WASHINGTON – 2011 saw some new and old heroes alike emerge in Washington, D.C., rooting and pushing for tribal and Indian interests. Here we list some of the notables:
Debra White Plume: This Lakota activist spent many long days and nights in Washington this year thanks to the federal government’s wrangling on whether to allow the installation of an expanded Keystone XL Pipeline across her homelands. Arrested for peacefully protesting the plan at the White House in early September, she became increasingly comfortable explaining Native resistance in front of large crowds of protesters. “We have to stand up for Mother Earth. We have to stand up for our sacred water—for our children, our grandchildren, for the coming generations,” she told a large group via megaphone just before her arrest. Throughout, she became a go-to Native voice to explain the cultural, health, and sovereign impacts. As the year wore on, young and old Indians alike would ask her on Facebook for the latest updates from D.C., and she was more than happy to share. But she was also fond of going home, getting away from the crazy trenches of Washington, to remember firsthand why she continued the fight.
Robert Williams: Normally a respected Indian law professor based at the University of Arizona, Williams trekked to the nation’s capital in October on an important mission to protect the rights of six First Nations of British Columbia. The Lumbee tribal citizen presented evidence at a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States that showed Canada has systematically ignored tribal land claims while permitting destruction of Indian lands through widespread clear-cutting that led to deforestation, pollution and possible climate change effects. He and his clients ultimately hope to achieve a huge precedential impact on indigenous rights to property. Until then, they wait for a report from the commission. “No one thinks these claims are going to be solved overnight,” he said at the time, “but we’re on the right path.”
Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., emerged in June as a congressional anti-tribal union advocate. New to Congress this year, she introduced legislation in an effort, she said, to clarify that the National Labor Relations Board does not have jurisdiction over tribally owned businesses on reservation land as a matter of tribal sovereignty. “The legislation stands to defend tribal sovereignty and promote economic opportunities on reservations lands by eliminating ambiguity in existing federal law,” she said. These words were music to the ears of some tribal constituents who fear unions and their impacts on tribes, and they hoped to continue to hear the right things from the politician in the years to come.
Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii: Set to retire at the end of his term in January 2013, he has spent almost 40 years in political office supporting Native rights. He continued to do the same throughout 2011 as the chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which held numerous hearings under his watch this year on long overdue matters of tribal sovereignty, culture, and business. In the coming year, he’s expected to make another push for Native Hawaiian federal recognition, which he’s been rooting on unsuccessfully since 2000.
Elouise Cobell: Ironically, this champion of the Hill for many Indians couldn’t make it to D.C. for the hearing in June that would ultimately see the overseeing court finally approve the $3.4 billion settlement she played a major role in brokering. Instead, she testified by phone, strongly as always: “One hundred twenty-four years of abuse of our trust is enough. Fifteen years of intense, difficult litigation is more than enough. Too many of us have died without justice. Any more delays will mean that still more will die without justice. Enough is enough.” In October, Cobell herself passed away due to cancer. By then, the settlement had been approved by President Barack Obama, Congress, and the courts. But appeals were and are still pending, so she never got to know for sure whether any Indians would receive payments as the result of her years of work in Washington.
Kimberly Craven: No matter how unpopular it makes her to those who simply want a quick check, she’s the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate lady who continues to appeal the Cobell settlement. This class member doesn’t believe the settlement is right or fair, so she has kept up the battle. As reported by the Arizona Daily Star in September, “[h]er objection states, among other things, that anyone whose Individual Indian Money account was mishandled would receive less than those whose accounts were not mishandled, even though the first group suffered more financially.” Elouise Cobell was always admired for keeping up her fight for what she believed was right, and Craven is cut from the same cloth. Expect her to be a major force in Washington on this matter in the coming year.
Larry Echo Hawk: This head of Indian affairs at the Department of the Interior has appeared more and more willing to vocalize the unique sovereignty concerns of tribal nations within the context of working for the federal bureaucracy. Case in point: After announcing in November that the federal government is easing its rules for the approval of leases on lands it holds in trust for tribes and individuals, Echo Hawk publicly critiqued the fed’s previous errors: “In times past, a lot of federal laws and regulations have exhibited a paternalistic-like attitude from the federal government to First Nations leaders and communities,” he told Indian Country Today Media Network. Often, tribal and federal interests collide, which sometimes makes it easier for a federal Indian employee – even a top federal Indian employee – to just be quiet, not rock the boat. Get the paycheck, build the legacy, and then move on. But Echo Hawk has seemed quite willing to try to build an understanding within the federal government for tribal sovereignty. If that gets him in trouble, he appeared up for the risk this year. It was riskier behavior than we’ve seen from him in this role than in the past. Let’s hope it continues.