My Nez Perce name is Sik-no-wit-Tats which means “Good Speaker,” which was given to me by my tribal elders as a nod that I am to be a “voice” for our people. True to my name, the Creator has blessed me, guiding my path to be a Native American lawyer practicing in the field of Indian law and policy. For more than 20 years, I have worked to become a guiding “voice” on indigenous issues here in Washington, D.C.—working alongside other Native lawyers in the Congress, the Administration and the private sector. This is my life’s passion.
During the 112th Congress, I welcomed the opportunity to serve as the Staff Director and Chief Counsel on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs for Senator Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), the first Native Hawaiian to serve as Chairman. For me, the Committee epitomizes the powerful role of Congress over Indian issues. I seized the opportunity to make a difference, moving quickly to engage Native leaders, teachers, elders, youth—anyone with a “voice” to share their views in the Committee’s 44 hearings, 17 roundtables and listening sessions. Our priorities—secure our tribal homelands, protect our natural resources, preserve our cultural identity, advance human and religious rights, expand tribal self-governance, address taxation issues and strengthen self-reliance in Indian gaming. The trade-off for my public service—the ethical rules of the U.S. Senate prohibit any advocacy contact with any Senator or their staff for one full year after leaving my position. True to life’s ironies, my ban officially ends on April Fool’s Day.
Rather than feel shunned by my one-year ban, I embraced it, and became empowered by it. I opted for a sabbatical of sorts, to use my time in “exile” to explore other aspects of who I am and what I want to do as a Native American woman living in a global village. This would be my time to grow—a rare opportunity to gain greater insight and gather wisdom wherever I could find it. I just had to watch, listen and learn. Today, as I reflect on this past year, I ask myself: “What have I learned?” and “What should I do next?”
What have I learned? There is an old saying “travel broadens your mind”. During this past year, my mind expanded as I explored the rich and vibrant cultures of other countries. Challenging my own boundaries and perceptions, I traveled to India, Turkey, Mexico, Hong Kong and Dubai. Most auspicious was my pilgrimage to India. Along with 40 million other people, I bathed at the sacred confluence (Sangam) of the three holy rivers: the Ganga, the Yamuna and the invisible spiritual river, the Saraswati during the Hindu celebration known as the Maha Kumbha Mela—Great (maha) Festival (mela) of the Pot (kumbh). It is said, the act of bathing at the site will cleanse the karma (actions) not only of those who bathe, but it also liberates seven generations back and forward. For me, my spirit was at peace as I dipped three times into the cool waters. Truly, it was a once in a lifetime experience, as the particular alignment of Sun, Moon and planets for this Great (Maha) will not repeat for another 144 years.
Each country I visited brought “exiled enlightenment." Around the globe, I slowed down from the fast paced D.C. lifestyle and opened my mind to learn about different religions, languages and foods. Highlights of my travels include, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey; the indigenous artists in Mexico; the largest bronze Buddha in the world in Hong Kong; and the tallest building in the world in Dubai.
During this time, I was struck by another saying, “Books open your mind, broaden your mind, and strengthen you like nothing else can." Over the last year, I read a lot of books. My top three picks: The Great Father, the United States Government and the American Indian, by Francis Paul Prucha; Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, by Jonathan Lear; and Indians in Unexpected Places, by Philip J. Deloria. (My grandfather is pictured on page 211).
What should I do next? Moving forward, I am prepared to return to the hectic pace of being an Indian law attorney and an advisor on the difficult policy issues facing Indian country. My goal—to simply use my voice, along with my new insight and my existing expertise – to advance the vision of Chief Joseph that “men of my race…live as other men live…free to travel, free to stop, free to work…free to think and talk”.
Yet, given the current political environment, I believe it is critical that all the “collective voices” within Indian country are joined together in unity. My vision, to strengthen tribal sovereignty; to protect and grow our homelands and resources; to safeguard our Native identity, culture and tradition; and to advance the well-being of our children, elders and Tribal leaders. To that end, I offer two insights for strategic advocacy success:
—Use the Legislative Record. Why start over. Advocates should utilize the vast Indian Affairs legislative record to achieve today’s goals. For example, during the 112th Congress, Chairman Akaka created a dynamic record on a host of priorities, like the “Carcieri-fix”, federal recognition and Internet gaming. The facts, figures, and impacts developed from written and oral testimony at hearings, mark-ups and filed reports are strategic weapons to be used as catalysts for action. My insight—don’t re-invent the wheel, but try to strengthen the existing record to propel forward movement. Keep in mind, few bills are introduced, passed and signed into law during one session of Congress. Instead, just like our ancestors we must persist and persevere, our survival depends on it.
—Build Non-partisan Support. “Today’s enemies can be tomorrow’s friends” goes the adage. The current political climate underscores the need to build non-partisan support in Indian affairs. It is not self-evident to Democrats, Republicans and Independents that they have a constitutional duty and a trust responsibility to Native Americans. My insight—build non-partisan support with mutual respect and education. Don’t let ignorance be an excuse.
Today, a year later, I am refreshed, and ready to begin my new pathway. In sum, what I learned: be present, mindful and grateful for life’s many blessings. What will I do next? Well, I am pleased to announce that I recently accepted the highly-sought-after “Host” position on the new summer NBC hit show Native America’s Got Talent. Gotcha—April Fool’s.
Main image: Kevin Frayer, Associated Press
Loretta A Tuell, Nez Perce, is an attorney, former senior government manager and legislative advisor on Indian Affairs. She is the president of iNative Consulting, LLC, a strategic planning and government relations firm.