To Form a More Perfect Union: Tribal nations and the United States meet at summit

By Lise Balk King
The Native Voice
Special to Pechanga.net


WASHINGTON, DC — They have come by horse, train, car and bus, wagons and airplanes. They have swallowed pride and accepted harsh realities…and in the name of the very survival of their people, some have even walked countless miles, with families left behind for months and years…in the pursuit of petitioning the Great White Father in the Great White House.

The history of Indian tribal leaders taking their concerns to the President goes back all the way to George Washington. It covers virtually every administration since the founding fathers pledged to “form a more perfect union.” Presidents have also petitioned tribes, through delegations and treaties, to address the wishes and concerns of the federal government in the name of Manifest Destiny and the best interests of Americans.

So it is not without precedence that Obama has scheduled a White House Tribal Nations Conference with leaders invited from all 564 federally recognized tribes November 5 at the Department of the Interior. President Bill Clinton hosted the first such meeting at the White House in 1994. It is, however, without equal in its potential for progress in US-tribal relations and affairs.

In reality, US-tribal relations were founded in genocide, stoked by warfare, crippled by broken treaties, and almost severed by the Termination policies of the 1950s. There is also precedence, therefore, for Indians’ deep lack of trust in the promises made by presidents and their representatives.

But this historic event is less of a petitioning as it is a meeting at a common point in the road.

Tribes are ready to flex their newly developed political muscles, largely created during the Clinton Administration, honed during the lean Bush years, and proven during elections from 2002 forward. As Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) said in a senate re-election campaign interview with The Native Voice in 2002, “There are two things politicians care about, that’s money and votes. (South Dakota’s tribes) may not have a lot of money, but they do have a lot of votes.” And he was right, as he now famously proved through his stunning last-precinct-counted upset over challenger John Thune (R), winning by 524 votes from Shannon County, in the heart of the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Since then, Native people have proven their clout around the country through the Get Out the Native Vote movement, tipping elections in their favor, one precinct at a time.

And tribes have continued to develop their political savvy and reach by promoting candidates based on their positions on Native issues, forming strategic partnerships with other political organizations, and using their economic success to make campaign contributions and lobbying a much bigger part of their political repertoire.

Barack Obama the candidate was the first presidential nominee to include Native Americans in his campaign strategy. With the guidance of his close advisor, former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD), Obama worked to become versed in the full range of Native issues and address their concerns as part of his campaign platform. He met with tribal leaders when in areas of large Native populations, earned a reputation of listening to their concerns, and made promises that had heretofore never been heard during a presidential stump speech: “The bond that I would like to create between an Obama administration and the Nations all across this country, the government to government relationship that is so critical, is going to be a top priority during my administration…” (May 19, 2008, Crow Agency, MT)

From all indications, the Obama administration is prepared to work with tribes at a new level of cooperative partnership, finally putting to rest the antiquated and disrespectful notion of the federal government as the necessary parent to their good-hearted but ill-equipped Indian children.

Obama’s tribal meeting is a therefore a convergence of cultures and intentions, unprecedented in this long and tumultuous history.

While this White House Tribal Nations Conference has captured the attention of Indian Country, and spurred the hopes and dreams for a new generation, it has also rekindled memories of broken promises and unresolved pain. There are countless ghosts of brutal injustices visited upon this nation’s First Peoples.

Some Native people are understandably cynical, expecting more of the same lock-step lip service of past Administrations. And some are riveted by the possibility that this could truly be a sign of significant change – a new era of respect, healing and partnership with the United States government.

Leaders and tribal members alike went to the voting booths last November to overwhelmingly support Barack Obama, and what they expect now is for him to make good on campaign promises: to resolve past injustices, fix what’s broken with regard to Indian policy and trust funds, pay attention to their current issues, honor treaty obligations and adequately fund their programs, engage in meaningful consultation, and guarantee that tribes will be respected as sovereign nations for the coming generations.



After four years of study and research at Harvard University, Lise re-entered the workforce with her new multi-media production and consulting company, A Measure of Light. She received her Master in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School in 2011, where she focused on leadership development and social entrepreneurship, and then spent three years as a Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. Her post-graduate studies included a year of documentary film (sensory ethnography) at Harvard Visual and Environmental Studies.

Lise is Co-Producer of the newly released HBO Documentary Film, Heroin: Cape Cod, USA, directed by Oscar-winner Steven Okazaki.

Lise has over twenty years of experience in media and communications, specializing in their applications as tools for political advocacy, education and social change. Her work has spanned the roles of filmmaker, publisher, advocate, consultant, event organizer, writer, editor and photographer.

Ms. King’s work first used major media and corporate engagement for mainstream advocacy and education, with a focus on environmental issues and social justice. After completing work as Associate Producer on MTV’s first major documentary project, DECADE, which won an Emmy and a Peabody Award, she initiated and co-produced a short series of environmental action pieces for MTV News.

Other clients have included IBM, the Sociodade Culturale Arte Brasil for NHK Japan, Warner Brothers/ABC TV, ECO (the Earth Communications Office), Friends of Animals International (with NBC), and Body Glove surf gear for a national theatrically-released Earth Day campaign.

Lise relocated to the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1992, where her focus shifted to indigenous human and civil rights, political and social advocacy, community education and economic development. She transitioned into independent media and grass roots education. She co-founded Native Voice Media, The Native Voice, an independent national Native American newspaper, and The Native Voice Film Festival.The Native Voice is best known nationally for its Get Out The Native Vote work, and was credited by Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) as being instrumental in his successful re-election campaign in 2002. In 2004, The Native Voice created the first national GOTV product specifically created for Native American voters. The Native Voice worked to engage Native voters in policy debates, helped recruit Indians to run for public office, and developed special editions for mass distribution at the 2004 and 2008 elections. Ms. King also served intermittently as traveling press on the Obama presidential campaign.

Ms. King has two children, ages 14 and 22, who are enrolled members of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. As a non-native with decades of experience living and working in Indian Country, Ms. King has become known as a “bridge-builder,” providing leadership in cross-cultural communication and advocacy.

Ms. King has worked on projects for a number of non-profit organizations, tribes, governments and businesses, including the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council, South Dakota Alliance for the Mentally Ill’s Native American Advocacy Project, Houghton Mifflin Publishing, the Grameen Foundation, the National Indian Gaming Association, the Bureau of Indian Education, the South Dakota Governor’s Office, SD Public Television, and the National Congress of American Indians.

Frmr. Senator Tom Daschle re-caps the S.D. Tribal leaders Meeting with Barack Obama

Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD)

Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) introduces presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) at the Sioux Falls Arena.

Interview and photo by Lise Balk King

Sioux Falls, South Dakota, May 16, 2008

The Native VOICE:

Can you give us a wrap up about what happened in the closed-door meeting with the South Dakota tribal leaders?

Senator Tom Daschle:

Well, first of all I think it was an important opportunity for Barack to hear directly from many tribal leaders from the upper Great Plains, especially South Dakota, without interruption and without the normal throngs of outside pressures. It was a very quiet and very thoughtful discussion about issues effecting Indian Country. Secondly, it was an opportunity for the tribal chairmen and other tribal leaders to hear directly, in his own words, from Barack Obama about his vision for Indian country, about his priorities effecting the government-to-government relationship that we think is very important.

The Native VOICE:

Were there any issues that were dealt with that were specific to the tribes in South Dakota that were unique to the tribes in SD?


I don’t think that there were any specific things about South Dakota, except that Barack mentioned that South Dakota in particular is well positioned to be a significant contributor to alternative energy development and that energy for tribes in South Dakota could be as big as gaming has been for tribes in other parts of the country.

The Native VOICE:

We know this has been a major focus of yours. Would you like to touch on why you’ve been encouraging tribes to get involved in alternative energy development?


Well first of all, I think we have to be realistic in understanding that gaming won’t be as lucrative in some parts of the country as it is in others. Secondly, we also have to realize that one of our greatest assets are the natural resources that we have in Indian country. With potential for production of biofuels, solar, maybe geothermal, we have an abundance of natural resources that, if harnessed, could be extremely productive from an economic development, point of view. Third, we have a real demand for alternative energy in the country today. So given those three forces it seems to me that Indian country is very strategically located to be able to take full advantage of the effort to change our energy dependence away from foreign countries and more towards our own country.

I think that all of the Indian assets could play an important role in solving our nation’s energy and climate challenge but if that’s going to happen we have to give Indian country the tools to develop those resources, including opportunities to take full advantage of tax laws in this country that tribes can not currently avail themselves of. It’s important that they have the same opportunity to use the production tax credit, for example, that non-Indians can use today and we have to change the laws to accommodate that.

The Native VOICE:

What were some of the most important points the tribal leaders brought up? What were they most concerned with?


Well, I think mostly tribal leaders are concerned about insuring that the next President understands the importance of government-to-government relationships, that we understand the importance of tribal sovereignty, and that we understand the importance of the responsibility of the government to live up to its treaty obligations. This includes providing adequate resources, or help for infrastructure, to law enforcement, for education and for many of the other important pieces of the tribal agenda that have gone unaddressed for these last eight years, and they raised those priorities with Senator Obama.

The Native VOICE:

Do you think there was anything that was new information for him that was brought out during the tribal leaders meeting, that was sort of a surprise?


I think he might have been surprised a little bit about the depth of the concern for the bureaucracy and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and how unresponsive they are oftentimes to the challenges that tribes face today.

