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Indigenous Writers & Activists on Indian Child Welfare Act & Ongoing Struggle for Native Sovereignty

Web ExclusiveOctober 19, 2018
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Extended discussion with three leading indigenous writers and activists. Tara Houska is in Fargo, North Dakota. She is national campaign director for Honor the Earth and an Ojibwe lawyer. In Anchorage, Alaska, we speak with Mark Trahant, editor of Indian Country Today. He’s a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. In Seattle, Washington, we speak with Gyasi Ross, a member of the Blackfeet Nation and host of the podcast Breakdances with Wolves.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we speak with leading Native American activists about issues most affecting indigenous people across the United States. In Texas, the Indian Child Welfare Act was dealt a blow earlier this month when a U.S. federal judge in the Northern District of Texas ruled the landmark legislation unconstitutional.

In Seattle, Gyasi Ross is still with us, speaker, lawyer, member of Blackfeet Nation, host of the podcast Breakdances with Wolves. In Anchorage, Alaska, Mark Trahant, editor of Indian Country Today. And in Fargo, North Dakota, Tara Houska, national campaign director for Honor the Earth. She’s Ojibwe from Couchiching First Nation.

Tara, let’s begin with you on this issue that most people in this country have almost no knowledge of, in Texas, the Indian Child Welfare Act dealing—dealt a serious blow earlier this month when that federal judge in the Northern District of Texas ruled the landmark legislation unconstitutional. Lay out what’s at issue here.

TARA HOUSKA: At issue is a well-funded and long-term attempt to use the Indian Child Welfare Act as a way to undermine the very heart of federal Indian law, as, you know, the distinctions of Indian people versus non-Indian people. There has been a very well-funded effort by the Goldwater Institute to back a lot of cases that challenge the placement preferences of the Indian Child Welfare Act, so where children go when—you know, Indian children go when they’re taken out of home.

You know, this was a piece of legislation—Indian Child Welfare Act is a piece of legislation that was intended to stem, and at least give some type of preference to tribal nations to maintain and keep the children within their own tribes, at a minimum, because the rate of loss was so high. You know, this is coming out of a government-sanctioned policy to kill the Indian and save the man, you know, where they were—they were actively taking Indian children out of their homes. And they created this piece of legislation to address that.

And this—you know, these other industries at the same time have been continually using this as a way to undo Morton v. Mancari, to undo what Indian identity is, which is at the heart of so many different pieces of legislation, including protection of Indian lands, protection of Indian resources, you know, the gaming industry, so many other areas of law that would be impacted by this decision. And, you know, we’ll see what happens when it goes to the Supreme Court.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But, Tara, can you explain when was this Indian Child Welfare Act put into place, and why this moment the Texas judge has ruled it unconstitutional?

TARA HOUSKA: That was actually put into place back in 1978, so it’s been a piece of legislation that’s been around for a very long time. But it has continually been under attack, especially in like the last recent decades. As Native people have basically kind of tried—started to heal and come back from the devastation that occurred with the onset of genocide, with the onset of all these policies to dismantle almost every aspect of Indian life—you know, the ability to economically develop, the ability to even have your own children—the criminalization of culture, of language, of all these different things that Indian people have undergone, you know, now we’re seeing kind of this uprise of economic development and Native people being able to engage in a real way, with a lot of dollars tied to it.

And so, there’s been this constant attack on the Indian Child Welfare Act as a way to undo that preference, to say that that racial classification of putting an Indian child with other Native people, with the tribe or with, at a—or within their tribes—first, it’s within their families, within the tribe or at least with another Native person or another Native family is unconstitutional, as racist. So, it’s a way for these industries, these very powerful industries, to try to attack what Indian identity is, which is at the heart of so many different pieces of law.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Gyasi Ross of the Blackfeet Nation in Washington state. In your state, can you talk about the lawsuits that are going on against Native tribes?

GYASI ROSS: Yeah, there’s actually a pretty interesting analogue—analogy to the Elizabeth Warren situation, in that Elizabeth Warren is constantly referred to and seen as a member of the resistance, somebody that stands staunchly against Trump. Here in Washington state, somebody who has sued Donald Trump on myriad occasions regarding immigration, regarding LGBTQ in the military, regarding the Muslim ban, has also been somebody who has consistently worked against Native communities, Native nations in Washington state, and has no less than three Supreme Court cases, cases going to the Supreme Court, in 2018.

Fortunately, he already lost one of those cases, which challenged the tribes—they sued—Uncle Billy Frank, a legend in the Pacific Northwest and amongst Native communities, led a lawsuit against the state of Washington because they installed a bunch of destructive culverts under roads, that were killing salmon as a matter of empirical data. And the state of Washington said, “So what?” The tribes said, “Well, if we have a treaty right to fish, then we also have a treaty right to have fish in those waters and for the state of Washington not to kill those fish by way of culverts.” And the state of Washington resisted that strongly, taking that all the way up to the Supreme Court, which has been incredibly destructive to the tribes in the Pacific Northwest and nationwide, indeed.

And so, Bob Ferguson, the attorney general, who is a leader of this so-called resistance—and oftentimes, you know, white liberals are put in the position where they come against tribes, not realizing that we have kind of the same goals oftentimes, but they become these enemies of us for some odd reason. And we’re fighting two other lawsuits, one involving the Yakama Nation, their treaty right to travel, and also the Skokomish Nation, regarding fishing rights. And it’s, you know, one of those things, as I mentioned.

We certainly don’t ever want to take the heat off Donald Trump or our adversaries that are very well known. We never want to do that. But we also have to be very, very vigilant against those folks who come up against us, the Elizabeth Warrens, substantively, not just as a matter of identity—did not support tribes with the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act. She was not a supporter with the Dakota Access pipeline that you talked about earlier. And so, our enemies aren’t only Republicans, unfortunately. Tribes oftentimes are fighting with both hands, both directions.

