Tulalip, Wash.—Fresh from the breaching of the Elwha Dam on September 17, tribal delegates at the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians (ATNI) at their 58th annual convention called for an increase in the exercise of tribal sovereignty.
Brian Cladoosby, former ATNI president as of September 21, opened the conference by wrapping a Pendleton blanket around Lower Elwha Klallam Chairwoman Frances Charles, whose tribe has led efforts to remove the dam that blocked Chinook salmon runs for a century. The 650 conference goers cheered.
“We are the seventh generation from treaty time, and we saw the Elwha River freed,” said Quinault Chairwoman Fawn Sharp, newly named ATNI president. “Overlay the history, the most powerful country in the world tried to destroy us, and we survived.”
Sharp and Yakama Nation Chairman Harry Smiskin were among the leaders who met at the first ever ATNI sovereignty summit last month.
Smiskin, commenting that the focus on sovereignty was long overdue, told delegates September 19, “We are all aware that Indian tribes have been subservient to the federal and state governments. We talk and claim sovereignty but we don’t take the actions that make us the sovereigns that we area.”
The Yakama Nation is pursuing the retrocession of Public Law 280. The 1953 law that transferred jurisdiction over criminal justice on Indian reservations to states, which applied the law such as Washington, Oregon and California.
“It is no secret that the state opposes the restoration of jurisdiction at Yakama Nation,” Smiskin said.
Gov. Christine Gregoire has convened a retrocession panel that is holding meetings around the state. And earlier this month U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Washington Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson ruled in a suit brought by Yakama, over an FBI raid of a reservation business, the federal government cannot encroach on Indian land without Indian permission.
But more steps must be taken by tribes in the months and years ahead.
Cladoosby warned that federal budget and Congress’ political infighting are likely to affect Indian country. And he observed, tribes have crawled, begged and fought for appropriations, allocations, grants and program funding so they could provide services for their people.
“But the United States government does not have the capacity or the funding, but, let me say this, they do not have the ability to put their political power into place and advance our sovereignty,” he said.
So he is calling for the establishment of an ATNI war room, which would create a leadership structure for advancing the exercise of tribal sovereignty in the 21st century, and help determine best practices among ATNI member tribes.
Other leaders say that government consultation with tribes often falls short of the ideal of free, informed and prior consent.
ATNI Second Vice President Harvey Moses, a member of the Colville Tribal Business Council, said that the Department of the Interior consultation on the Cobell Settlement last week had not inspired confidence in him, even though BIA officials “kept trying to convince everyone, ‘We’ll take good notes.’ ”
“Off reservation is getting rich off us,” Moses said. “Yet we are not recognized as a power within the state. Every time the state talks, they say, my citizens this, my citizens that. We need to unite, large tribes and small tribes, with one voice.”
Cladoosby said the pressures and complexity of modern tribal governments can distract from the struggle.
“We were fighting the state over water rights, and one tribal leader said, “Why should I fight for water? We don’t have that much salmon anymore.’ ” But Cladoosby exhorted the delegates September 19, “I warn you, tribal leaders, don’t get blinded by the economic success by that green piece of paper.”
Charles said that more than 100 years ago during the construction of the Elwha Dam her elders stood below, protesting. The dam blocked the Chinook salmon run from the Elwha River for a century. The tribe’s fishermen today agreed to removal of the dam, even though the process would kill the fish below the dam and it will take years for the fish to recover.
“We appreciate them for putting the freeze on their fishing,” Charles said, “so that someday the 100 pound salmon can come back to us.”