The Native VOICE

What was his response?


His response was that we’ve got to streamline the federal bureaucracy, we’ve got to find other ways to communicate, including having an Indian Summit and having a senior policy advisor in the White House who can help augment cutting through the bureaucracy and getting the job done.

The Native VOICE:

Did the power of the Native Vote in South Dakota come up in the conversation?


Yes it came up quite a bit. We talked about the power of the Native Vote and recent elections in South Dakota and around the country, the power of the Native Vote this year in particular, and it was very important. Discussion was also focused on Native American Heritage Day and the importance of that day, and recognizing the need for continued improvement in relations between indian and non-indian people.

The Native VOICE:

There were a lot of comments made by Sen. Obama to the tribes, promises of changes and intentions. Was there anything he was asking of the tribal leaders that they offered in return?


I think that Barack Obama asked of the tribal leaders three things. First, he said was appreciative of their support for those who have already expressed it, and he was hopeful that the tribes could make a real effort in getting out the vote in this important election. Secondly, that they continued to advise him on matters of import to Indian people all over the country. Third, that we begin to build a very constructed relationship between tribes and Senator Obama that could, if he were to be elected President of the United States, that it could serve as the basis of a new relationship between the President and tribal leaders.

The Native VOICE:

Thank you so much.

An exclusive Native Voice Interview with legendary Coach Dale Brown

Best known as star coach for SHAQ (Shaqullle O’Neal) at Louisiana State University, Coach Brown was a featured guest speaker on July 10 at the 2007 Native American Basketball Invitational Tournament (NABI) in Phoenix, Arizona. He came out to speak to the kids about overcoming sports (and life) hurdles, with no excuses.

When Dale Brown arrived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in March 1972, he arrived with a dream that was perceived by many who knew the LSU Basketball program as impossible. The dream was to make basketball a fan favorite in Tiger Country and to make it a nationally respected program as well.

Dale Brown’s straightforward, determined approach, combined with the knowledge of the game, excellent recruiting skills, and his positive philosophy made his dream a reality. Equally amazing was his 25-year career as the Tiger’s head coach, the winningest coach in LSU Basketball history. He is also the second winningest coach in SEC history, surpassed only by Kentucky’s legendary Adolph Rupp.

Brown’s LSU teams won numerous SEC titles, and advanced to four Elite Eights and two Final Fours. He was chosen twice as the National Basketball College Coach of the Year.

105 of 160 of Brown’s players received their college degrees and those that attended LSU for four years had a graduation rate of 84%.

He began his career as a high school coach in North Dakota where he coached basketball, wrestling, football and track and field. He was an assistant coach at Utah State for five years and one year at Washington State before becoming the head coach at LSU in 1972.

In high school in North Dakota, Brown was the state’s leading scorer in basketball and set the school record in the 440 yard dash.

Brown earned 12 letters in basketball, football and track at Minot State University, making him the school’s only athlete to achieve that goal. In 1957, he received a B.S. degree from Minot State University and, in 1964, he received his. M.S. degree from the University of Oregon.

Coach Brown is a member of the North Dakota and Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and the North Dakota and Louisiana Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame. The SEC honored Brown by inducting him as an SEC Living Legend.

At the Native American Basketball Invitational Tournament

July 10, Phoenix, AZ

The Native Voice; How did you find out about the Native American Basketball Invitational Tournament (NABI) Tournament?

Coach Dale Brown: I was in Phoenix a couple of months ago and Gina Marie Scarpa-Mabry came up to me. She was so committed and personable and told me about NABI and asked, if I would speak to the young participants. And I told her to look at my web site and call my secretary and set something up. She said, “We don’t have that kind of money, what you charge.” And I said, “Listen, for the Indian kids, I’ll do it free.” I felt that if I charged, it would take away from what I feel about what needs to be done and what needs to be said. And if you are paid, then what you are is a spokesperson for the fee you get. So that’s how I came here.

TNV: What would you hope that you could impart to these young people at the NABI tournament? What would you like them to know?

Coach Brown: My main thesis is that there are 6.5 billion people on Earth right now. It’s the most in the history of the world and everybody claims that they’re looking for success. But they also want to be happy. So, how do you get that? My theory with the young generation of Native Americans is that “You’ll never get to where you want to go if you forget where you came from.”

The Trail of Tears has never ended. It is important to give them some examples without giving a crutch to lean on. From 1607 to the present time there is no question that the American Indian is the most mistreated, neglected, cheated and forgotten ethnic group in American history. For far too long, Indians in this country have survived in the White man’s shadow. They have humbled themselves, becoming invisible, learning to survive, just barely, on hand-outs form the federal government.

So, how do you change this? Well there’s no simplistic way, but the number one thing you have to do is to become educated.

Nelson Mandela said it very clear. He said, “Education is the most powerful tool you can use to change the world.”

I talk to the youth about becoming educated, and about discipline. Discipline in our personal lives, discipline about being on time, the commitment they have to make. Commitment is the best boon to success. Stick with it. Believe in yourself and persevere.

These Indian kids have come from a pretty fantastic spot. How this race has been able to survive after all these things…centuries of oppression, harassment, thievery, cruelty, slaughter…and yet the tribal members have survived. So this is a paramount example of the strength of the American Indian.

When Columbus landed on these shores, he wrote back to the King and Queen of Spain, after first encountering Indians (and I quote him on this) “I swear to you that there is not a better nation, they are sweet, they are gentle, and there are bright.”

TNV: So where do we go from recognizing the history and knowing where you come from, and finding success now?

Coach Brown: The question becomes, “Today, where do you change the system?”

There are three kinds of people: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who wonder what happened.

I use examples of Shaquille Q’Neal, who I coached. There is no reason for him to be where he is now. His father was a drug addict – he didn’t have a father, really. But he had a step father who stepped in and got him educated. With all of the misery that the American Indian has gotten through, you can’t continue to look for a helping hand. You want a helping hand? Look at the end of your arm. Because the government has not done it. We’ve mistreated the American Indian.

It’s so easy for these youngsters to say “How in the world can I change the system? What can I possibly do?” Well, there were two unusual men who helped me. One of them was Nelson Mandela. 27 years he was locked in a prison, and yet he had a commitment because he wanted to change the system.

And there was a second man, an Oglala Lakota, a Marine lieutenant by the name of Billy Mills. He had been so beaten down, even in college, in Kansas, that he debated committing suicide. I had breakfast with him a few months ago in Phoenix. He told me that he thought about jumping out of a dorm window because his coach kept on telling him that “You can’t do this, Indians can’t do this.” Yet he becomes the only American who has ever won the 10,000 meter race in the Olympics (1964).

TNV: These kids at NABI are all basketball players, and they all have dreams that have gotten them at least to the point where they have earned the privilege of playing in the NABI tournament. What do you tell them about a guy like Shaq? Shaquille O’Neal is such a hero. What did it take, from a coach’s perspective, for him to become “Shaq”?

Coach Brown: I met him at thirteen years of age. I was speaking to the military troops in Germany, and this young man came up to me. I did not know that he was thirteen years old. He told he would be trying but for the team, and I thought he meant the military team. He told me he couldn’t dunk the ball and he had trouble running up and down the court, could I show him exercises? I said, “Sure.” So I came out from behind the podium and spent maybe ten minutes with him I bent down to my bag to get a pen and paper to write down his name and address. I told him, “Young man, when I get back to LSU I will mail you a weight training program.” I said, “How long you been in the service, soldier?” And broke out a big smile and he said, “I’m not in the service.”

I asked him, “How tall are you?” And he said, “six eight,” and I said, What do you weigh?” and he said, “About 250.” I said, “What’s your shoe size?” and he said “Seventeen.” I said, “What are you doing here?” and he answered, “My father’s a military man.” So, I sent him the weight training program. Six weeks later I got a letter from him: “Coach, I did everything you told me to do and my high school coach cut me off the team. He told me I was too slow, clumsy, and too big of feet. He told me I could never be a basketball player, and why don’t I try to be a goalie in soccer.”

Now, what profound statement am I going to tell a thirteen-year-old child, thousands of miles across the water…? So I sat down and I wrote him the following note: “Dear Shaquille, Every time I fail, somebody told me I couldn’t do something. I got my heart broken. I tried the following and it worked for me. I’ll bet it works for you. It’s very simple: ‘Always try to do your best, never give up, and God will take care of everything else.”

TNV: We want this message to get out to those kids who didn’t get to go to NABI this year. The ones who are saying, “How can I get to play at NABI,” let alone LSU or the NBA. So talk to us about what it is like on a daily basis when you are a coach, you got somebody like Shaquille O’Neal, you’ve got all the other players there as well. You know, people have good days and bad days. What do people need to have, every day when they get up in the morning, to be successful in something like basketball.

Coach Brown: In life in general, basketball, anything, you have to recognize that if you want to be successful, you will have to negotiate, jump over four hurdles. Everybody has to jump over them.

6.5 billion people on the planet. The most ever in this world living at the same time. The four hurdles for everyone: You have to overcome “I can’t,” you have to overcome failure, you have to overcome handicaps, and you have to know yourself. We all have to jump over these four hurdles. And you can’t barter, you can’t buy, you can’t cheat, you can’t lie your way over them. You’ve got to jump over them.

