Part four of a Four Part Series
By Robin A. Ladue
This four-part series has focused on the meaning of land to indigenous people, specifically, Native Americans and Native Hawaiians. The sacredness of land, language, and cultures of indigenous people is rooted in the riches of their lands. The economic development of Europeans and Americans using those riches decimated and destroyed these sacred things leaving many cultures in tatters.
As previously discussed, one of the primary differences between European and indigenous cultures is the concept of private property. Due to the Doctrine of Discovery, which sought to legitimize the claiming of the “new land” by Spain, France, and England, the lands of the indigenous people were stolen and carved into lots and plots, farm and cities throughout the Americas.
Indigenous cultures all around the world are deeply rooted in their connection to the land and its resources, not in an exploitive and destructive manner, but in a respectful, nurturing, and sustainable way for the land and its resources. The battles fought by the First Nations, Native Americans, Native Hawaiians and other indigenous communities against the mainstream cultures have played out in the NoDAPL protests in North Dakota, the protection of Oak Flats, Bears Ears, and Grand Staircase-Escalante. It also has played out in the takeover of Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon and the arrests of water warriors in Louisiana.
Native Americans and their allies continue to work for tribes to be federally recognized and to regain their ancestral lands despite the fears of termination, the actions of the Bureau of Indian Affairs leader Tara Sweeney in removing trust land from the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and the call for privatization of tribal lands.
This article will discuss the successes in Native Americans and Native Hawaiians regaining their lands and the connection of the return of their lands and tribal economic sovereignty.
As an author, I have the perspective of being an enrolled member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe of Washington. It is a tribe that has had federal recognition for less than 20 years and was only able to take land into trust in the past four years.
On this land, our casino named Ilani, which means “sing” in our language, now exists. As a result of this casino, the surrounding community has received millions in revenue, and tribal members have gained employment, health care and education benefits. Economic stability, often through gaming, is only one of the reasons that tribal groups, such as the Mashpee Wampanoag are seeking to retain or to take land into trust. Sweeney’s unilateral and predictable decision has received scrutiny along with the actions of Ryan Zinke, the secretary of the Interior, who is now under multiple federal investigations.
It comes back to the land
A focus of the investigation is Zinke’s actions to, for the first time in United States history, shrink national monuments to open them to oil and gas exploration and extraction. Another concern is the taking of Native land out of trust, as was done with the breaking of treaties in the dire termination and relocation era. An article on Politico.com alleges Zinke was strongly influenced to rule against the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe after he was heavily lobbied by the MGM Resorts International casino conglomerate, which now has a casino two hours from the Mashpee’s Taunton site.
Zinke’s conversations with MGM representatives and the bureau’s decision to remove Mashpee Wampanoag land from trust was further tainted by the alleged pressure from two Nevada legislators, Senator Dean Heller and Representative Mark Amodei, Politico reported. Both legislators represent the highly lucrative casino industry in Nevada and have also sought to stop progress on the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s move towards building a casino.
The sacred land that was encompassed by Bear Ears, Oak Flat, and Escalante-Grand Staircase also falls under the purview of Rick Perry’s Department of Energy. The primary impetus for shrinking Bear Ears and Escalante-Grand staircase was opening these areas up to oil, gas, and other mining exploration and extraction. These actions came over the protests by the Native groups of those areas and by other conservationists. Orrin Hatch, senior senator from Utah, was one of the primary lobbying forces behind the reduction of these two areas. Not surprisingly nor coincidentally, Utah moved to block both the candidacy and voting rights of Native Americans in the voting districts that might impact the decisions to protect these precious and sensitive historical, geological and ecological areas.
The fight for land, and the protection of land, water and air, is still a hot issue in North Dakota, the home of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Thousands of Native people living in North Dakota were disenfranchised when a new law was upheld that required street addresses for voting registration. As the voting officials in North Dakota were aware, many people living on reservations have post office boxes, not street addresses.
