Native American Political Participation Rising For 2016 Elections


2016 is shaping up to be a record year for Native American electoral participation.   Eight indigenous candidates are running for Congress, up from two in 2014. Over 90 are running for state legislatures, again exceeding previous years. "This is the best campaign ever in Indian Country," says Nicole Willis, member of the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla and former advisor to Bernie Sanders. "There's no question about that."

"Tribes are organised entities that tend to vote as a group," says John Dossett, General Counsel within the National Congress of American Indians. "When they turn up and vote in one block, they can have a huge impact at a state level."  Many Native American commentators point to President Barack Obama's efforts to improve relations with the country's tribal nations. In the course of his two terms in office, he has settled hundreds of legal disputes with indigenous communities, passed favourable legislation, like the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, and established an annual conference for tribal leaders to meet at the White House.

With close to 32% of Native Americans under the age of 18, a particular drive to get young people involved in political action is underway. Government-funded programmes like Generation Indigenous, which seeks to empower native millennials, have been working to inspire this age group for years. "The US political system was not designed for us," says Jaynie Parrish, an original member of the Native Vote Initiative, which seeks to encourage indigenous political participation. "Getting young people involved is incredibly difficult. But we are learning to play the game." Of the 94 indigenous candidates running for office this year, 75 are Democrats, 14 are Republicans and four are independent.


Navajo Nation Sues EPA Over Animus River Heavy Metals Spill

Before and after photos of Animus River ( 

The Navajo Nation has filed a federal lawsuit alleging the EPA has failed to adequately remediate the disaster a year after the dispersal of 880,000 pounds of heavy metals into the Animus river watershed near Silverton, Colorado. The chemicals flowed from the Animas, along some 200 miles of the San Juan River in New Mexico, which runs through the Navajo Nation and continues into Utah.

"After one of the most significant environmental catastrophes in history, the Nation and the Navajo people have yet to have their waterways cleaned, their losses compensated, their health protected or their way of life restored," the complaint filed by the Navajo Nation in US District Court for the District of New Mexico alleges. "Despite repeatedly conceding responsibility for the action that caused millions of dollars of harm to the Nation and the Navajo people, the U.S. EPA has yet to provide any meaningful recovery. Efforts to be made whole over the past year have been met with resistance, delays, and second-guessing. Unfortunately this is consistent with a long history of neglect and disregard for the well-being of the Navajo," the lawsuit says. The lawsuit alleges that the EPA, its contractors and the mining companies, who are also named in the lawsuit, ignored the buildup of contaminants over many years, failed to follow "reasonable and necessary precautions" to avoid the spill when they began the mine cleanup operation in August 2015.

"The river has always been a source of life, of purification, and of healing," said Ethel Branch, the Attorney General of the Navajo Nation, who noted that the Navajo people harvest minerals from the banks of the river for use in their religious ceremonies. "Now it's been transformed into something that's a threat. It's been pretty traumatic in changing the role of the river in the lives of the people who rely on it."

In the immediate aftermath of the Gold King Mine spill, one water sample showed that the level of lead in the Animas River was 12,000 times higher than normal. The river was also contaminated with high levels of arsenic, beryllium, cadmium and mercury. Branch said the spill has created a stigma of fear around the organic and heirloom crops grown by the Navajo in the San Juan watershed and that health concerns have made it more difficult for Navajo farmers to sell their produce. "We're not going to know the health impacts of the exposure to the water for five to 10 years -- maybe more," Branch said. "And it's not just direct exposure, the community is also concerned about eating food that's been watered with contaminated water, or eating livestock that has consumed the water."


New Native Education Certificate Program Launched at University of Washington

Great article by Sarah Stuteville for The Seattle Times:

I’ve spent seven years hustling across the UW’s iconic, cherry-tree-lined “Quad” on my way to teach journalism classes. But it wasn’t until this week that I learned those red brick pathways zigzag over what was once a Duwamish village.

“Are you sure you know where you are standing?” asks Professor Megan Bang, co-director of the new Native Education Certificate Program at the University of Washington. She’s speaking to roughly 30 educators — some Native, some non-Native — from across Washington who crowd around her for this walk focused on “coming to know the land” of the UW campus. They’ve joined the program’s first cohort — 69 in total — to learn how to better teach Native issues in their schools, as well as better work with Native youth and families in their communities.