Any day of your life, you have 86,400 seconds in that day. During that 86,400 seconds you are going to face somebody telling you you can’t do something, or you thinking you can’t do something. That when you try something you are going to fail. So you have to know that your “FQ” is just as important as your “IQ.” That’s your “Failure Quotient.” You’ve got to get back up. You can’t let that failure keep you down.

Then, you’re going to have a handicap: “You’re Black, you’re Jewish, you’re a woman, you’re an Indian, you’re poor, you’re an orphan, you’re an immigrant, you’re illegitimate.” You’re going to have to overcome your handicap.

Then you have the last hurdle is.. .the most profound victory there is, that you are going to have, is over yourself. You’ve eventually got to know your self, you can’t play any games with your self.

TNV: You’ve got folks who have got a lot of talent, and you’ve got folks who have got a lot of guts. In basketball it sure helps to be tall. What do you tell kids who have the heart and drive, but maybe aren’t the tallest or the fastest?

Coach Brown: It’s very simple. The decathlete is considered the finest athlete in the world. Since the decathlon was started, five of the gold medal winners in the Olympics were 5’9″ and 170 lbs. Your size is not a handicap. Your size, your color, your race, prejudice, etc. Find where it works for you. Martin Luther King summed it up pretty well: “If the door to opportunity does not open to polite knocks, kick the damn thing down.”

TNV: Talking to kids who live on the rez, who have a dream, who may not have that mentor, that role model to help them along around them. What do you tell that kid? How do you tell them to dig down deep inside? How do they make their own opportunities? It sounds really good, but what if they say, “I don’t have anybody to help me?”

Coach Brown: I tell them my own personal story.

Two days before I was ever born, my so-called father abandoned my mother, and never returned. She came off a farm in North Dakota with an eighth grade education. We had to go on welfare, $42.50 a month. She had to babysit and clean peoples’ homes. I had to go to work practically after they snipped my umbilical cord. We lived above a bar and a hardware store.

We didn’t have any television, we didn’t have any automobile, we didn’t have any anything. She finally got a radio so I could listen to that. And my dad never did come back. He never called, he never wrote, he never sent any money. He just totally disappeared in the world.

From watching my mother suffer, from having a good mother in the house…she was a catalyst for me. She was uneducated but she kept telling me that I could make something of myself. And then one day I got in trouble in school, I got kicked out of class. I got sent to the Principal. And he was the ex-coach. And he said, “Get down here. You know what your problem is? You got a chip on your shoulder.” And I’ll never forget the next thing he said to me. I think it had the most impact of anything that ever happened to me. He said, “Dale, you want to know something? You need to know this. God doesn’t make any junk. You can be or do whatever you want to do. But, you’ve got to get the chip off your shoulder.” So, that’s basically the message.

TNV: What does is it feel like to struggle and win? You’ve had some pretty big wins in your life and some pretty big struggles. What does that feel like?

Coach Brown: It’s exhilarating and humbling at the same time. Both of those emotions take you over at the same time. There isn’t an arrogance, there isn’t an “I deserve this.” I can’t explain it. There’s a feeling of just exuberance, and feeling very good. But with the exhilaration, there is just this humbling feeling saying, “Man alive, I’m so blessed that I am able to reach this pinnacle.”

TNV: And you think this pinnacle is available to anyone with the guts and the heart to make it happen.

Coach Brown: The answer is very simple. When you are 27 years in a prison cell, like Nelson Mandela, because you don’t believe in Apartheid, and you finally got out and and you become President of South Africa… It’s Shaquille O’Neal who was abandoned by his father becoming who he is…Yes. Cinderella is not just a fairy tale. There are a lot of Cinderella stories. Gina Marie Mabry (Founder of NABI) is a perfect example. She told me her life story. It’s absolutely beautiful. She should write a book.

TNV: Yes. Definitely. She has really struggled to become who she is and look what she has created here.

So what are you on to now?

Coach Brown: Well, you might be interested in this. Shaquille and I and a group of others, with ABC, we’re doing six one-hour specials on childhood obesity. Tonight is our third episode. Obesity, as you know, is a major problem now, and also on the reservations.

TNV: We’ll definitely tune in and check it out. Any last inspiring words for our readers?

Coach Brown: My attorney is a Black Muslim from LA and my business manager is a Black man who graduated number one from Yale. So we get together once a year.

Last year we were finishing dinner, and I said, “You know that I speak from my heart. Tell me if I’m wrong. In my opinion, the Klu Klux Klan, racists and bigots, they can fold up their sheets and put them in the drawer. But now Blacks do more harm to blacks them these sick individuals do, and nobody will talk about it The White politician is trying to get the Black vote and they don’t even know how to spell ‘ghetto,’ and they won’t talk about it, the people who aren’t committed won’t talk about it, and, a number of Blacks don’t want to talk about it because they’ll be called ‘Uncle Tom,’ and Al Sharpton and Jessie Jackson screw things up the other way.”

“You are 100% right,” they said.

Well yesterday, I watched on national television for the first time, “Bury the ‘N’ word.” Did you see this?

They had a rally with a coffin with guys in black suits holding the coffin, and they were “Burying the ‘N’ Word.”

They said, “We’ve got to quit blaming the White man. Our rappers use the ‘N’ word more than any White man, and we’re criticizing Whites. We’ve got to quit shooting each other, we’ve got to quit having illegitimate kids… We’re going to fight racism the rest of our lives. Let’s stop doing this to each other.”

Well, that’s the same thing that has to be done for the Native American. Yes, there’s no question that 370 treaties with the United States government, signed with Indian, and they broke every dog-gone one of them. But even in today’s society, somebody’s got to be talking about being late, being obese, the suicide rate, etc., and quit soft-pedaling it.

TNV: They use the “N” word, too.

Coach Brown: Well, that’s my message to these kids. Without knocking them down, but somebody’s got to tell them the truth, what they have at them. And how to get up and change the system.

TNV: Thank you.


“Martin Luther King summed It up pretty well: “If the door to opportunity does not open to polite knocks, kick the damn thing down.”

The Adam Beach Interview

Star of HBO’s “BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE” and featured on NBC’s “LAW & ORDER: SVU”

LOS ANGELES, CA – Few people come to mind when you think of Indian actors who have become a household name in mainstream America society, Wes Studi, Graham Greene, and … well, very few. There is actor who has recently followed their lead by breaking out of the rut of playing Native roles only in Indian films, and that is Salteaux First Nation actor Adam Beach.

As the newest face on the immensely popular television franchise, “Law & Order,” Beach is virtually insured celebrity status in the coming years through his two-year contract as Mohawk Detective Chester Lake on the “Law & Order: Special Victim’s Unit” series. It was through his role in HBO Film’s “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee” that Beach scored this life-altering opportunity.

Currently one of the most successful producers on television, Dick Wolf is the creator and executive producer of the “Law & Order” franchise, as well as the recently broadcast HBO Films adaptation of Dee Brown’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” It was through the friendship formed between Beach and Wolf while filming “Bury My Heart” that the role for Beach was created on “Law & Order: SVU.”  Beach said, “He’s a very good friend to have and powerful ally in the business…Dick Wolf is singularly responsible for creating this great new Native character for me on ‘Law & Order.’ He really gets it.”

The New York premiere for “Bury My Heart” brought out a who’s who of Indian country and many celebrity faces, including several of Beach’s fellow cast members from “Law & Order.” Ice-T, who stars as Det. Odafin “Fin” Tutoula. In a recent Native Voice interview, Ice-T said of Adam Beach, “He’s important, man…He’s frickin’ Tom Cruise, he just doesn’t know it yet.” Beach and Ice-T are currently in development on a high-action dramatic film script that will reportedly cast more Native people in non- “Indian specific” roles. (for more on Ice-T, see the exclusive Native Voice interview in this issue) Beach clearly has found a family in this new show, and the next two years should prove to be stellar for him as he continues to develop a platform through success in the entertainment industry, which he plans to use to “educate people on the issues” affecting Native North America.

THE NATIVE VOICE: What would you like people to know about your recent experiences in big-time television?

ADAM BEACH: I’ve been just shocked at how “Law & Order” has been catering to making me come across as a very powerful character on their show. It’s cool that the character is quick witted, he’s cool, and it’s just nice to have an Indian on television like that.

THE NATIVE VOICE: So, they’re making him a very likeable character?

BEACH: Oh, dude, hell yeah man. And, it’s all because of Dick Wolf, the executive producer, He’s been extremely supportive and wants to make this character on Law & Order a strong and well-developed personality.

THE NATIVE VOICE: You’ve been on the air with the show already, but when do you start appearing regularly?

BEACH: He’s in the season finale, but starting in September my character will be on regularly. … So, what did you think of BURY MY HEART?

THE NATIVE VOICE: It was hard to watch.

BEACH: Of coarse, it is hard to even read about.

THE NATIVE VOICE: It was hard to watch… those kids being gunned down, you can’t help it, I mean, I saw my children, I saw their relatives, their grandparents….Obviously there are issues with historical events and dramatic liberties taken with historic facts, but overall I liked the film. It is the first film to show the general public the events that happened to Indian people during the reservation era, it shows what they went through.