The consequence, as has been stated, is that the first people of this land, who were the last to gain voting rights, were, once again, the first ones to have their voting rights stripped away. In terms of land acquisition and retention for Native people, the installation of people supporting the current administration’s desire to have total control over the use of mineral resources and pipeline placements, means a loss of the ability of sovereign tribes to make decisions over their own lands.
In a previous series of articles, the current Native American members of congress were profiled. One of those, Markwayne Mullin, Republican representative from Oklahoma, who is reported to support the privatization of Native lands, was discussed. Very recently Mullin made waves when he claimed that the Trail of Tears, the terrible journey of removal of Cherokee and other Native people from the southeast, was a “voluntary journey.” Despite the outcry against his statements by Indian Country, Mullin has stood by these comments. This ignores the horrific consequences of the Indian Removal Act, signed by President Andrew Jackson. A representative who claims such historical revisions and genocide denial, as well as supporting the removal of Native lands from tribal control, is tantamount to being someone who is derisively called an “Indian Scout,” such as the Crow men who scouted for Custer.
The land on which we stand, not the United States, but Chickasaw land, Cowlitz land, Apache land, Mashpee Wampanoag land, Lenape land, Blackfeet land, Aleut land, Yupik land, Native Hawaiian land, across this country, into Canada and through Latin and South America, has been under siege. Jair Bolsonaro, the newly elected president of Brazil, has pledged to not increase indigenous lands in the country, and instead, to take such lands to cut down the imperiled rain forest increasing the production of the cattle industry and agriculture, in the face of climate change and the known dangers of continuing deforestation.
While it is easy to become disenchanted and cynical in this era of fear and uncertainty, there are bright spots. Hope has always been a staple of indigenous people, with the efforts of tribal people to retain their land. Despite the efforts by Zinke and Sweeney to kowtow to corporate and wealthy interests, there have been gains in the past year, such as those listed below:
The federal recognition of six Virginia tribes— the Chickahominy, the Eastern Chickahominy, the Upper Mataponi, the Rappahannock, the Monacan and the Nansemond—in late 2017 and early 2018, following decades of efforts. These tribes were some of the very earliest to have contact with Europeans. The return of 700 acres of California coastal land to the Kashia band of Pomo Indians. This is an incredible gift to the Pomo people from Bill Richardson. The land reaches to the ocean through forests of redwoods and along beautiful bluffs. It restores lost access of the Pomo people to the sea and their traditional fishing areas.
A “symbolic” return of a quarter acre of land in Oakland, Califorinia, to the indigenous Ohlone people who lived in the area between the San Francisco and Monterey bays. The group behind the return of this small parcel of land is working to return more indigenous lands, a process that is expensive, frustrating, and yet, invaluable.
The return of 2,325 acres of meadow in the northern Sierra Nevada to the Maidu people of Northern California.
Further back in time, in 1996, a 10,000 plus acre ranch was returned to the Nez Perce (Nimii’puu), Chief Joseph’s people, in their traditional and highly beloved ancestral lands of the Wallowa Mountains.
The requested return of Alcatraz Island to indigenous people has been denied for decades without apparent good reason. When the prison was closed, and the Island occupied by Native people from November 1969 to June 11, 1971, it was hoped that the tiny island would be restored to its rightful owners. Instead, the indigenous people of this land, as has been the case from 1492 to the present, were forcibly removed by federal agents.
The battle for Native lands is far from over. As was the case of the Oceti Sakowin camp, it will be up to the concerted and coordinated efforts of all people in Indian Country to retain our land and our sovereign rights. We can ill afford “Indian scouts” or people who deny the terrible truth of the Trail of Tears. A truly exciting outcome of the 2018 midterm elections, was the election of two Native American women to Congress, Deb Haaland of New Mexico and Sharice Davids of Kansas.
Indigenous people can ill afford to be divided if we are to hope to retain the land upon which we stand. ♦