The leadership of the Navajo Nation recently hosted a delegation from the Oneida Indian Nation as the two nations continue to develop a vision to unify Indian country leadership and strengthen the sovereignty of all nations.
It was the second such visit between leaders of the two nations, which are developing a unique friendship and partnership. In early July, Navajo Nation Vice President Rex Lee Jim led a delegation to Verona, New York, where they met with Ray Halbritter (Wolf Clan), Oneida Indian Nation Representative and CEO of Nation Enterprises. That was the first high-level government-to-government meeting between the two nations and both leaders say it yielded a fruitful discussion about health care, education, economic development and other subjects, and a promise to work together with other leaders to advance these issues across Indian country.
Halbritter and Oneida Council members Brian Patterson (Bear Clan), Clint Hill (Turtle Clan), Dale Rood (Turtle Clan) and Charles Fougnier (Wolf Clan) arrived in Navajo on September 7. Their visit coincided with the 65th Annual Navajo Nation Fair, presenting them with the enviable opportunity to partake of the southwestern Nation’s cultural and social activities, as well as observe its governmental processes. Their three-day visit began with a welcoming dinner with Jim, Navajo Nation Council leaders and Notah Begay III (Navajo, Cochiti/Isleta), a four-time PGA tour winner who was serving as the grand marshal for the 65th Annual Navajo Nation Fair Parade.
One of the central events during the visit was a traditional Navajo ceremony. “We had a traditional smoke ceremony and offered some shared mountain tobacco,” Jim says. Mountain tobacco is a pure form of tobacco that Navajo people collect from the mountains of their vast land. “We have four sacred mountains and two called ‘the doorways’ and we go out and get tobacco from these sacred mountains and at Navajo we smoke that to extend our friendship, and with our families, for unity and so on,” he explains. “And in Navajo we make sacred bundles with material from these different mountains and we have songs of praise—hundreds, even thousands of songs. We shared some of that smoke and sang songs and prayed together and it was wonderful.”
The Oneida delegates met with Navajo Nation Council Committees and Johnny Naize, Speaker of the Navajo Nation Council to discuss leadership at the local, tribal, regional, national and international levels. Jim says the Navajo leadership understands that the nations have limited resources. “That’s why we’re interested in strategic partnerships with indigenous nations not only within the U.S., but with the rest of the world,” he says. Navajo has already begun to explore business enterprises with other countries through meetings with Japanese and Chinese representatives. “Once we get started it will expand more, but we’re starting with the U.S. first because we need to learn to work together, help one another and support one another, whether it’s political unity or other forms of partnership.”
In developing a vision for unity among Indian nations, Jim sees possibilities for lobbying and other activities in Washington D.C. “What we’re really interested in developing with Ray Halbritter is to have actual leaders be there and do things together for Indian country. We want the leadership to speak on behalf of Indian people and as sovereign nations. We should be speaking for ourselves, government-to-government.”
The details of how to organize a union of indigenous leaders still have to be worked out, but the two nations expect to hold an initial meeting in six months. “Each nation has its own priorities, its own needs and pressing issues so the first meeting is to talk through these issues,” Jim says.
One common issue for indigenous nations is regaining land that was almost always taken illegally. But it’s more than land, Jim says. “We have treaties, we have language and culture and ways of life that are different. We’re not ethnic groups. We are our own peoples. We were recognized as sovereign nations before Europeans came. We really need to look at land laws and see what we can do to regain as much of our land as we can.” He says that means changing the laws and they way they are interpreted in court.
Will all this lead inevitably to a challenge of Congress’s assertion of plenary power over indigenous nations? “Of course!” Jim says. “In America, we’re supposed to go according to the rule of law and yet, when you take these issues to court, a court makes a decision, and it’s overturned by another court, and it’s the same set of laws by a group of people who went to the same law schools, yet they come to different conclusions and they contradict one another and overturn one another’s cases and you begin to realize some of these cases are not based on the rule of law; they’ve become political, and you end up with a dangerous precedent.”
So how do you change longstanding laws? “It’s going to take a lot of hard work—changing courses at major laws schools, educating not only judges in the federal district courts and the Supreme Court, but also people in Congress. We’re willing to work hard. We’ll initiate the process but it won’t happen in one or two generations, but as Ray Halbritter says, We’re taught to think seven generations ahead.”
During the Oneida visit, the delegates attended a reception and fundraiser dinner honoring Notah Begay III at the Navajo Nation Museum. “We raised $340,000 for scholarships in one night,” Jim says. With a population of around 300,000, Navajo receives more than 17,000 scholarship applications each year from Navajo college students. “Unfortunately, we give out scholarships to less than half of them. We’re trying to raise funds for an endowment so we can begin to meet all the application needs.”
Halbritter says the dinner for Begay was one of the high points of the trip, as were the spiritual ceremony, a tour of the Navajo Nation Museum, a night at the rodeo and a special evening with traditional performers. The Navajo land is “unbelievably beautiful in grandeur and undeveloped natural surroundings,” he says. “We were all equally and sincerely impressed with the land that the Navajo retained for their people, despite incredible hardship and oppression.”
He says the most important issue discussed in terms of the Navajo-Oneida relationship is “the future. Given the ability to communicate and travel, we can see the possibilities of a mutually beneficial relationship.”