“Just think about what has changed in 250 years on this site,” Bang adds, before the group moves on, occasionally parting to allow a student to bustle past, face buried in a phone. This is what Bang, and the Native Education Certificate Program, call “land-based” or “place-based” learning, and it’s one of the pedagogical approaches these educators will learn over the course of the next two years.

One of the first field trips of the program will be to a series of locations Spokane Tribal elders have identified as important places for a child of the Spokane Tribe to know. Program participants will then “backward map” issues related to their classroom learning goals. For example, a traditional harvest location can lend itself to learning about science, the environment and history.

“Thinking about place and land is central to education,” says Bang, who believes this approach can be applied to every subject. “We didn’t always only learn in buildings. And that’s not only true in Native communities.”

In addition to discovering new approaches to teaching, program participants will also address cultural insensitivity, racism and bias in existing curricula — issues Bang says her own two children have experienced in school all too often.

“I think learning about the Oregon Trail is very important, but it’s almost always learned from the perspective of settlers,” she says, explaining how her own daughter, who is Native, struggled to identify as a pioneer when studying the Oregon Trail in school. “(The curriculum) didn’t ask what were the long-term consequences for Native kids and Native people.”

Experiences like that can make relationships between educators and Native students and families challenging. In response, the program hopes to help educators learn more about the cultural and historical context of the communities they work in.

“I think building trust with the community is Number One,” says Mark Jacobson, principal and superintendent for the Quileute Tribal School in La Push, Clallam County.

Jacobson, a non-Native, says he joined the Native Education Certificate Program because he wants to be able to better communicate and work with Native families.

“If you look at the relationship between Natives, the state of Washington and the federal government, we’ve created so much mistrust,” says Jacobson, referencing historical policies of forced cultural assimilation through government-run schools. “Some of our grandparents were in boarding schools. It’s going to take some time to build those relationships.”

Bang says the program was a result of decades of requests to the UW from tribal leaders who were concerned about academic achievement gaps, inadequate education and a lack of Native teachers in their communities. But she is quick to add that these approaches are good for everyone.

“We happen to think that a lot of the pedagogy we teach is good for all kids,” says Bang, citing the universal importance of education that is culturally relevant, historically sensitive and respectful of students and families. “The principles are just good teaching.”

After just a couple hours of land-based learning, I know I’ll never look at the UW campus the same way again.

Sarah Stuteville is a multimedia journalist and co-founder of The Seattle Globalist,, a news site covering Seattle's international connections. Sarah Stuteville: Twitter @SeaStute


Center for Indian Law and Policy Welcomes Brooke Pinkham as Staff Director

Attorney Brooke Pinkham has joined the Center for Indian Law and Policy at Seattle University School of Law as the new Staff Director. A member of the Nez Perce tribe who grew up within the community of the Yakama Nation in south central Washington, Brooke brings a lifelong commitment to Native American people and tribes.

Brooke joins Seattle University School of Law after spending nine years as a staff attorney with the Northwest Justice Project, a non-profit law firm dedicated to providing equal access to the law, where she provided direct representation and advocacy on behalf of tribal members throughout Washington. She most recently served as a guest lecturer for the law school's Incarcerated Parents Advocacy Clinic on the topic of the Indian Child Welfare Act. She has particular expertise in Indian estate planning and probate, enforcing application of the Indian Child Welfare Act, protecting the rights to secure housing, tribal and non-tribal public benefits, and the education rights of Native American students.

Brooke has served on the boards for the National Native American Law Students Association, the Washington State Bar Association Indian Law Section, and the Northwest Indian Bar Association. She is a recent graduate of the Washington Leadership Institute, a nationally recognized and comprehensive leadership program. Prior to attending the University of Washington School of Law, she worked for United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, a Seattle-area non-profit founded to provide educational, cultural and social services for indigenous people in the Puget Sound region. Brooke joins the CILP staff team of Faculty Director Gregory Silverman, Staff Attorney Guadalupe Ceballos, and Senior Attorney Erica Wolf.


