President's Message - August 2012
Everyday, it seems that more tribes take up the search for ways to be free of the unfairness and legal restrictions that hold them back from improving their lives. Perhaps our most important work is to give tribes the legal help that will enable them to overcome the legal impediments and present day injustices they suffer. For example, some tribes, such as those that make up the Affilliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, are submitting far-reaching recommendations to the new Indian Trust Commission, and we are very pleased to be advising them in that ground-breaking work. The federal Indian Trust Commission has the task of reviewing the federal government’s handling of its trust obligations to Native tribes and individuals and making recommendations for reform or improvement. Naturally, the federal government must continue to carry out its legal trust obligations, especially those rooted in treaties with tribes, but it must improve its performance, must be fully accountable, and must abandon the idea of unjustifiable power over Indian tribes and Indian lands.
The Sioux Tribes have mounted a remarkable campaign in recent days to stop the auction of a large tract of land in the Black Hills that includes Pe’Sla, a sacred site of extraordinary importance to them. The present owners of the land have reportedly been good about permitting ceremonies and traditional activities at the site. But the scheduled auction of the land created fears that the site would be developed and would no longer be accessible. The Tribes and others undertook a campaign of protest and began raising funds with the hope of buying and thus protecting the sacred site. The Sioux Tribes of North and South Dakota generally face the most difficult and painful economic conditions, and the human needs are enormous in many of these Indian communities. Nevertheless, they succeeded in raising a substantial sum to protect the land. And then, unexpectedly, the auction was called off. For the moment, this appears to be a welcome victory – or at least a delay. I hope it is an opportunity for the Sioux Tribes and their many friends to come together and permanently protect this land, especially Pe’Sla. They deserve our help in raising money and building support.
At the same time, the Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, decided that the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs can determine whether a tribal government may sue the Department of the Interior for taking its property. If this sounds unfair to you, you are right. This never was the law before, but the Court of Appeals did not care. The Timbisha Shoshone Tribe sued the Department of the Interior in 2010 to stop the taking of its share of the Western Shoshone judgment fund awarded by the Indian Claims Commission. In November of last year, a week before the case was to be argued in the Court of Appeals, the Interior Department announced that the Department had withdrawn recognition from the Timbisha government that sued it and recognized a different government put in place by the Assistant Secretary’s order. Therefore, the government argued, the suit had to be dismissed. The Department of the Interior argued that it could literally stop a tribe from suing by simply setting up a different tribal government. The Court of Appeals agreed and dismissed the suit. Nevertheless, the Timbisha Shoshone people are fighting back, maintaining their authentic tribal government, and working to overcome the injustices inflicted on them by the Interior Department.
The courage and determination of tribes all over the country to continue fighting for basic fairness are very moving and inspiring. Our goal is to help Indian nations that are fighting back against these injustices and trying to change the legal system that treats them so unfairly.
In Central America as well, we see the Indian people of Agua Caliente and other towns in Guatemala, who are defending their lands and homes against a planned nickel mine. Our staff has just returned from a journey to these remote communities to help plan further legal and practical steps. And in Brazil, at the Rio+20 conference, our staff met with many Indian leaders working against great forces to protect their lands and environments.
It is enormously important for us to do all we can to help these Indian leaders in their great efforts. It is very gratifying that we can play a part in these efforts to protect the Earth and native peoples.