BEACH: Ever since I started acting, I’ve always spoken to our people about identity. I’ve spoken to kids, telling them: “Where do I get my strength to push through the barriers to get me where I’m at today? It’s my culture and my traditions, you know? When things are tough I do a prayer, I smudge, I do a sweat lodge. My sweat lodge has been the saunas of hotels, you know? It’s kinda weird when people hear me singing in a sauna, too. (laughs) But this film is going to teach our people about identity, and make them understand that there’s been generations and generations…over a hundred years of being assimilated. Of somebody saying, “Stop talking your language, it’s wrong, you have to learn this.” That really shatters the Indian man or woman. And right now we are picking up our pieces and collectively putting ourselves back together. But that assimilation has affected the generation we are living in now, it has affected my generation. Like, I don’t know my language. I know a little bit. At age sixteen, I started learning traditional ways and values that I carry now. But there’s a generation that’s not connected to any of that, you know?

THE NATIVE VOICE: What do you say to those kids, this new generation? You are saying, “Rely on your culture, rely on your traditions,” and then they say, “Well, I don’t know anything, my parents didn’t teach me.” They might even be on the rez, they live in housing, but they don’t know anything about their traditional ways. What do you say to them?

BEACH: Dude, we’re living in a generation where teaching is through the television. It’s a whole different concept now. And I’m so proud of this film because HBO is of that medium. Nobody’s going to read a book about this story. People have in the 70’s, but do you think kids are going to pick up a book like this (“Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee” by Dee Brown) now? No. And what I’m proud of is that I get to perform the struggles of identity of Indian people, and that’s the greatest teaching that I could tell them. Now it’s going to open up to questions where I could talk to people about it. This has been important to me for a long time.

THE NATIVE VOICE: Are you saying that it opens the conversation to the greater public that wasn’t there before?

BEACH: Yes. Right now, this film is going to introduce generations about what happened in the past, and a lot of them are going to want to find out more about the process of “assimilating the Indian.”

THE NATIVE VOICE: So, you are talking about the Indian viewer and the non-Indian public?

BEACH: Hell yeah, the world, dude! HBO is worldwide, it’s not the United States and Canada. This teaching is going out to the world, and it’s going to send a strong message out there. And right now there are a lot of issues that are connected to our past. Like right now in Canada, the government just wishes that we would give up on our land claims. They wish that we would give up our treaty rights and become a part of their society. They don’t understand that a lot of our people have perished for standing up, for keeping a part of themselves on the land.

THE NATIVE VOICE: There are a lot of similarities between the experiences of what happens in Canada and what happens here in the Unites States.

BEACH: Definitely, dude.

THE NATIVE VOICE: What would you like people to know about where you are from and how you related to doing this role about a Lakota Sioux, Charles Eastman (Ohiyesa)? What did you draw from your own past?

BEACH: A lot of people have to understand that the Indian tragedy is a North American experience. When it comes to Indian people, there are no borders to us. Nobody points to me and says, “Oh, you’re a Canadian Indian.” Our people don’t associate themselves that way. My people, the Salteaux, the Anishinaabe, is of the region that goes from the area around Michigan and up into Canada. And there are land claim issues in Canada that are the same as the States.

THE NATIVE VOICE: Even though the United States and Canada had different governmental systems from the beginning, you’re pointing out that Indians were treated the same. So many of the policies that affected Indian people, and still do, in Canada are very similar to the US policies and the experiences of the Indian person here as well.

BEACH: Hell yeah, dude.

THE NATIVE VOICE: As an actor, how important is being Indian in terms of being able to create a character in a role? Do you think it’s important that someone is Native?

BEACH: The old controversy of that “An Indian can’t play that role” is gone now. They used to say, “There’s not really a strong enough Indian actor or one who has experience enough to carry this role.” That’s wrong now, you can’t use that excuse. Also, when you watch a non-Indian play an Indian role, you know it. There’s something that we as Indian people bring to the screen, there’s a depth that we carry. The issue now is to create those roles. I’m taking it in my own hands now to develop more films that are going to introduce more Indian characters, and help out other people with their dreams, and take on the responsibility to use my connections now to create those roles for other people.

THE NATIVE VOICE: I heard that HBO has got at least five Native stories in development right now. That WOUNDED KNEE is just the first one.

BEACH: That’s more than any other studio. That’s good. Maybe they understand that there is strength to our stories.

THE NATIVE VOICE: How was the process of preparing for the role of Charles Eastman? You are playing a story based on an actual person, and they are also a historical figure. How was that process for you? How did you get to know this person and the story of Wounded Knee?

BEACH: I got to know Charles Eastman through Eddie Spears (who played Eastman’s medical assistant in the film). I was working with Eddie and we were doing a scene where we had to watch this child die. And when we were done with the scene, he couldn’t stop crying. It was like, “You okay, bud?” And he just basically said, “It’s hard to know that this guy (Eastman) just wanted to make things work but the other side didn’t want to work that way. They were always after something. Eddie said that working with this story was like seeing ghosts. He’s a Lakota, so in that scene where the child dies, he’s basically watching a great-great-grandmother die in front of him. And when I heard that I was like, “Okay…now I get it.” So I portrayed my character into seeing ghosts everywhere. It became an alternate reality for me.

THE NATIVE VOICE: Speaking of alternate realities, you’ve shifted into high gear in Hollywood. How has your life changed in the last year?

BEACH: What’s changed is the availability of work. There has been a real, new focus on telling Indian stories, and acting-wise, I’m in the best creative force right now. It’s just kind of perfect timing that they’ve brought out these substantial characters and I’m just the one ready for it, I guess. It’s changed my life in that I’ve accepted who I am as that actor and what I mean to a lot of fans. I’ve accepted my role-model status… I’m going to be a pipe carrier in July, so, my responsibilities in who I am has really blossomed in the last couple of years. And I think for some reason it’s connected to what’s happening now – being this one-two-three punch of “Flags of Our Fathers,” “Bury My Heart” and “Law & Order.”

THE NATIVE VOICE: We know how hard you’ve struggled and that there have been times when it was really tough, but from the outside it looks like things have moved steadily upward for you.

BEACH: I’ve always understood that nobody’s going to hand it to me, and I personally never, ever would want a hand up. But I ultimately knew that it was the creator’s force that was gonna attract people. Every day I work on my acting skills, every day I watch what I can develop. When doing Charles Eastman I had to learn the rhythm of the speech of that era, and I had to become so concentrated on how I was moving and talking. So it’s “Be the best you can be, don’t stop…” You can always resurface and find a part of your personality, a part of your history, and part of your family, that could, you know, give you more confidence and strength. People are quick to be the negative parts, like, “Oh I can’t make it to Hollywood because the percentage of Indians are 0.2 percent working, so, forget it.” You know what I mean. I’ve kind of gotten to understand that I’ve lost a lot of life, and I say that due to the death of my parents (Adam’s parents passed away when he was eight years old). Nothing can be greater a loss than that. So why not give things a chance? It so happens that every year this business grows, you grow with it. I’ve been working in this business for seventeen years so I’ve been pretty fortunate.

THE NATIVE VOICE: But you’ve also put it all on the table. It sounds like you didn’t hold anything back.

BEACH: I did, I’ve sacrificed a lot, man, and I still am, because I’m still away from my two boys, who are in Ottawa, wondering when I’ll get a break to go see them.

THE NATIVE VOICE; How old are your kids?

BEACH: They’re nine and eleven. They understand now who I am. They know what I represent for Indian people.

THE NATIVE VOICE: I’d be really curious to see whether they look like you, sound like you.

BEACH: They have a bit of Adam in ’em, they have their own personality too which is great.

THE NATIVE VOICE: So are they like, “Dad, Dude!”

BEACH: Well, they say “dude” sometimes, and they are always telling me I’m weird. But they’re weird in a way of themselves too. (laughs) Yeah life is full of experiences and you gotta experience them, man. You know? For me there’s been a couple of times where I wanted to quit acting. The movies out there didn’t really represent us the way that my last two films have done. I’m happy that I didn’t give up, because it’s hard to stay focused when other people are saying “It’s never gonna happen,” or “You can only get this far.”

THE NATIVE VOICE: Or you have those voices inside your own head saying that.

BEACH: I was so naive, dude, of course. I was happy doing just one or two films a year, but you know I had to say “no” to so many projects because it just didn’t have any value for me personally.

THE NATIVE VOICE: What do you say about doing historic dramatic films where you know there’s such a responsibility? Indian people expect films to represent them correctly, and when you’re talking about films like “Bury My Heart,” it’s something that’s written by a non-Indian and directed by someone else and it’s not a documentary to start with…and then you have all of these creative people putting their influence on the project…so in the end the story is a “creative interpretation” and not a direct representation of history or a specifically “Indian” viewpoint. Every project created like this will have criticism, of coarse. How do you reconcile that? What do you say to people who watch “Bury My Heart,” for example, and are upset by things that they believe should have been portrayed differently?

BEACH: Well, they’ve got something coming to them, and that’s my heart. They don’t realize that this character I’ve been playing has been someone I’ve been talking to kids about all my life. I’ve been learning about me, trying to understand the Charles Eastmans in my life. When I run into a doctor or a lawyer who is Indian, whose taken the route of having to spend his or her life in the education system and kind of having to put aside their culture for some time… I have a huge respect for them, because when they have finished school and gone to work, they have to come back to their culture all over again, you know?

THE NATIVE VOICE: It’s an interesting story.