Congress Seeks To Rectify "Embarrassment" Of Inadequate Columbia River Tribal Housing


Bonneville Dam 

When the Bonneville Dam was constructed in 1938, the resulting expansion of waters behind the dam displaced dozens of Native American families from their homes along the Columbia River, their ancestral fishing area. For many, adequate funds and sites for new housing were not forthcoming. The lack of housing for tribal members along the river is a problem that has persisted for decades, but new legislation in Congress, sponsored by senators from Washington and Oregon, would fund basic sanitation and restart studies on potential housing solutions.

“I believe it is critical for there to be safe, reliable housing along the Columbia River so treaty tribes can exercise their protected rights,” Sen. Patty Murray said in a statement. “Salmon fishing is an integral part of the Native American legacy, and this legislation aims to make long-overdue improvements to tribal fishing access rights while we work on the longer-term need for additional housing. This is an important step toward honoring tribal rights.” Paul Lumley, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), which represents the Yakama, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Nez Perce on fisheries issues, is optimistic congressional and tribal leaders will develop housing solutions soon. In the meantime, CRITFC is doing what it can to maintain the sites as part of its mission to provide access to the fishery. “The community needs help, they really do,” Lumley said. “They just want the most basic services, water, sewer. It’s sad actually, they’ve practically given up on the dream of village replacements after all these years.”

A 2013 study commissioned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found evidence that at least 45 families were displaced by the rising waters behind Bonneville Dam and never compensated, along with about 30 more displaced by construction of the Dalles Dam two decades later. The tribes say that report significantly underestimates how many families were impacted. Corps treaty fishing-access-program manager Eric Stricklin said there wasn’t much discussion about replacement housing or compensation for lost property with tribal leaders when the dam was under construction. “What I’ve been able to figure out is during the construction of Bonneville, there was some negotiation with the tribes and it resulted in the 1939 agreement in which tribes really focused on fishing access, that was paramount,” Stricklin said.

If Congress provides funds for the construction of new homes for those displaced by Bonneville Dam, allocation could be complicated. “Would they give houses to the families that were here then or the people who are here now?” said Yakama fisherman Will Zack. In the meantime, nearly 70 people are living around the access site where he cleans and sells fish, in tents, RVs and illegal makeshift shelters. CRITFC sponsored a site cleanup, tearing down illegal structures and hauling out trash. There is a new law enforcement presence to combat drug activity in what was for years a lawless land, under no specific local or tribal jurisdiction. CRITFC’s efforts have made made a big improvement, Lumley said, but the fishing-focused organization can’t really tackle the housing crisis. He’s hopeful an ongoing conversation between the Columbia River tribes about creating an intertribal housing and economic-development agency will come to fruition and bring further progress.


Canada Launches Inquiry Into Violence Against Indigenous Women

Canada has launched an investigation into missing and murdered Indigenous women that will last at least two years with a budget of up to $54m. Five independent commissioners will provide recommendations to deal with violence against the country's indigenous women. The five commissioners are Marion Buller, British Columbia's first female First Nations judge; Michele Audette, a former president of the Native Women's Association of Canada; Qajaq Robinson, a Nunavut-born lawyer who focuses on aboriginal law; Marilyn Poitras, a law professor at the University of Saskatchewan; and Brian Eyolfson, a First Nations lawyer who served on the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. The investigation is set to begin in September and will run through 2018.

Each province in Canada has agreed to allow the commissioners to look at all jurisdictions, including whether local law enforcement or governments played a part in the problems Indigenous women experience in securing personal safety and justice. The commission will also have the authority to summon witnesses to testify. The investigation is expected to focus on the systemic causes of violence against Indigenous women as well as recommendations on prevention.

A 2015 United Nations report revealed that young indigenous women in Canada were five times more likely to die under violent circumstances than non-Aboriginal women. Families of victims have argued that police do not investigate missing indigenous women with the same scrutiny for cases involving white women.


Opposition Grows Against Bar Association Proposal To Ban Indigenous Blessings At Legal Conferences

Native prayer gathering at United States Supreme Court (

The Washington State Bar Association is considering a proposal that would curtail or eliminate blessings and spiritual invocations at Continuing Legal Education seminars and related events attended by legal professionals.  It is common for such seminars that focus on Indigenous legal issues to be commenced with a blessing that gives thanks for the gathering and asking for wisdom and positive learning.

Within the WSBA itself, strong opposition to the proposal has been voiced by the members of the Indian Law Section, the members of which are legal professionals who work primarily in and for tribal communities.  The Indian Law Section's letter to the WSBA Board of Governors can be accessed HERE.

