that limit our sovereign authority in one form or another, and we have to pull together and fight against that. So far, we’ve been successful in turning that back, but every day is a new day, every day is a new fight. And, these fights are really determined by who wins these elections. That’s why it’s really important for Indian people to get out and vote for people who are going to support tribal rights, and not let those people who are opposed to us get in there an vote against us. I’ve realized that every generation of Indian people has these fights to carry out. I’ve seen how our past generations have done the best they could to protect our Indian rights during their lifetimes. That’s what we’re doing now. Even though we’re working hard, we’re not going to resolve all of these issues in our lifetimes. They are always going to be challenges for our people. We need our younger Indian people to be ready to take over the leadership and protect our sovereign rights.