BEACH: The story that we are telling is of a hundred years of a government trying to assimilate the Indian. It’s like if you take a hundred years of people saying “You are bad,” being abusive, you’re gonna have a lot of generations, including mine, struggling with identity and wondering “Who the hell am I?” I’ve excepted that I’m no longer gonna walk in the negative world that people try to bring me in, you know? I’m out there to influence now because I work passionately with my heart…the teaching that I’ve learned about our culture and traditions has said “Your heart will lead the way.” So, the issue that I want people to understand is that this assimilation has created the situation where our people are fighting with our own people.

We can’t even balance ourselves, in that way we had back in the day. You know? So it works in a way where we are struggling for our own identity. It’s like, “Oh, you’re less Indian than me! I’m more than you! I carry a feather and you don’t!” You know what I mean? That’s not what we are about, but the assimilation process over a hundred years…dude, a hundred years! It’s gonna do some damage to our people, and right now some of us are really shattered and we’re slowly picking up the pieces and we’re really vulnerable, you know? And that’s why you have all of these kids hurting themselves. The suicide rate is tremendous! The worst thing that can happen to our people is having the young kids saying, “I don’t want to live anymore.” We have to show an example for our younger generations to give them hope, and what are we doing to motivate them to not give up? That’s the question we have to ask ourselves and not point fingers at anybody. Because it’s not about flooding money at these kids. It’s not about building them a new house or giving them a new car. It’s about telling them their history, let them know who they are. Make them believe in themselves, and how we do that is by believing in ourselves. You know what I mean?

THE NATIVE VOICE: Do you think that films like this are part of the solution?

BEACH: Oh, hell yeah! This is showing an example of the history of our people, that had to “sign or perish” (the treaty agreements) They didn’t give them a choice. They said “Sign or you’re dead.” What kind of choice is that?

THE NATIVE VOICE: One that would break you. Watching that happen in “Bury My Heart,” you just watch people’s spirits being broken right in front of you.

BEACH: Yeah, but each time I watch that movie, it gives me my strength back. The life I’m leading, the life I’m teaching to kids, is to be a strong Indian, to learn your values. I’m doing what my ancestors have done, would have done. I’m going against the grain of a people that was trying to tear our culture and traditions apart. And by me living an example of it, it gave me such a strength back that I was so proud to be an Indian man.

THE NATIVE VOICE: So what do you think this film can do?

BEACH: I know people are gonna watch it and want to learn more. We’re in a time where storytelling is on the television or in the feature film. Here we have a chance to tell our story. Now, what they take from it is up to them. But I know that I’ve taken a lot of strength from it.

THE NATIVE VOICE: You’ve taken strength from creating this film?

BEACH: I’ve taken strength from watching this film.

THE NATIVE VOICE: Ah. I can’t really speak about other people in other parts of the country, but in South Dakota this film, how things are portrayed is a big deal.

BEACH: Dude, I know what goes on in South Dakota and I know what this film is gonna stir up.

THE NATIVE VOICE: What would you hope that people would ultimately get from the film? What’s the message you would like them to take away from it?

BEACH: People can know that they haven’t lost their spirit, that that’s one thing we independently own. I’ve carried this with me this whole life: you can’t tell me how I’m supposed to live my life. But if we’re not ready to collectively help each other on the inside, the outside’s not gonna be of any help to us. This film is gonna send out a huge message, but there are a lot of our people who are in such despair that they don’t even want help. How can you get them out of that, how can you give them a sense of hope? Number one is a positive influence, a role model, like myself; number two, a film that explains where it started from; and number three is changing the way that “they” treat these issues, Indian issues. Do you know what I mean?

THE NATIVE VOICE: You mean “they” is the average American, the viewer, the mainstream public?

BEACH: Yes, and HBO is the champ right now, because they understand this.

A Conversation with Activist/Warrior/Mentor Dennis Banks

Albuquerque, NM – It was an unexpected interview. It was the National Indian Gaming annual conference, and much of the activity was around the current politics of Capitol Hill. In the middle of talking to too many people at once, a young woman I recognized said, “My Dad and I are going into business together…I’d like to introduce you to him.” She turned me around, and said, “This is Dennis Banks.”

He was sitting quietly, surrounded by all of the intense activity of the conference, like a still place in the middle of a storm. I didn’t recognize him at first, with his graying beard and moustache, much older than the photos I have seen of him. We set up an interview to talk about their business. “I graduate from University of New Mexico in a few months,” said Tasina Banks, “With a degree in business.” Her quick smile and rapid fire speech were warm and with a purpose…her major is marketing, and she is working to sell something she cares deeply about – her father’s work.

Dennis Banks is best known for his work done during the Red Power heydays of the 1970’s, and he became famous during the Occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973 along with fellow leaders John Trudell, Leonard Crow Dog and Russell Means. Banks was known as a thoughtful and uncompromising speaker for Indian country.

Today, Dennis Banks is back home in Anishinaabe country, where he lives near the banks of Leech Lake in Minnesota. As grandpa to a generation of up and coming leadership, Banks spends much of his time living and teaching the traditional ways of his Anishinaabe people. He is still talking politics, but it is the politics of personal responsibility that he is preaching today. “How can we have anything if we refuse to take care of ourselves” he asked. He has turned his energy toward the health of the people, and he is adamant that the future depends upon eating good, wild foods and exercising the body that the creator gave each of us. “Diabetes is killing our people, and people should be shocked,” he said, “But too many of us are ignoring the fact that the foods that we are putting into our bodies are literally poisoning us.

This is one interview where I immediately wished we had brought our video camera. Banks speaks as much with his body language, his hands, and his expressions, as he does with his verbalized words. His presence is rich and deep, and his face clearly shows volumes of experiences. Unlike some people who wear a mask to hide their emotions, Banks is open and generous, eager to share what he has learned. Our visit lasted a while, and I was struck by his kindness, his sadness, his concerns for his people, and ultimately his hope for each of us to take responsibility for ourselves and find the good life the Creator intended.

The cavernous space of the Albuquerque Convention Center was fairly quiet on the top floor where we sat down for the interview. Sunlight filtered down from a skylight high above us, and Dennis Banks began to talk about life.

Lise Balk King: Tell me a little bit about your business venture.

Dennis Banks: It’s about six years old. It’s a small start-up business…well, in terms of the rez, it’s pretty big. We began in 1999, and we started tapping trees in February for syrup. It wasn’t started off as a business venture in the beginning, but we made so much syrup that spring that we sold it to the tribe. I had just moved back to the reservation. Then, in August we went ricing, harvesting wild rice. We made a lot of wild rice that year. Then the following October, Takeo (his friend and Japanese business partner) came to visit me. We have been friends since 1978, we became friends during The Longest Walk. He thought there may be some interest in developing a market overseas. The following year I decided that I would, in fact, do business. So, 2000 was our first year we began tapping. The first year we tapped 200 trees. The second year we tapped 900. We have over 1000 maple trees tapped right now. We have six canoes that we use for harvesting rice. We began with one, now we have six.

LBK: I know a little bit about wild ricing, a little bit about the traditions that goes on in that area of the country. Tell me what the significance of these two food products in terms of the traditions of the tribe or the significance to you personally of working with these traditional foods.

Banks: We harvest wild rice, and then it is separated and parched with fire underneath it. On Leech Lake, where we live, we have the largest natural wild rice bed in North America. So Leech Lake rice is very much sought after. But rice is a spiritual food. We use it to help in trading and other things. Rice was a commodity, a staple, that was directed to us by the Creator. That’s the Annishinaabe story. During times of famine we were told to keep moving, keep moving, until we found the food that grows above the water. And of coarse, in the history of it, we couldn’t understand what that meant until we came to the lakes in Minnesota where the wild rice was. And, by watching the ducks and the geese, they kept pushing these stalks and the rice was falling, the idea of harvesting came to the Anishinaabe people. That’s one story, and it’s a little bit more elaborate than that, and there’s a lot more stories around it.

We have ceremonies before we do the harvest, and we have ceremonies to close it out. It has traditionally been a family gathering time, families gather and we make rice camp (I live right by the lake now, so I don’t have to make camp)…And wild rice is used as a ceremonial food during small ceremonies, big ceremonies, spiritual ceremonies. Rice is brought out by the Anishinaabe people and served to the people as a spiritual food. It is a natural food. We don’t add nothing to it – we can’t add nothing to it. In California, however, they are producing what it called “Paddy Rice.” They are planting and harvesting it. They spray it with toxic chemicals, herbicides, pesticides. So by the time it gets to the table it’s really dark, it’s really a black kernel. When we are parching our rice, we stop the parching when it gets to a golden brown. So, the most sought after rice is Leech Lake rice, our rice.

LBK: Winona brought us some rice from your area.

Banks: Yup. She’s another one who is doing a lot to hold off these developers, the people that are doing the paddy rice. It’s engineered. It’s not a true wild rice. We’ve joined her campaign, “Keep it Wild.” So we pass the word wherever we can, wherever we go worldwide. Paddy rice is mis-labeled as “Paddy Wild Rice,” it’s not wild rice.

(Editors Note: Winona LaDuke’s website on this subject is at http://www.nativeharvest.com. From the website: “Our work over the past two years has been to work to combat the genetic manipulation, patenting and the misrepresentation of wild rice locally, nationally and internationally.”)

LBK: So, this is a traditional food, and a ceremonial food and a cultural food. And it’s has a lot of nourishment and meaning, more than just the physical.

Banks: When Takeo entered the picture, he invited some business people to come to my home. They saw how we harvested that wild rice, which is a lot different than how they harvest rice over there (in Japan).