A statement in support of the Indian Law Section's letter was sent by Greg Guedel, Chair of the American Bar Association's Committee on Native American Concerns:

Dear Members of the WSBA Board of Governors:

I am writing in support of the 20 June 2016 letter from the WSBA Indian Law Section opposing the proposed WSBA policy that would effectively eliminate blessings and spiritual invocations during CLEs and related events. I too believe that banning blessings is inappropriate and would be an over-step that is not warranted by a current or prospective problem. For comparative purposes, as Chair of the American Bar Association’s Committee on Native American Concerns for the past six years I note that our CLEs and other events related to Indigenous issues typically begin with a blessing, and I have observed no negative impacts on the programs nor any complaints from our members and attendees nationwide. Indeed, in my opinion commencing these events with a traditional blessing creates an environment of solemn focus that contributes positively to the learning environment.

Institutions of governance in our country have a long and tragic history of infringing upon the religious rights of Indigenous peoples. Banning Native American religious ceremonies, imprisoning spiritual leaders, and attempting to forcibly convert Native children to government-sanctioned faiths through boarding schools are among the litany of oppressions that have been reasonably described as cultural genocide. Although these destructive actions were clearly unconstitutional and were brutal violations of basic human rights, they were all taken “under color of law” by governmental institutions. Today, the legal profession needs to view preserving the religious rights of Indigenous peoples as a matter requiring broad and consistent remedial action. Taking away the ability to make a spiritual statement at a WSBA event would be a step in the wrong direction – preserving the right of Indigenous peoples to speak as the Constitution allows would be the correct step.

I greatly appreciate your consideration of these issues, and am grateful for your service to our profession and community.


W. Gregory Guedel, Ph.D., J.D.
Chair, Native American Legal Services


Tlingit-Haida Tribes Acquire Billion-Dollar International Contracting Firm


The Central Council of Tlingit-Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska is doing something few tribal organizations do. This month the Tribes acquired KIRA, Inc., an international maintenance contracting company that has undertaken more than $1 billion in federal contracting work, and KIRA will serve as a prime engine for the Tribes’ economic development program

Tlingit-Haida President Richard Peterson said the ultimate goal is to serve all of their tribal members, and not just those in Southeast Alaska. “It feels somewhat disingenuous to repeatedly say, ‘I’m sorry you live outside of service area, but hey you’re a citizen, thank you,’” Peterson said. Grant money that Tlingit-Haida receives mostly limits its services to Southeast Alaska. The tribe provides educational, employment, elderly and financial assistance for its tribal members. Peterson said half of the tribe’s more than 33,000 members live elsewhere in the state or Seattle.  “There’s a misconception out there that we generate funds based on our general enrollment, and we don’t,” he said. “We only generate funds based on the service area enrollment.”

In recent years, Tlingit-Haida has made an active push to generate unrestricted funds by creating a separate company, Tlingit Haida Tribal Business Corp., or THTBC. Last year, the Small Business Administration certified the company for special government contracting status under its 8(a) program. Alaska Native corporations have long used the program to win federal contracts, but it’s unusual for tribes. Congress created the 8(a) certification decades ago to help small and minority-owned businesses win federal contracts. Special provisions were added in 1986 for federally recognized Native American and Alaska Native corporations — they can outgrow “small” status but continue to enjoy the program’s benefits.

Carlos Garcia is KIRA’s founder and president. It was once 8(a) certified, too, but outgrew the program. KIRA will now have those small business contracting opportunities again. “We were only allowed to bid on a small percentage of them,” Garcia said. “We wanted to bid and the only thing that was missing was the certifications that the tribe enjoys.”

The acquisition of KIRA became official after about a year of negotiations. Garcia said he decided to sell to Tlingit-Haida instead of an Alaska Native corporation to ensure the profits directly benefited shareholders. “The money that we make is going to go straight to their tribal members. Many of these large ANCs have enormous bureaucracy in Anchorage and the money goes to those executives,” he said. “And there doesn’t seem to be a lot of profit put forth to the Native programs.”

THTBC’s CEO Richard Rinehart says one of the goals is to have KIRA compete in Alaska’s market. “KIRA has not competed a lot in Alaska because there’s so many Alaska-based corporations that have an advantage,” Rinehart said. “Well now they’ll be able to.” In the coming weeks, Garcia said KIRA will add on multiple new contracts. He believes that if everyone works hard, the company — and its profits — will multiply quickly.


