The United South and Eastern Tribes’ mid-year meeting last month in Bar Harbor, Maine – Wabanaki Confederacy territory – had all the usual components of a big conference – a color guard carrying flags, invited speakers, committee meetings, workshops, the honoring of special people, the adoption of resolutions. But it also had something unique and powerful that most meetings don’t have: a sacred fire that bridged the connection between the quotidian work to be done and the ancient spiritual traditions that teach how to do it.
The meeting was held June 2-4 in beautiful Bar Harbor on the edge of the continent where earth meets the water of the Atlantic Ocean and the air is tangy with sea salt. The sacred fire lit in ceremony on the first day completed the circle of elements and USET officials say it charged the energy and atmosphere of the meeting and inspired them.
USET President Brian Patterson and his staff — Executive Director Kitcki Carroll, Deputy Director Wanda Janes and Development Director Brandon Stephens – held a conference call recently with ICTMN to talk about the meeting. Asked to describe the most important things that were accomplished, Janes zeroed in on the fire. “I think it’s really important for us to stop for a moment and think that we started the meeting off on the first morning in an unusual way for us and that was with a ceremony up on Cadillac Mountain with a fire,” Janes said. “And that fire was brought down the mountain and remained burning until we ended the meeting at our closing on Wednesday afternoon at the end of the board meeting. That was significantly different from the meetings we usually have and I think it was very important.”
The sacred fire is an integral part of important meetings held by the Wabanaki Confederacy nations – the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Micmac and Maliseets – and Patterson credited them for their contribution. “First and foremost, we brought the unique cultural value of the Wabanaki nations into play by the Wabanaki Confederacy hosting us from the opening sunrise ceremony to the opening events,” Patterson said. “It was a remarkable opening filled with enrichment based on our ancient traditions, culture and teachings. The entire meeting, which we framed as leading ourselves back to the Longhouse, was remarkable in many ways. If I had to capture the essence of the meeting in one word it would be empowerment.”
The mid-year meeting marked a new pro-active direction for USET, Patterson said. The 45-year old nonprofit organization represents 26 federally recognized tribes in the east and south, with a focus on protecting Indian rights and resources and strengthening tribal sovereignty.
“I think the most engaging component was the opportunity – to borrow from an Iroquois concept [of the Good Mind] – of ‘wrapping our minds together.’ And I think it was the first time in my experience with USET that we had the opportunity to establish and engage in meaningful and critical dialogue with the issues that really affect our sovereignty and the difference is that it was from the empowerment of our own agenda,” Patterson said.
“Empowering the agenda” meant making some very simple but significant changes to the way the meeting was actually conducted and to the language used to describe it. For example, the invited speakers were called “discussion participants” on the agenda.
“The bigger story to me is we changed the way of looking at the issues,” Stephens said. Invited speakers are usually on stage or facing the attendees who are sitting in a U-shaped configuration, they present their prepared comments and maybe take a few questions. “This time USET set the topics for a round table discussion, the first and overriding one being Trust Reform & Defining a New Nation-to-Nation Relationship, and it was really a round table,” Stephens said. “Instead of a set up with the presenter facing the attendees, everybody was sitting equally at the table – tribal leaders and the panelists – and they discussed it, defined the issues, challenges and opportunities and then tried to ferret out some sort of action and plan the follow up for the next meeting. That was the format for all the discussions.”
In addition to Trust Reform, topics discussed over the two days were SCOTUS & Federal District Court Decisions and their Impact on Tribal Sovereignty; Carcieri: How to Achieve a Fix in Today’s Political Environment; Youth/Education: Concrete Actions to Ensure a Stronger Future; USET-ATNI Covenant: Exploring Leverage and Partnership Opportunities; Building Strong Tribal Economies; and Dealing with Climate Change and Protecting our Environment in Indian Country.
The overall theme, Patterson said, was the “reawakening of the widespread dissatisfaction in Indian country with the federal government’s implementation of the trust responsibility that results in deep impacts to tribal sovereignty” – and the need for reform.
“You ask an Indian person about the trust relationship and he’ll say promises were made in exchange for land – [we were promised] housing, health, and education, general welfare,” Patterson said. “That’s the economic wellbeing of our people but we see all these limitations. The trust relationship has become asset management. We need a new framework that defines the trust relationship on a more equal basis.”
In order for Indian country to “move into the next era,” there needs to be clarity about rights, Carroll said. “Unfortunately, with the passage of time the idea has become embedded that the federal government has granted rights to tribes. That’s simply not the case—these rights were ours all along.”
Responding to a question about Congress’s assumption of “plenary power” over Indian Nations, Carroll played on a theme first expounded by John Mohawk, a Seneca, in 1974 at the first International Indian Treaty Conference at the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, he said, “We need to challenge this notion that we are under the authority and discretion of somebody else’s will and to constantly remind ourselves to be sovereign, to act as sovereigns, that these are inherently our rights and to constantly be pounding that message and demanding the level of respect that we’re due as tribal sovereign nations.”
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The Bar Harbor setting lent itself to clarity, Carroll said, “We were able to take in the energy from the area and what it meant and means to the Wabanaki people. We were intentional in trying to build-in tradition and culture and ceremony while taking on those challenging issues in discussions. I think there’s a responsibility to take on both. And we have to constantly remind ourselves of what it is we’re fighting to maintain and protect and, basically it’s our way of life and our world view.”
The sacred fire stirred people’s consciousness from the moment it was lit in the opening ceremony, Patterson said. “We carried the sacred fire down off the mountain and it burned throughout our council. That’s an old principal, an old value and action that our people have done since time immemorial,” Patterson said. “The fire is the spirit. It’s the symbolism of our inherent sovereignty and each and every one of us has a sacred duty to keep those flames burning brightly for the next generation.”