Some of the rice stays up on the stalk . Some of the kernels go straight down (gestures with his hands, watching the rice kernel sink to the bottom of the lake) and it’s real silty at the bottom. Have you felt the way that the kernel is barbed? If you feel the kernel one way it is real smooth, but the other way, it’s rough. So, it lands and it buries itself in the silt and stays there, stays there for the whole year, even when the lakes get froze over. Like right now, it’s still down there, froze up, and then it will germinate and it will come up again. So, it seeds itself.

LBK: So the actual kernels become the seeds.

Banks: Yes. It doesn’t need pesticides or herbicides for it to grow. It just needs itself and the nutritional value is not contaminated with chemicals. It is a natural food. We don’t do anything to it, we just parch it.

LBK: Why do think it is important to promote the natural, native foods?

Banks: Diabetes is wrecking our lives. It is the single most devastating disease across this United States is diabetes. And we’re not shocked about it! We’re not. Remember when AIDS came across here? People were shocked and even treated people as lepers. The awareness for AIDS has been so great that we don’t see so many people dying of AIDS anymore. But diabetes? We’ve not reacted with rage with ourselves and our own diets. Even though we are going to the funerals of our own children, uncles, aunts.

LBK: You are also producing maple syrup.

Banks: Maple syrup is a natural food, all we do is boil it. You can drink the sap, just coming out of the tree like that.

LBK: What does it taste like?

Banks: It tastes like water, but with a hint of sweetness to it. It tastes SO good. I would drink the sap more than I would drink the syrup. And then when you take the maple syrup and keep boiling it, stirring it, pretty soon it gets thick like taffy, and pretty soon it starts to crystallize, like sugar. So, you get three products. You get the sap, the syrup, and the sugar cakes and the sugar. I eat that and drink it raw when we tap it. You see all of the squirrels doing the same thing. But I don’t have diabetes. And it’s a natural sugar.

LBK: You’re making me hungry…

Banks: The deer, they hang around the camp and they go and suck on those trees. And the porcupines. So, we share with those animals. You don’t see the squirrels dying of diabetes.

LBK: So what was the idea behind taking these natural products and making them available through marketing, bottling, packaging, and selling?

Banks: There are a lot of us in the community… that’s how the whole community has survived all of these years. During the harvest time, you go out and harvest and you sell it to the tribes for school clothes for the kids… And then we had all this big bulk of wild rice. We brought it out and thought, “What are we going to do with it?” We can serve it back to our people. We do that anyway in all the ceremonies, for the tribe we provide ALL the wild rice. But now we still have 100,000 pounds extra over here.

LBK: That’s a lot.

Banks: Yes. Then when I became involved with it, I thought, “Maybe we can become part of combatting diabetes.” We went to the USDA and asked them about putting it in all of the school lunches. They thought it was a good idea, but it never went beyond that.

LBK: So what made you decide to lend your name to the packaged food product? You have a well-known name because of the work that was done, political work, starting back in the seventies, then the eighties, and on to today. So you have a name that people know. What made you decide to lend your name?

Banks: There’s about seventy families that do wild rice, and I buy from all of them. And there’s about fifteen families that get involved when we do maple syrup. All the kids come out and help. So, we had a generic label in the year 2000. Someone in the community said “Dennis, why don’t you just put your name on it?” I said, “No.” First of all, I said, “It won’t sell.” (laughter) That was my first reaction. Then I said, “Well, let’s try it out.” So we got some labels and put “Dennis Banks” on it. Then we started to put the message of what the environment should be, it should be in a good state. That’s why I decided to lend my name. Because it helps seventy or so families that I buy from. Technically they don’t work for me, but I’m buying all of the rice.

LBK: It reminds me of the Paul Newman line. And someone told me that you know him, worked with him back in the day.

Banks: Yeah. And he gives a lot to non-profit organizations, he gives a lot to community groups. And we do more than sell rice and syrup. We make and sell crafts, birch bark canoes. We make drums the size of this table, museum-quality stuff. We make six-foot canoes (www.dennisbanks.com).

LBK: Paul Newman started with salad dressing and now he has got a whole line of food products. Would you consider, are you considering taking on other food products if these things do well?

Banks: As a matter of fact, we also do other syrups with wild fruit and berries. Our main market is right here in the United States, but right now all of my product goes to Japan. I only have one customer, and they buy all of what we produce. This year, my daughter Tashina is graduating from college with a business degree, we are starting to develop a “Dennis Banks Natural Products” line. You can get more information by going to http://www.DennisBanks.com, or you can email my daughter at tashina@tashinabanks.com

(a cell phone call comes in…)

I am on this run right now. I’ve gotta fly back and run tomorrow…We do these spiritual runs…I run or walk every day. I used to do ten miles. It keep us healthy to run, walk.

LBK: These runs are about both spiritual and political work?

Banks: Yup.

LBK: Most people know you from your political work and people are always are looking for leaders, people are always looking for somebody to help them find their way. It seems like there’s a lot of need …Do you have anything you want to say to people that look at you as a leader?

Banks: I think young people have to step up to the plate. In 1999 when I moved back, I had a small sum of money but it was exhausted right away, so we had to do something. So, we started tapping trees and then a lot of young kids stayed with me. I’m showing them how they shouldn’t have to sell their rice all the time, what they should do is think more about making it last and, you know, and harvesting it themselves. It’s a long answer to your question, but I think young people have to step up now and begin to develop their leadership on their own, you know? A basketball player is a good player, but only by getting on that court time after time, night after night after night he begins to polish his style and pretty soon he has that success.

Michael Jordan, he stepped up to the plate, and Tiger Woods, he trained and trained. Young people? We have to set them up, bring them up.

LBK: There’s a lot of criticism that goes on. It takes a certain strength or personality in the individual to succeed, or kids have to have the support around them of family or relatives or friends to help brush off the negative.

Having the support is really important, so what do you say to those young people who have a dream and have the desire but don’t know where to find the help don’t know where to find the support?

Banks: Well, I know where people can not find the leadership to help them out – I think we better start from there – we can’t find it in a bottle, we can’t find it in a needle doing drugs, we can’t find it in a prison or jail, we can’t find it being abusive to our children, we can’t find it being abusive to our spouses.

So you may have to go to that bar – but not to drink – you may have to go to that bar to drag people out of there. You may have to chop wood all winter long for somebody. You may have to haul water for somebody. That’s where your going to find it, that’s where your going to find that leadership, that’s where you know if you have dreams of helping and and its there. Places are loaded for them to go to, they just have to find it and work it.

This past year the hurricane Katrina hit and it hit with so much force that it knocked out homes, just blew them away. There were a lot of Native people down there in Louisiana in those areas that were hit by the hurricane. We went down there just last month, seven months after it hit. You know what? There were a lot of white kids who came down there who wanted to spend their spring break down there helping people. To me, that was a sign of leadership through helping. You got to go to where the path is not there yet, that’s what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to find those places to help people and then you’ll start to develop whatever your thing is whether its about politics…or music…or whatever – but it takes hard work.

Sometimes as native people we only react to a crisis. We do that good, like a fireman you know, “There’s a burning building and there’s somebody screaming, then we know what we have to do. But when it quiets down we go back to whatever we were doing, drinking or whatever.

I want them to be producing and creating the opportunity themselves. If there’s none that exists, then create the opportunity.

LBK: Like taking something that happens naturally in the community, like ricing, and creating Dennis Banks Natural Products to help sustain the community.

Banks: Why not?


Dennis Banks Natural Products, 10038 Sugar Point Drive NW, Federal Dam, MN 56641, http://www.dennisbanksnaturalproducts.com, Tel. 218654-5885


Dennis Banks, AIM Co-Founder and one of the leaders of the Wounded Knee Occupation in 1973. Today, Dennis Banks is back home in Anishinaabe country, where he lives near the banks of Leech Lake in Minnesota.

As grandpa to a generation of up and coming leadership, Banks spends much of his time living and teaching the traditional ways of his Anishinaabe people.


Dennis Banks, AIM Co-Founder and one of the leaders of the Wounded Knee Occupation in 1973, sings traditional songs at this years 2006 National Indian Gaming Conference

RES 2006 highlighted by appointment of Ron Solimon, President

This year’s “RES” (“Reservation Economic Summit”), hosted by the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development in Las Vegas on February 7-9, was impressive. Although growth over last war’s attendance of almost 2000 people was expected, no one anticipated the record – breaking 3200 participants. It was a veritable who’s – who of Indian business and economic development, including Indian and non-Indian government leaders and an impressive array of top brand-name American corporations looking to establish or expand their business in Indian country.

The common theme for this year’s gathering was technology and infrastructure building. The first day’s events were highlighted by a live video feed from The White House. Reuben Barrales, the Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, was linked live from his office to make his presentation and answer questions from the audience. RES 2006 was a demonstration of how twenty years of work builds upon itself, and, properly tended, can have a project take on a life of its own.

Although the goal of this year’s 20th Anniversary conference was to achieve “$1 billion in contracts” signed, the National Center started RES with much less lofty goals. Six Indian small business entrepreneurs launched the project in 1969 in the heart of Los Angeles, where they were looking for solutions to the tough challenges that all new businesses necessarily face Then known as the United Indian Development Association in 1970.

UIDA developed into a full-service business development center through management contracts with the U.S. Department of Commerce. Minority Business Development Agency. In 1989, the all-Indian Board of Directors implemented a long-term strategic plan to expand its offering of economic development services to American Indians, Native Hawaiians, Alaskan Natives and tribal governments.