9th Circuit Upholds Tribal Treaty Rights In Salmon Culverts Case

The 9th Cirucit Court of Appleals has ruled that Washington state must repair road culverts that are blocking salmon from swimming to spawning areas because the pipes violate fishing rights protected by tribal treatie.  The ruling is a major victory for 21 tribes joined by the U.S. government that sued Washington state in 2001, arguing that hundreds of culverts block salmon from more than 1,000 miles of streams in western Washington.

"The Indians did not understand the Treaties to promise that they would have access to their usual and accustomed fishing places, but with a qualification that would allow the government to diminish or destroy the fish runs," Judge William Fletcher, of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, wrote in a 59-page opinion on Monday.

Three judges unanimously affirmed a lower court's 2013 order that Washington state correct its road culverts because they violated the Stevens Treaties of 1854-55, the opinion says. Under the treaties, the tribes relinquished huge tracts of land in exchange for a guaranteed right to off-reservation fishing.

The lower court held that the culverts have caused the size of salmon runs in Washington state to diminish and therefore violated the state's obligations under the treaties, according to Monday's ruling.


Dollar General Case Highlights Tribal Sovereignty In Business Dealings

 By Lisa Nagele-Piazza, SHRM-SCP, J.D., senior legal editor for SHRM.

A tribal court for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians has jurisdiction to decide a case involving a teen worker at a Dollar General store on tribal land who claims a manager sexually molested him, according to a June 23 Supreme Court ruling.

The 4-4 decision will leave intact a ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that the teenage tribe member’s negligent hiring claim against the retail chain will be heard in tribal court rather than in a U.S. court.

“The 4-4 vote is effectively a default ratification of the earlier decision from the 5th Circuit,” according to W. Gregory Guedel, an attorney with Foster Pepper in Seattle. “For now, the precedent value is essentially the same as if the case had only been decided at the 5th Circuit level.”

“It is possible that when a new justice is appointed and the Supreme Court is back to the full nine members, another case with similar issues could be decided that either strengthens or contradicts the Dollar General decision,” he said. Guedel is the chair of Foster Pepper’s Native American practice group.

Dollar General operated the store on tribal land in accordance with a lease agreement and business license that was issued by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.

In 2003, a teenage member of the tribe who participated in an unpaid youth job-training program claimed the store’s manager, a nontribal employee of Dollar General, sexually molested him while he was working in the store.

The teen worker sued Dollar General in tribal court, asserting that the company was vicariously liable for the store manager’s conduct and that it negligently hired, trained or supervised him.

Dollar General fiercely disputed the tribal court’s jurisdiction over the lawsuit and sought an injunction from a U.S. federal court.

The 5th Circuit ultimately affirmed a U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi ruling that the tribal court could exercise jurisdiction over the case because Dollar General had a “consensual relationship” with the tribe and its members.

Supreme Court precedent allows tribes to regulate “the activities of nonmembers who enter consensual relationships with the tribe or its members, through commercial dealing, contracts, leases, or other arrangements” (Montana v. United States, 450 U.S. 544 (1981)).

Even though the teen employee worked only for a short time at the Dollar General store, he was “essentially an unpaid intern, performing limited work in exchange for job training and experience.” This is “unquestionably” a commercial relationship, the federal appeals court ruled.

The 5th Circuit said there was a sufficient connection between Dollar General’s participation in the youth training program and the teen worker’s sexual assault claims.

“In essence, a tribe that has agreed to place a minor tribe member as an unpaid intern in a business located on tribal land on a reservation is attempting to regulate the safety of the child's workplace,” the court held.

“The Dollar General decision means companies operating businesses on tribal land need to consider themselves subject to the legal jurisdiction of the tribal government and the tribal court,” Guedel said.

“Companies should pay particular attention to tribal employment regulations and policies involving employee rights, as these may differ significantly from the state or federal regulations that apply in other local areas,” Guedel said.  “If the tribe requires employers to follow certain procedures for hiring, employee discipline and grievances, and similar personnel matters, companies need to be aware of and integrate these policies into their own procedures,” he added.

The decision is Dollar General Corp. v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, No. 13-1496.

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