When United South and Eastern Tribes President Brian Patterson attended the funeral of an elder and family member recently, he was convinced more than ever that the consciousness and practice of spiritual traditions handed down to Indigenous Peoples’ through millennia are what’s needed to sustain and advance Indian country today.
“I went home [to Oneida Indian Nation within New York state] for a week to do my duties. … and the social fabric of Oneida really showed itself. The principal qualities of Oneida-ness, if I can say that, really came out and I was very pleased and very grateful that the ancient prophecies are still being played today [in] the consciousness of our people,” Patterson told Indian Country Today Media Network.
Indigenous consciousness is very much on Patterson’s mind as he prepares for USET’s Annual Meeting & Business Expo to be held this year at the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort in Cherokee, North Carolina, October 28-31. It’s something Indian country should focus on in all its endeavors, he said. He was reminded of that consciousness at a Trust Reform Commission hearing where Onondaga Nation Faithkeeper Oren Lyons during his speech held up a copy of Basic Call to Consciousness from the 1970s. “That resonated with me because I think that’s where Indian country needs to call itself back to,” Patterson said.
Basic Call to Consciousness is a seminal group of position papers describing the oppression of Indigenous Peoples in the Americas. The papers were originally delivered to the Non-Governmental Organizations of the United Nations in Geneva in 1977 and later published as a book. The collection puts forward a vision of both liberated Native sovereignty and human liberation in general through changes in the policies of developed nations to end the destruction of the natural world – destruction that has become ever more rampant since the book was published. Fundamental to those transformations is a change in consciousness that sees and honors the sacred “Web of Life” and the spirituality that both sustains it and is nurtured by it.
“It’s a call to consciousness to what it means to be Indian – it doesn’t mean running to Washington for the next meeting,” Patterson said. “It’s about who we are and why we are created and the stewardship of all levels of our community and our land, our tobacco burning and thanksgiving. The more we fall back on the principles and practices that have allowed us to survive and live within our territories since time immemorial, the more I think that’s the strength of Indian country, leaders and future generations.”
At the recent Change the Mascot event in Washington, which was organized by Ray Halbritter, Oneida Indian Nation representative and CEO of Nation Enterprises, parent company of ICTMN, Patterson picked up on a quote that struck a chord in his thinking. “Someone said, ‘The oppressed take on the behavior of the oppressor,’ and it brought to mind how important it was that Indian country’s consciousness in the Change the Mascot campaign was being spread to the national level.”
Paradoxically, Patterson pointed out, it happened at a time when U.S. Supreme Court decisions have undermined Indian country’s ability to safeguard its land and resources and until the Violence Against Women Act was passed, its women.
“But we see today again from the Supreme Court that we can’t even safeguard our children – our children can once again be removed [as they were during the boarding school era] so it got me thinking, what is our role and responsibility to the future generations?”
For Patterson the past is prologue to the future. “I look at the [Supreme Court rulings], sequestration, the shut down and the real affects on Indian country, the Keystone pipeline and fracking – but I’m also reminded of how resilient our people truly are and how we remain optimistic. As long as we adhere to those principals of the stewardship of our ancient heritage, our ancient teachings and practices, the sacrifices of our ancestors, we’re going to be here for a long time.” At the center of the ancient traditions is the practice of ceremony, Patterson said.
The Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) culture that Patterson was born into defines spirituality as the highest form of political consciousness. The strength of indigenous spirituality comes into particular play in the political arena. “We’re only oppressed if we take on the consciousness of the oppressor – of being dependent domestic sovereigns.”
As an example of re-energizing the basic call to indigenous consciousness, Patterson tells a story of a presentation he made at the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians. He had been invited to talk about how the two organizations could work together and included in his presentation the fact that Congress had disestablished treaty-making more than 100 years ago. “But that didn’t mean we as Indian people disavow ourselves from that ancient, traditional cultural practice. So I proposed a 21st century treaty between USET and ATNI.” Before even finishing his presentation, the groups agreed unanimously to enter into a treaty.
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The new call to consciousness is the message Patterson will bring to this years’ annual USET meeting and to all of the organization’s projects and work. It is the latest expression of Patterson’s underlying goal as leader of the 45-year-old organization for the past eight years to redefine the trust relationship between the federal government and Turtle Island’s indigenous nations from an Indian perspective.
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Patterson has chalked up an impressive list of accomplishments along the way. “USET was already a well run and influential organization and I’ve worked to honor that by further building and extending that base. I would say that during my tenure USET has evolved into a more mature and sophisticated organization in the way that organizations naturally evolve over time to stay in balance with their role.”
Under Patterson’s tenure, USET has instituted a self-evaluation process, created short- and long-term strategic plans, published the organization’s first annual reports and established a weekly online communication for tribal leaders that includes both legislative and policy information and news about Indian country community accomplishments. “It showcases our leaders,” Patterson said. USET has created taskforces and working groups on the Violence Against Women Act – “to guide us through its full implementation” – the still elusive “Carcieri fix,” and tax reform.
There are other new initiatives. “To meet the legislative needs of the organization holistically, I formed a government relations working group which is composed of tribal leaders lawyers and lobbyists to formulate a collective USET organizational legislative platform,” Patterson said. USET also has a new Development Department to formulate strategies to meet the economic needs of individual tribes. “USET is so diverse, not only in geography but also in economic disparity – we have some of the largest gaming tribes in the world and others with little or no economic development. For our tribal leaders to be fully informed – to have the right arrows in their quiver – they need the most important information in front of them so we developed briefing preparations and position papers.”
Patterson acknowledges past leadership and looks with pleasure at the emergence of the next generation of leaders stepping up, including Brian Cladoosby and Michael Finley as president and vice president of the National Congress of American Indians. “I wouldn’t be able to have the opportunity to lead this 45-year-old organization if I didn’t have [former USET president] Kellor George laying his moccasins on the path that I’ve since advanced.”
With the call to consciousness re-emerging, Patterson is confident in Indian country’s ability to shrug off “the yoke of poverty” and move ahead. “Our whole focus at USET is nation re-building – we’re not building because we’re already been here, so we’re rebuilding. We need to rely on our consciousness and principles as Indigenous Peoples to define our future – not on the landscape of Washington, D.C., not on the basis of being the oppressed, but being who we are as stewards of the land for our children and our children’s children,” Patterson said. “We haven’t forgotten how to be a people. I know we’ll be okay.”