In a small, quiet ceremony in a U.S. Senate office building on February 21 representatives of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes rededicated a headdress that was originally given to the late-Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) to honor him in the late 1980s.
The ceremony was held in the Senate Dirksen Office Building, in room 628 where Senate Committee on Indian Affairs (SCIA) hearings usually take place.
The headdress had been in the senator’s office until after he walked on in December 2012, and it was moved to the committee room after his passing. He had been personal friends with a former tribal chair, Jaunita Learned, and he received the headdress when visiting the reservation under her leadership in the 1980s
In attendance were tribal Gov. Janice Prairie-Chief Boswell, Lt. Gov. Amber Bighorse, traditional tribal leader Chester Whiteman and other tribal representatives; and staffers with Sen. Maria Cantwell’s (D-Wash.) office. Cantwell is the new chair of SCIA.
Whiteman oversaw the traditional part of the ceremony, which included the burning of cedar, a blessing for Inouye’s family, and a prayer meant to help the tribe and all tribal nations prosper. Tribal representatives said the ceremony was steeped in respectful tradition. There was also a smudging of the headdress to ensure Inouye’s safe passage into heaven, and all who were in the room were smudged to ensure that no demons on them would travel to the afterlife with Inouye.
“We want to make headway for our people and all tribal nations who come into this committee room in the future,” Whiteman said after the rededication.
The Senate ceremony was a befitting tribute to Inouye, who had spent much of his life in Congress advocating for American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians. Whiteman noted that the senator was well-known to be strongly committed to tribal issues, which is why many tribal leaders respect his memory. “He was always a champion for our nations,” he said. “There is a void there now; we have nobody to step up that we know of yet.”
In December 2011, for instance, Inouye was willing to raise ire from his fellow senators when he inserted into an appropriations bill a clean Carcieri legislative fix to a controversial 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision that limits the U.S. Department of the Interior’s ability to take lands into trust for tribes.
Inouye knew that gaming-related politics was holding up the passage of such a bill, which had already passed in the House in December 2010, so he tried to make it happen via his strong appropriations weight in the Senate. When some senators found out about his effort, they were angry with him, several Indian affairs experts recall, and he was ultimately forced to remove it.
Inouye was also always one to promote tribal unity during his public speaking events, saying that tribes should not battle each other if they wish to make progress with Congress.
To tribal leaders, the rededication was important for historical, cultural, and educational reasons, but Cantwell’s staff expressed some concern about the optics of the situation, and they did not want it publicized. Mary Pavel, new staff director for Sen. Cantwell, did not want members of the press to attend the rededication, as she felt it would be inappropriate for press to cover a tribal ceremony in the Senate. Before the event, the Skokomish tribal citizen said she would have to cancel the meeting with tribal leaders if they wanted press to be there.
Cantwell’s spokesman, Jared Leopold, confirmed before the event that Cheyenne Arapaho leaders would be “doing a small private ceremony…related to the headdress.”
Indian Country Today Media Network obtained pictures and insight on the ceremony from those who attended.
Also during their visit to Washington, Cheyenne and Arapaho leaders met with Kevin Washburn, the assistant secretary of Indian affairs at Interior.
A main point discussed both with Cantwell’s staff and with Washburn was the tribe’s desire for the return of lands that were taken decades ago for American military purposes and have never been returned.
The tribe has asked the Obama administration (and administrations before it) for a remedy, and tribal leaders asked the president last year to return to the tribe the lands of the Fort Reno Military Reservation, which tribal citizens consider to be their traditional and historic homelands.
“We ask that President Obama finally recognize what so many generations of our ancestors have been fighting for: our right to our tribal lands,” Boswell said in a tribal press release last year.
In testimony before the U.S. Commission on Trust Reform in June 2012, Boswell explained that Fort Reno was taken “one hundred and twenty-nine years ago for our protection and with the promise that it would be returned. Many of our people are buried there. It is all that is left of over one hundred million acres. It was never ceded, settled for, or otherwise given up.”
But the land was never returned, and the information had been kept classified from the tribe about the situation until 2005. Since then, there has been a renewed tribal effort to get the land back.
“The Cheyenne and Arapaho people believe we can never be made whole until these sacred lands are returned,” Boswell testified.
It is long past time for the land to be returned, Whiteman said, and he hopes that the tribal representatives’ recent visit to Washington and ceremony for Inouye will ultimately help achieve that outcome.
“We have to feel hopeful,” Whiteman said. “It’s our land no matter what, and the government has to stand by its word.”