WAMPANOAG TRIBAL COUNCILMAN Jonathan Perry’s opening blessing at the Radcliffe Institute’s “Native Peoples, Native Politics” conference included a reminder that Harvard’s nearly four-century presence on the banks of the Charles has been relatively short. “We thank you today for joining us on what is considered to be Wampanoag, Nipmuc, and Massachuset territory,” Perry said. “This has been a thoroughfare for our people, by sea and by land, for over 12,000 years.”
Even though the conference took place amid the noise of the 2016 US presidential campaign, the focus was not the ballot box but the full range of activities that Native peoples have engaged in to “defend their sovereignty and dignity in the face of structural racism and massive dispossession,” said Daniel Carpenter, a co-organizer of the event, the Allie S. Freed Professor of Government in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and the faculty director of Radcliffe’s social sciences program. Representing tribes from across the United States, presenters shed light on ways that Native peoples participate in politics—through legal action, treaty making, resistance, coalition building, the arts, and media.
The conference was sponsored by Radcliffe and the Harvard University Native American Program (HUNAP), led by its executive director, Shelly C. Lowe, a Navajo tribal member. It capped a year of scholarship and events inspired and/or led by Native and indigenous peoples, including Radcliffe fellows’ academic and creative pursuits, Schlesinger Library research initiatives, and performing and visual arts events.
Native Law and Legal Strategy
Maggie McKinley, a Fond du Lac Chippewa from Minnesota and a Harvard Law School fellow and lecturer, noted that Native Americans were barred from casting votes in federal elections until 1924, and in some state elections until as recently as 1964. Since the civil rights era, she said, tribal nations, like other disenfranchised US minority groups, have often turned to the courts to address issues that elections and legislatures failed to resolve.
While other minorities have taken what McKinley termed “a liberal, integrationist” approach to litigation with the aim of achieving and protecting constitutional rights, Native Americans have pursued sovereignty as the central issue in cases involving land, water, and decision-making rights. “Over time,” she said, “the courts have become increasingly hostile to the concept of sovereignty and local self-governance, especially in cases where Native rights are in tension with the claims of non-Indians on Indian land.”
Calling Native Americans “perhaps the most highly regulated people on the planet,” Richard Guest referenced centuries of court rulings that have chipped away at “the tribal strength of being on a reservation.” A managing attorney for the Native American Rights Fund and the lead attorney on the Tribal Supreme Court Project, Guest cited two US Supreme Court rulings in 2000 that had a “devastating” impact. One denied tribes the authority to tax non-Indian businesses on reservations, and the other ruled that tribal courts lacked the jurisdiction to hear cases against non-Indians for harm done on reservations. In the wake of those decisions, Guest and others have been working to develop new litigation strategies and to coordinate legal resources for Supreme Court hearings.
Sounding a hopeful note, the panelist Diane J. Humetewa, a Hopi tribe member and the first Native American woman to serve as a federal judge, said the outcome of a pending Supreme Court case could be helpful in addressing the epidemic of domestic violence on reservations, which often involves non-Native perpetrators. Humetewa said that provisions of the recently reauthorized Violence Against Women Act could for the first time let federal prosecutors use prior tribal court convictions as a basis for federal charges in domestic violence cases.
With experience as a litigator in the US attorney’s office in Arizona and as a judge in the Hopi Tribal Court of Appeals, Humetewa has a unique perspective on the judicial practices of both Native and federal courts. Tribal courts tap into the culture and values of their communities and usually try to distance themselves from non-Native judicial actions, she said. But with the growing number of cases in federal courts that “challenge what it even means to be an Indian,” Humetewa believes that tribal leaders should more clearly address “the reach of the federal courts in their communities.”
Native Governance and Politics
Karen R. Diver, the special assistant to the president for Native American affairs at the White House, attributes increased national interest in Native American matters to tribes’ economic progress, fueled by successes in the gaming industry. “It was easy to ignore Native communities when we were poor and dependent,” said Diver, a former chair of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, for whom she oversaw a workforce of more than 2,200 people. “It’s different when you become the biggest employer in a large swath of your state.”
Diver noted that with increased interactions between Natives and others, a growing number of “multi-jurisdictional problems” have emerged, related to issues such as the size and responsibilities of police departments and the delivery of social services. Diver uses her national office to articulate to non-Native stakeholders “why my citizens matter to them” and to convey to home-rule-oriented tribes “why ‘out there’ matters as much to us as ‘in here.’”
The keynote speaker, Robert Odawi Porter JD ’89, pointed out that even with casino gambling, poverty is still widespread on most reservations. A former president of the Seneca Nation and a lead attorney in conflicts involving Native sovereignty and treaty rights, Porter believes that the best way to help tribes is through economic empowerment.
“To help elders, children in distress, or to fully implement powers in the Violence Against Women Act, tribes need dollars,” he said. “When the government gets its regulators and taxmen out of our pockets . . . then we will find a way to create the jobs and businesses that will provide revenues to repair the mistakes and agendas that have been inflicted on us.”
Spiritual repair was the theme of a presentation by the Sicangu Lakota hip-hop artist Frank Waln during a panel titled “Native Politics in Literature and Art.” “We come from communities with trauma and pain, and you need to acknowledge the pain to heal,” said Waln, currently an artist in residence at the University of Delaware. His performance of “Wild West,” a rap song about the complex realities of living on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, brought the Radcliffe audience to its feet. Waln wrote the song to convey “the things back home that will kill you and the things that will save your life.”
The Golden Globe–winning actress and producer Irene Bedard shared news about Two Old Women, a project that is taking her home to her native Alaska. Bedard, who is Inupiaq, Yupik, and Métis Cree, said the film will revisit an ancient tale of two tribal elders. “It’s a little bit subversive,” she hinted. “It’s about waking the giant of the indigenous nature.”
Joining Bedard during the panel titled “Native Politics in Broadcast Media and Film” was the Hopi tribe member Loris Taylor, the president of Native Public Media. She underscored the importance of gaining media access, control, and ownership in order to amplify contemporary Native voices such as Bedard’s and Waln’s, both within tribal communities where only 25 percent or less of residents have broadband access and throughout the United States, where “we have a long road ahead to overcome invisibility.”
Looking to the future, Radcliffe Dean Lizabeth Cohen announced that the Institute will work closely with local tribes on a multiyear research agenda. Expressing the sentiments of many, Carpenter said he hoped the conversations that began at the conference would continue across Harvard “again and again.”
“We still face genocide in this
colonial state / Our ceremonies
were banned; they cut our
grandpa’s braids / Took ’em to
that boarding school where my grandpa stayed / Cut them
off from the ways that their
grandpas prayed / They’re trying
to build a pipeline over my
grandpa’s grave / There ain’t no
stopping this rez life from blinding
us / Ain’t no stopping these
problems from fi nding us / Still
I run with nowhere to go, a
rosebud with nowhere to grow
In the Wild, Wild West, y’all,
the Wild West / Living that rez
life, so stressed / In the Wild,
Wild West, y’all, the Wild West /
We’re living that rez life”
The musical artist Frank Waln, a Lakota tribe member, in his song, “Wild West.”
Deborah Blagg is a freelance writer.