AMY GOODMAN: We wanted to bring Mark Trahant in before we lose all the satellites, including to Anchorage, Alaska. Mark, the response in Indian Country Today to the whole controversy around Elizabeth Warren—what kind of response have you gotten? And you’re in the state where you already have the lieutenant governor, Valerie Davidson, first Alaska Native woman to hold higher office in Alaska, who has fought for Alaskan Native rights for years. It may well have even weighed into the Brett Kavanaugh case—is that right?—with your senator, Murkowski, particularly concerned about his views of Native law in Alaska.

MARK TRAHANT: Absolutely. In fact, one of the things I think is so extraordinary about Valerie Davidson, the new lieutenant governor, is she’s one of the few politicians who can actually say, “I’ve saved lives.” She helped bring Medicaid to the state. She was the architect of how Medicaid expansion would work in Alaska. She also fought really hard against the American Dental Association to bring dental health therapy, which has changed how villages get oral health. In fact, in many Alaska Native villages, the juvenile caries rate was the highest in the world before she started her crusade.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds.

MARK TRAHANT: And now you have entire villages that are cavity-free. And that happened in one generation. And so, this is somebody who is just one of those amazing examples of somebody who shows how to lead and to make things happen.

This week is the Alaska Federation of Natives, which is the largest meeting of any kind involving indigenous people. And today, Valerie Davidson will actually be giving the keynote. And because of what’s happened this week, there’s going to be a lot of interest in what she has to say.

AMY GOODMAN: Just to comment on the significance of Kavanaugh weighing in, you could say—and you mentioned Kavanaugh—you know, Murkowski’s vote, but didn’t that have a lot to do with the Alaska Native vote, as well?

MARK TRAHANT: Oh, absolutely. Well, and it goes back to this convention this week, is the Alaska Federation of Natives. And one of the conventions many years ago was when Lisa Murkowski lost the Republican primary, and she decided to run as a write-in candidate. The AFN convention that year was in Fairbanks, and I was there. And a lot of the folks were writing her name on their hands to make sure they spelled it correctly at the polls. And it was a very important effort to have her return to the Senate.

This year, the Alaska Federation of Natives and other Alaska Native groups, starting in the southeast, said Brett Kavanaugh was unacceptable. And one of the reasons was not because of a direct decision from the appeals court on Alaska Native issues, but on Hawaiian Native issues. And they said that that—they were going to stand in solidarity with Hawaiian Natives. And they basically put the pressure on Lisa Murkowski, and it was a no vote. And I think it was because of that effort here in Alaska.

AMY GOODMAN: And why specifically? What was it about his views on both Hawaiian Natives—this was the question put to him by Senator Hirono of Hawaii, which she then extended to talking about Alaska.

MARK TRAHANT: In a way, it’s really about the same issue that Senator Warren brought up with her DNA test, that Native people are something that is a racial classification that could come and go rather than being indigenous people with governments and history, that are going to be here before the United States and after the United States. And it misses that long arc of history of law. And Kavanaugh was clearly on the side with the folks who wanted to make it simply a race that they could then eliminate.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Mark, you resigned as professor from the University of North Dakota. You’re in Anchorage, Alaska, now. Can you explain why, and how that fits into Native American politics today?

MARK TRAHANT: Sure. I’m actually just in Anchorage for this meeting, and now I’m in Washington, D.C., where is based.

But I left the University of North Dakota. I wanted to do a look, a media review, for journalism classes, on the Dakota Access pipeline and learn what we could—what could be learned from the coverage, and what happened and how decisions were made in terms of story coverage and placement and truth, accuracy, all those kinds of things. And the University of North Dakota, at first, decided not to fund it, and then later relented and did fund it. I decided that I wouldn’t do another 3-year term. It just was—fortunately, this other job came up, and I’m having a blast as editor of Indian Country Today.

But North Dakota really ought to have this conversation with itself. And it’s not just the Dakota Access pipeline. It’s the state of Native people and where they fit into the narrative of North Dakota. And this is the same with voting. I mean, this thing with the crackdown on voting makes no sense, because there’s no reason to do this. It’s not like the Native people in the state have any great numbers. At best, it’s 7 percent of the population, if everyone voted. I think one of the ironies of this whole thing is that the Native vote is now engaged, and there will probably be a much higher turnout than there would have been, had North Dakota not overreached.

AMY GOODMAN: And again, to summarize what happened in North Dakota around voting?

MARK TRAHANT: North Dakota pressed to the Supreme Court a law that requires physical addresses where there are none, and want to have ID, which could include tribal ID, but it has to have a geographical description. And the tribe has reacted by—several of the tribes in North Dakota, by very quickly coming up with IDs to try to get people to vote. It’s funny, because North Dakota does not have voter registration. And the idea is that you should know—in fact, in the old days, you could just go to a clerk and say, “I know this person,” and that would be enough, because it’s such a small state. But this whole disenfranchise movement made it to the Legislature, and they started looking for ways to crack down and to make sure the others, which would be the Native people, could not vote in any sort of fashion.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you all for being with us. We’re going to continue to follow these issues. Mark Trahant, joining us from Anchorage, Alaska, Indian Country Today, he’s the editor of, member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. I want to also thank Gyasi Ross in Seattle, Washington, author, speaker, lawyer, storyteller, member of Blackfeet Nation, host of the podcast Breakdances with Wolves. And thanks so much to Tara Houska, national campaign director for Honor the Earth, Ojibwe from the Couchiching First Nation.

This is Democracy Now! To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us.

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