Currently the National Center provides services through three regional offices near the high-density Indian populations of Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Seattle. This year’s economic summit meeting included the appointment of a new President for its Board of Directors, the Pueblo Indian Cultural Center’s President and CEO, Ron Solimon (Pueblo of Laguna).

Ron was clearly energized by his new job, and the tasks ahead of him as the leader for the National Center and their year-round activities, including the RES gathering. Although the RES gatherings have become, on the surface, more about big government, large corporations and well-funded tribal enterprises.

Solimon is committed to continuing to serve the new and small individual Indian-owned businesses. And if focusing on fueling the economic growth of Indian country at large, the National Center would be right to spend their energy here, as small businesses represent 99.7 percent of all employers in the United States’ economy, (source: sba.gov).

Ron Solimon: It is evident by the numbers of people that we have here at the conference that it’s one of the most successful conferences that we’ve had. We started with the emphasis being on the individually-owned companies and now, more and more tribally-owned companies are here (at RES). I just talked to a firm that is just getting started and they deal in herbal horse products. It was very interesting to hear what their story is. I never envisioned anything like that. It’s KB Distributing Herbal Horse Products out of Montecito, California.

TNV: How has working with the National Center and RES helped Indian businesses? Solimon: Many of the individual participants continue to be entrepreneurial, and we really respect their own individual visions for themselves and their families, to pursue companies that can provide and generate enough revenue for their families to live on and to prosper.

We’ve seen that, as time has gone along, companies that started out very small now, with the exposure that they get here at the Reservation Economic Summit, they add to their business space, expand their network of companies and other entities that they can eventually do business with. For me, it continues to be exciting in terms of seeing the variety of companies that are emerging. And, of course, with the advent of the technological advances it makes everything much more simple in terms of our ability to stay in contact with one another. A lot of the focus in this particular RES was on the internet technology and what kind of progress was being made.

TNV: How has the vision for RES changed? You were talking about you’ve gone from an emphasis on individual business ownership to tribal business ownership. Can you talk a little bit about the vision, the philosophy, and how that’s evolved in terms of how individual Indian people and communities and tribes can become financially and economically solvent?

Solimon: First of all, the composition of our client base or the consumers that we serve really is still predominantly individually owned businesses. That really results from the relocation program the federal government engaged in during the 1950s where they relocated Indian people to urban settings. The offspring of parents who were relocated grew up in an urban setting and then started learning the businesses. It continues to be the entrepreneurial spirit that’s thriving and is enabling people to pursue their own goals. But the tribally owned concerns from the reservations, a large part of why we call this the Reservation Economic Summit, have come to rely more and more on the expertise that not only individual business owners, but also the expertise possessed by our staff members at the Mesa office and also at procurement/technical assistance centers throughout the United States.

That’s been the most visible effort on our part to reach out to tribal communities, is to have offices in Seattle, in California, Atlanta, Georgia, and the East Coast.

TNV: Tell us about the goal that is printed on this year’s materials of “$1 billion in contracts”?

Solimon: Last year we had with close to $600 million in business actually being transacted through deals being made here. This year we have a loftier goal in terms of the volume of business that we expect. We’re expecting between $600 million and a billion dollars worth of business to be conducted here. So, we serve as a great marketplace for that.

TNV: What do you say to the individual who’s growing up in a more rural environment?. What would you say to that person who’s living on the reservation who has a lot of ideas but doesn’t really know where to go? What do you tell that person who’s just getting started?

Solimon: I’d ask them to call the National Center which is headquartered in Mesa, Arizona, where the key management team is located. They can direct them to the satellite operations that we have that might be closer to their own reservation location or reserve location. And, of course, the locations of our satellite operations might lend more expertise in certain areas.

For instance, in defense contracting arenas, we have strategic locations close to naval shipyards. We’re just a phone call away and we have an 800 number, 1-800-4 NCAI-ED. And a lot of it has to do with just basic technical assistance, financing and alternatives they might have and expertise that might exist that they’re not aware of now, where they can rely on to help them develop their own business plans. That’s the kind of service that we provide, and we’re really, truly national in terms of our outreach capabilities.

TNV: If I got this right, the RES 2004 had 600 registrants, 700 registrants, and now you have close to 3,000?

Solimon: Yes, we’re over 3,000. We had 2,500 signed up before it began but many more people showed up than we anticipated.

TNV: Can you give us a little bit of the inside conversation about how all of you who have been nurturing this organization, what you’d like to see it do now and into the future?

Solimon: We’re very excited, first of all, at the progress that Indian business has made over the last ten years. We’ve seen almost exponential growth, so it’s very rewarding. There are a lot of high points for us related to the volume of business that’s done here. We don’t want to be just another conference where people attend and then they go home and forget what they’re able to achieve.

We want people to go away from here with business deals in their briefcase, ready to go, executing their business plans and also looking at new opportunities. There are always a variety of opportunities that surface at networking opportunities like this that they might not even have envisioned.

TNV: What, in particular, would like to communicate to those tribal leaders who participate in legislative sessions on Capitol Hill?

Solimon: One of the largest workshops that we held here was, related to the Small Business Administration, the Small Business Act, the program under Section 8(a) of the statute. It’s very important for all of us to stick together in terms of preserving the 8(a) program because it enables tribally-owned concerns to establish companies that can be eligible for sole-source awards, and many times tribes are in financial situations and their economic conditions are such that, in order to get off to a quick start, they need to have a sole-source contract award.

Not only is that program important, but there are continuing things like the Mentor-Protege Program that’s really had its genesis over at the Department of Defense and has now expanded to some extent over to other agencies, and the 5% incentive program for prime contractors to do business with Indian-owned companies. That particular program needs to be continued and re-authorized and actually have appropriations that fund it so that it can continue.

TNV: This organization is seeing some great success. Is there any down side to that?

Solimon: Many times, people across the country, with the growth that we’ve seen only in very recent times, assume that everybody’s doing well now, there’s a chicken in every pot, and Indians don’t need to be engaged in this or covered by the trust relationship that currently exists; that it’s okay to just cut them loose. And that’s really not the case; we’re just barely taking our first step. I think that perspective is very important for us to communicate to the legislative and executive branches.

The message is that we are just taking our first step and that we need them to continue to allow us to take more steps. We need to mature in terms of our business acumen so that tribes can really gain a foothold in the various industries that we’re engaged in now, and the individuals who are entrepreneurs can thrive in that environment. At some point in time, the (federal) programs may need to be re-examined, but certainly not now.

TNV: One thing that came to mind…There’s been a lot of talk about encouraging Native businesses to do business with other Native companies. How successful do you think that initiative has been? It’s been fairly recent, just in the last few years, since NIGA and NCAI made those initiatives. Have you seen an impact of that yet?

Solimon: Yes. Every one of us that has a CEO role in an Indian organization or company has the discretion to direct procurement, and so it starts there. Of course such a decision has to be made on a business rationale concerning price, delivery; but there’s also something new that’s developed in terms of best value and the opportunity to take advantage of the kind of product or service that other Indian-owned companies provide. A lot of my own buying or procurement activities have resulted from contacts made here at RES.

When you see the companies that are out there with different kinds of services, graphic design, security…you name it, a lot of the contacts begin right here. And we, as an organization, have decided to pursue and assist the National Indian Gaming Association, at the request of the president, Ernie Stevens Jr., to help him establish a program called the American Indian Business Network; and that really is for the purpose of encouraging Native-owned companies to do business with other Native owned companies. So, we’re passionate about that, many of us are. And the Board took that formal action yesterday to develop a Memorandum of Understanding or other agreement that would document that joint effort and that alliance between us and NIGA.

TNV: There’s this impression that it’s high-level business being done here, only. It’s important to hear that you still believe that your core is supporting the individually-owned businesses.

Solimon: We’ve never lost that belief or recollection that that’s where many of us started from and that’s where many of the people that are on the Board of Directors originated from was their own efforts to fulfill their own dreams as individual entrepreneurs. These people have prospered. We have Native American board members and they are not likely to forget that we’re part of this continuum.

We know that our ancestors fought for many of the privileges that we have now and many of the rights that we have now, they’ve had to litigate, had to sacrifice themselves in many cases by traveling back and forth to Washington or wherever. And many of our people, in fact, passed on while they were in Washington advocating for our people. So, all of us unequivocally recognize that our ancestors not too far behind, a couple of generations in many cases, were riding trains and traveling the best way they could on Greyhound buses.

Now, many of us are flying and we’re there in a matter of hours when, for them, it was a matter of days and sometimes months that they were gone from their reservations and encountering foreign kinds of foods and environments. We reflect on that very frequently, that this is what our grandfathers and our uncles, and people before them, sacrificed for. Being cognizant of that really brings a certain kind of reality to our current involvement in this organization.

And it really, brings purpose for our continued involvement here to provide opportunity for people at the grass roots level, for those kids who are just now looking at being in some kind of business, for those who are involved in Junior Achievement, or FHA or all those kinds of programs that are trying to help kids get ready for doing business on their own. My hope is that the tribally owned concerns that are doing well will assist the individual entrepreneurs to get on their feel and to be gainfully employed to be generating revenue for themselves and their families. That’s what one of our goals is, to try to ensure that that happens.

