NIGA 2019 Tradeshow and Convention Concludes With Tribal Sovereignty in the 21st Century: Tribal Leaders on the Front Line

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April 4, 2019

San Diego, CA – April 04, 2019 – Protecting Tribal Sovereignty has always been and continues to be a primary focus of our Tribal Governments. From Federal District Courts to the Supreme Court and Federal Agencies, defending Tribal sovereignty continues to swing in a fashion that disrupts the Tribal Government rights of Self-Governance and Self Determination.

An active dialogue amongst Tribal Leaders took place as they discussed the continued importance of fiercely protecting Tribal Sovereignty into the 21st Century.

The discussion was moderated by Brian Cladoosby, Chairman of the Swinomish Nation and included panelists Mark Macarro, Chairman, Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, Shannon Holsey, President, Stockbridge Munsee Band, Mohican Nation, and Larry Wright, Jr., Chairman, Ponca Tribe of Nebraska.

Chairman Cladoosby set the stage for the discussion by sharing his own experiences with advancing the importance of Tribal Sovereignty. He said, “There is a lack of understanding because the only curriculum that covers Tribal Governments is in the 9th Grade civics classes. It is hard to talk to State, and Congressional Leaders and have to explain Sovereignty every time you meet with them. My policy is; tell your story, tell your story, tell your story. And every story is not always in the same square box. Tribes have many different experiences; for example restoration for terminated Tribes, some Tribes lack a “reservation.” All of this variation and nuance makes our efforts even harder.”

He asked the panelists to share some examples of what Tribal Sovereignty has meant to them. Chairman Wright stated, “We had to fight for restored land for Gaming. It took seven years, and we waited while it was going through appeals. But we finally opened it (casino) up while we were still fighting the next level. Our government decided to do it and ask for forgiveness later because we knew what it meant for our community. We were born Ponca and had that taken away from us with Termination. Then we fought to be restored, and now we continue to fight for our Sovereignty. Then we have our story of removal to Oklahoma. It was because in 1879 Indians were not viewed as “persons,” we were viewed as nonexistent and unimportant. It was our will and determination that is why we’re still here today, why we continue to fight for our Sovereignty and our Treaties.”

“In 1998 we had the California Tribal Campaign to make a change in the State Constitution. Eighty-eight to one hundred Tribes in California banded together and put Indian Gaming out in front of voters,” said Chairman Macarro. “We had a 65% win by bringing our Sovereign Nations together. We set the stage for Indian Gaming.”

He went on to say, “Another experience we had was with a Mining Company who asked us for a meeting in May 2005. They were proposing to mine a mountain on the Reservation that had a sacred site on it. They were proposing a seventy-five-year mining project. It was a seven-year-long battle to 2012, and we had to engage in the State Environmental Permitting process. Our government provided testimony, with expert information as to the impacts. We were looked down on in the media for not sharing the “sacred site” designation right away. We went from the local planning commission to a State Process and won again. Our government was able to oppose on “equal footing” with the mining company, and we were very proud of that. Unfortunately, there was a technical issue raised in the certification process, and local supervisors overturned the decision. Our Tribe then decided to buy the land to protect and save the sacred site. The strength of our Tribal Sovereignty was brought to bear in that decision.”

Chairwoman Holsey contributed, “Navigating Tribal Sovereignty is challenging, but when done in a strategic and meaningful way it impacts our people. In Wisconsin, we had to make changes for voter identification requirements. All eleven Tribes worked together to enact legislation that allowed for Tribal ID’s to be a recognized form of ID for voting. We also worked on updating Act 31which mandates the teaching of Native American history and curriculum in the mainstream school systems. To help others understand Sovereignty, you have to start on a basic level. Tribes were in existence before States, and we have to help others understand our governance. We have to do more than talk, we have to act, we have to build partnerships, we must broaden our advocacy, and we must build relationships and coalitions. We have to enjoin Tribal Sovereignty in everything that we do.”

Chairman Cladoosby pointed out that a Tribe may experience many setbacks in their fight for Tribal Sovereignty. Chairman Cladoosby asked how Tribes and Tribal Leaders manage to stay optimistic.

Chairman Macarro responded by saying, “I look inward at our Tribe and recognize the influence we have had and how we have engaged the will of the Tribe over the last twenty-five to thirty years. We have many measures to show how we’ve manifested our sovereignty. I see the progress, and I realize we have plenty of work to do, but we have to keep trying because the next progress defines the work, we have ahead of us. We have to stay positive and look at the glass half full; there is always opportunity ahead.”

Chairwoman Holsey said, “I look at the young people in my community. When I go home, I visit places with youth and Elders. Looking at them reminds me that we have to develop our people to guide us into the future. Tribal Sovereignty is the foundation for protecting our people.”

Chairman Wright shared, “I do lunch and learn. I get out to sites once a month and take feedback in a positive way. I look back at how much we’ve grown and the pride that community members share. I get grounded through interaction in the community.”

National Indian Gaming Association Chairman, Ernie Stevens, Jr. asked the panel about the stereotype that Tribes were “given” casinos by the Federal Government. Stevens said, “How do we help better educate all that tribes have been socially and culturally gaming and been through our history. We have also been a people with a strong economic development history, which goes as far back as transactions with the European settlers. It is our right as governments to continue to build our economies and tribal government gaming is doing that.”

Chairman Wright pointed out that Indian Nations have paid in advance for all that they have. Gaming is a small compensation for the loss of lands, culture, and language.

Chairwoman Holsey stressed the importance of involving the next generations in defending sovereignty: “It is not enough to ‘talk about it,’ we have to re-invest with education and mentor our people. We must make it tangible and relatable and give them a seat at the table. They must be enjoined in conversations about culture, language, and governance. We must have them in the trenches beside us, and we have to have discussions about the tough issues like suicide, and we can no longer accept the status quo.”

Chairman Macarro added, “We need to look to the next generations and be sure they have cultural identity. We have to know who we are, as a culture and indigenous people. When we are grounded in who we are we can defend Tribal Sovereignty!”

The Tribal Leaders concluded the panel by urging all Leaders in the room to practice self-care, trusting yourself and focusing on doing a few things well to advance tribal sovereignty. That could be keeping your ceremonies sacred or simply listening to your elders. They urged the youth to “Be Indian in all that you do. Be your best self for you, your family, your Tribe, your State, and your Nation.” Keeping the sacred fire burning on these issues will help the next generation learn your culture, language, and traditions, this is what will ultimately protect sovereignty.

The National Indian Gaming Association Indian Gaming Tradeshow for 2019 concluded with this important panel and Indian Country now turns its attention to next year’s show during what will be a historic election year for the Country. We hope you can join us on March 23-28, 2020, in San Diego.