PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – The National Congress of American Indians’ new northeast regional vice president hopes to foster unity among the tribal nations who first met, and were affected by, the European colonists.
Lance Gumbs, the once and possibly future Shinnecock Indian Nation trustee chairman, was elected northeast regional vice president at NCAI’s annual meeting in mid-October. He said it was “an honor and a privilege” to serve in the post.
Gumbs succeeds Randy Noka, Narragansett, who stepped down because of term limits.
“I think Randy did an excellent job, and I just want to take it to the next level now.”
As northeast regional vice president, Gumbs will deal with the issues of tribes in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New England, and bring those concerns back to NCAI’s executive board in hopes of trying to make policy changes or simply to enlighten the rest of Indian country.
Meetings with regional leaders are part of his plan.
“That’s my intention – to try to unify the tribes of the northeast. I’ve spoken to most of the leaders here (at NCAI) and said I’m going to come visit them. You have the Iroquois over in New York, you have the Maine tribes, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of unity among all the northeast tribes. Having the ability to go out, not only on the powwow trail, but also to try to bring these tribes together is something I really think is needed,” Gumbs said.
One strategy might be to hold a regional conference.
“That’s something I’ve given thought to just to bring us back together. We all have a common bond in the northeast of being the first tribes to have contact with the Europeans, and I think we’ve let that slip away a great deal. You look at the Schaghticoke and Eastern Pequots where they had recognition snatched away from them; you look at the issues with Aquinnah (Wampanoag on Martha’s Vineyard) where they want to put wind turbines on their sacred bluff. You look at what I call the ‘Tom Tureen tribes’ that have no rights now – these are the kinds of things facing us in the northeast that need a unified approach and solidarity.”
Tom Tureen was a non-Native attorney in Maine in the 1970s who “discovered” that the 1790 Act to Regulate Trade and Intercourse with the Indian Tribes was still on the books. The 1790 Non Intercourse Act, as it is sometimes called, said Indian lands could not be sold, traded or given away without the approval of the federal government.
Tureen used the act to pressure states to negotiate land claim settlements with the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy nations in Maine, the Narragansett Indian Tribe in Rhode Island, and later with the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation in Connecticut.
The settlements with the Maine nations and the Narragansett Tribe were hailed as great victories at the time, but they’ve turned out to be devastating for the nations: The Maine settlement act includes a clause that says any federal Indian law passed will not apply to Maine Indians, unless the federal law expressly says it will. Dozens, if not hundreds, of beneficial federal laws have been passed that exclude the Wabanaki nations. The Rhode Island settlement act has been interpreted to mean the state has total jurisdictional authority over the tribe.
In both Maine and Rhode Island, the state has managed through the courts to effectively strip the nations of their sovereignty and immunity, culminating last winter in the disastrous U.S. Supreme Court’s Carcieri decision that said the Interior secretary does not have the authority to take lands into trust for tribes not under “federal jurisdiction” in 1934.
Gumbs said tribal nations in the different regions have both unique and shared concerns.
“To say they’re radically different, probably not. You go to the southeast and you’ve got the Haliwa and Lumbees fighting for recognition, you’ve got water rights issues. I think a lot of issues are similar around the country. I just think in the northeast, we seem to be forgotten. That’s one of those things I’m just not comfortable with, and something I want to bring to the forefront.”
Gumbs is planning to run for the Shinnecock board of trustees again next spring. He served for three years, was off one year, then served again for four years.
“And I’m off this year, but the wonderful thing about having yearly elections is you only have to wait a year to run. I want to get back on because there’s a lot of unfinished work in the community and I’ve got a lot of history with everything.”