The best way we can do that is to invite everybody to this conference, make the best accommodations available at a reasonable price for them to come and network with people. As I encouraged people yesterday, I told them, if you brought with you a thousand of your business cards, don’t go home with that thousand cards. Talk to everybody, talk to them and see what they’re doing because some of the wildest notions that you might have had might come into fruition right there because there’s an opportunity that presents itself.

There are so many people here that we try to bring in quality people that can provide top-notch assistance in terms of business plans and other things, so that when someone has an idea we can help them develop it, to examine the central reality of that kind of business notion coming into fruition and evolving into a business.

TNV: Last thing that I wanted to ask is this idea of tribal sovereignty being strengthened and built by individual sovereignty. That one of the things that can strengthen tribal sovereignty is having economic sovereignty, breaking the heavy percentage of dependence on the United States government. Would you like to talk about individual sovereignty and how individuals can achieve self-sufficiency and independence and self-esteem through economic sovereignty? The collective self-esteem is also based upon the individual self-esteem of taking care of yourself, your family, your community. Coming from your own experience, if you could tell us about what you had to do, the kind of decisions you have to make in your own mind to achieve the things you’ve achieved to have that individual sovereignty and strength and purpose?

Solimon: Well, I pursued a business degree, so I think education is very important. Any kind of training is important to obtain so that you can better understand the realities of doing business here in the U.S. and, eventually, overseas. I know that’s seems like a stretch from what we’re talking about but paying attention to educational attainment as an individual, to not take lightly any opportunities to get educated. The other thing is to take advantage of opportunities. Oftentimes people shy away from different kinds of training opportunities thinking things like, “I’m not well-enough prepared to engage in this training,” But go ahead and try it. It might be difficult, but they should go ahead and give it a shot.

A lot of us grew up grass roots. I grew upon a Pueblo reservation in New Mexico, where after doing our chores and taking care of sheep and doing other things, since of course our family and lifestyle was agrarian and, eventually, mining, I used to look up at the sky and see these jets pass overhead and wonder if I would ever be in a jet. And now I have so many miles on my frequent flyer programs that I can’t even use them. So I think that it’s entirely possible that to pursue your dream you need to equip yourself to take on the challenges; to understand financial statements, to understand the business planning process. That is part and parcel of what our ancestors have done in the past, is equip themselves.

TNV: Thank you very much for your time and your words of encouragement.

Solimon: It’s been my pleasure. We really appreciate the work that you all do in getting the word out. This is really very important. We thank you, too.

Oprah brings Native America to mainstream public: Photographer Gwendolen Cates’ book “Indian Country” is catalyst for Winfrey’s interest in Native issues

There’s a new and somewhat unexpected voice in Indian Country: that of Oprah Winfrey. Over the years she has built a communications empire, one story at a time. She has gathered a loyal following of 22 million viewers along the way by offering a full and ever changing menu of real life drama and real life solutions. Now one of the most powerful people in the media industry, she is consciously using her power of communication to shine a light on issues and people who she believes can benefit from the attention brought by being featured on her show. She says that her desire is “to be a catalyst for transformation in people’s lives” (Fortune magazine).

Oprah has recently begun to showcase the “cause” of Native America. Unlike other television shows, specials, movies-of-the-week and journalistic exposes, Oprah is lending her soft yet powerful touch by telling truths about people and situations in Indian Country without overdramatizing, pulling punches on the tough issues or making the viewer feel pity without dignity. Her main focus is to tell the rest of the world about life in Native America, but her shows can have the unexpected bonus of helping Indian people realize that real support can come from the outside, and that maybe someone has finally gotten it right.

“In this country where we cherish freedom, imagine being forced from your home and losing your independence. That is what happened to millions of Native Americans. `We want to start building a bridge of understanding though the Angel Network that can help the healing and most of all acknowledge history that we’ve often chosen to ignore.'” – Oprah (from http://www.oprah.com.)

The show was called “Building a Bridge of Understanding,” and it featured the honoring by Oprah’s Angel Network of Robert O. Young, who founded a non-profit organization called Red Feather Development that builds straw bale homes on reservations. The Angel Network has given a second award to Dave Anderson (Choctaw/Chippewa) of “Famous Dave’s Restaurants,” which will air on Monday, April 1 (check local listings). Dave is being honored for his Lifeskills Center for Leadership, which works to empower Native youth through experiential training seminars. The cost of attending these workshops is $250 per person. Oprah’s Angel Network has donated $25,000 to the organization to allow for 100 scholarships to be awarded.

Oprah’s Angel Network was created “to inspire people to use their lives and to help people experience the true rewards that come from giving to others. Together, we can change the world, one person at a time.” (Oprah Winfrey)

In addition to the award given to Red Feather Development, the “Building a Bridge of Understanding” show featured Rick West (Oklahoma Cheyenne), director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Oprah gave West the platform to “tell it like it is” on national television. He called the history of what has happened to Native people on this continent “an American holocaust,” and said, “We are well aware of what happened abroad during WWII, but what many people don’t realize that it’s precisely that kind of decimation and death [that] occurred right here.”

West reviewed real history: including the relocation of tribes, the “reeducation” efforts of the U.S. government, the breaking of treaties, the outlawing of Native cultures and languages and religions, the horrors of forcing children as young as four into attendance at boarding schools, the lack of formal recognition as citizens of the United States until 1924, and the truth of the honorable ways in which large percentages of Native people have served this country in the armed forces. West stated that, “…for healing to occur, non-Native Americans need to acknowledge what has happened. Only in the past half decade has the government made any effort to formally apologize…But what is most important is that people begin to know and understand more.

“We need to understand not only what happened,” West continued, “but the great contributions that Native Americans have made to anything we call civilization or culture in this country.” It was an unprecedented, honest accounting of truths about the history and healing of Native America, and an honoring of people who are working to improve conditions and empower lives of Indian people.

There are more shows currently in development that will feature Native America and the experiences, both good and bad, that have shaped the truth of what life is like in Indian Country.

Who can we thank for this very public accounting of history and honoring of “angels?” The answer is Gwendolen Cates, a woman known for her celebrity photography whose book “Indian Country” was brought to Oprah’s attention by a mutual contact. “Indian Country” impressed Oprah so much that she was inspired to loan her powerful media platform to the subject of Native America.

Cates’ “Indian Country” is a gorgeous large-format, high-quality volume of portraits in pictures and words. It represents two years of work and a lifetime of research for Cates: her father decided he wanted to learn the Navajo language, so he went to live in a remote, traditional area of the Navajo Reservation before she was born, it “was part of my world, my awareness from the time I was conscious…he started bringing me out there when I was a kid, and I started going out there on my own to visit when I was a teenager. It’s been an important, and private, part of my life.” In her book, Cates has revealed both her knowledge of and her love for her subject, and has gifted all of us with a beautiful book filled with heart and soul.

Cates was very reluctant at first to expose this private part of her life. But, as she explains, “there came a moment when the right people asked me to do [this]…The only way for some of the misconceptions to be to changed is if [people] learn about …who Indians really [are].” She also points out that some of the motivation for the project came from observing that there hadn’t been much truth about Indian people portrayed in the major media in this country. She explained, “It took a long time for me to feel that it was the right moment to become more public…but the way that this opportunity presented itself was about my being able to take people on a journey through Indian Country so that they would see what it was really like…this book does not attempt to define Indian Country, because it’s so rich and complex – it is a journey through Indian Country.” It is clear that Cates tells the truth as she sees it, portraying the people with honor and dignity, and she stated, “I want the journey to be positive and educational.”

She has given each Native person the same attention and energy that she would give a celebrity and has honored them by recording their thoughts and words alongside the photographs. “Native people have been so often written about, spoken for…I felt that it was very important to not do that in this book, so the text is mainly people speaking in their own words. In just showing photographs it’s almost as though the people are silenced, especially if they are written about rather than being able to speak for themselves. So that was something that was very important to me in this book.”

Cates uses words like “remarkable” and “beautiful, rich and complex” when describing the experience of working with the people featured in the book. “I really wanted to go everywhere and include everyone, but I only had 200 pages so I did the best I could.” Her process for mapping out her journey included some planning and “some of it just happened,” and she credits “serendipity and the Native network” with helping her to find the 200 people pictured in the book. “I did it completely by myself with a lot of support and help from [the people in Indian Country. I couldn’t have done it without [them].” Cates took on a huge responsibility in giving mainsteam society one of the most truthful explorations of Native America, and she felt the pressure. “The responsibility was so great – I wanted the Indian people to like this book, first and foremost….I wanted to work as hard as I could do do something that would really make a difference…and I realized that you really have to reach as broad an audience as possible (because) if the book is given a lot of attention, then Indian Country will get a lot of attention (and) people will learn what Indian Country is all about.”

To that end, she dreamed that Oprah would see her book and decide to do something about it, “because if Oprah decides to shine her light or say that we should all pay attention to this, then people do – what she does has an incredible impact on this country. She does things with a lot of sensitivity. It’s about time that Oprah do something on American Indians – in 15 years Oprah has never done any shows on Indian Country.”

People are drawn to Gwendolen’s book and are surprised by its contents. She has worked hard, put herself on the line, and has created something rich and real and honest. “I’ve received so much positive response from Indian people, and that makes me feel so good.”

It didn’t hurt that Oprah liked it, too.

Gwendolen Cates is donating a portion of the sales of “Indian Country” to the American Indian college Fund, as she believes that “self-determined education is most important”.