More Historical Knowledge and Cultural Competency for Politicians, Please

Do politicians know enough about the constituencies they represent when examining laws and making important decisions? According to attendees at the new Legislature's Native American Caucus, the answer is no. One Navajo lawmaker pointed out that in Arizona, for example, lack of knowledge about Native American history hinders politicians from making informed decisions as they deal with important issues that effect the state's tribes.

The Caucus is a bipartisan forum for legislators to discuss issues facing Arizona's twenty one recognized tribes. The discussion centered around the importance of increasing the amount of contact politicians have with Indian nations and providing more cultural competency training. New Mexico recently passed a law that requires state employees who have contact with Indian nations to undergo training in Native American culture. The law even requires the governor to meet with tribes at least once a year. Arizona is looking at adopting a similar law.


It will be interesting to see whether or not Arizona follows New Mexico’s lead. Having this kind of valuable contact and deeper understanding of tribal needs undoubtedly makes it much easier for New Mexico’s politicians to maintain healthy relationships with tribes, because they are on the ground level and understand critical issues by seeing them with their own eyes and learning from tribal leadership.


All politicians should be educated about the foundations and structures of Native governments. Perhaps if Arizona follow suit so will other states as well. It is too early to tell but will be an interesting initiative to follow in the years to come.

Federal Court Upholds Native American Voting Rights In South Dakota Lawsuit

On December 16, 2008, a federal appeals affirmed a decision protecting the rights of Native American voters in Martin, South Dakota. Siding with the American Civil Liberties Union, the U.S. Appeals Court for the Eight Circuit ordered local officials to correct violations of the Voting Rights Act  that prevented Native Americans from having an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice.

According to the ACLU Voting Rights Project, this was a tremendous victory for the people of Martin, South Dakota, who, according to attorneys working on the case, have endured a long, hard struggle for equality at the voting booth. Undoubtedly, this ruling will provide Indian voters with the right to have an equal say in choosing their government.

In terms of background, the ACLU brought the lawsuit mid-2002 on behalf of two Native American voters who said that the redistricting plan adopted by the city that year had the purpose and effect of diluting Native American voting strength. Because the Native American population made up approximately 45 percent of the city's population, it would have been unable to elect any candidates of their choice to the city council because the redistricting plan ensured that white voters controlled all three city council wards.

The district court initially ruled in the city's favor in March 2005. The Native American plaintiffs appealed, and on May 5, 2006, the U.S. Appeals Court for the Eighth Circuit reversed the lower court's decision, sending the case back to the district court.

In December 2006, the district court not only ordered a "full and complete remedy" for the plaintiffs, but also affirmed many of the factual claims of voting discrimination that the voters had described in their original lawsuit, including the fact that the city's redistricting plan unlawfully dilutes Native American voting strength. The ruling from December 16th upholds that decision, as well as the adoption of voting system proposed by the plaintiffs.

This decision will undoubtedly provide Native Americans with an equal voice in the selection of city officials. The ruling is also an important reminder that the Voting Rights Act remains a valuable tool to guard against discrimination in the electoral process.

To view the decision, please click here.

Negotiations Continue Into New Year: American Declaration on Indigenous Rights

On December 9-12, 2008 in Washington D.C. at a special session of the OAS Working Group in charge of negotiating the Draft American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Working Group identified regional concerns that an American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples should reflect in comparison with the recently adopted United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Since it was a special session, participants did not negotiate any language concerning the articles of the draft American Declaration. Instead, the session focused on evaluating the negotiation process and identifying specific measures that should be considered in future negotiations.

The Working Group reviewed the following major issues: 1) articles that were already approved, 2) articles that are close to agreement between indigenous and state representatives, and 3) articles containing complex issues where consensus has not been reached.

According to the Indian Law Resource Center, negotiations will resume on the American Declaration on Indigenous Rights early this year.

Specifically, the OAS Working Group  will start negotiating articles at its next negotiation session scheduled for February 16-20, 2009 preceded by preparatory meetings of the Indigenous Caucus on February 14-15, 2009.

This is an important notice because tribal leaders are encouraged to attend and give their opinions and comments. For more information about attending, please contact Shayda Naficy at 202.547.2800.

Teaching Indian Languages Preserves Heritage

The Seattle Times recently ran an article entitled, "Saving Native Languages."  According to the article, there is a diminishing number of elders whose native tongue is their first language and tribes are racing to preserve their languages by teaching it to the youth in their communities.

In order to preserve this crucial aspect of their heritage, elders have compiled dictionaries for languages that were entirely oral; recording elders; transcribing tapes; and especially, teaching the next generation of speakers. They have even set up classrooms and prepared teachers to pass on the gift of the native language. At Tulalip Elementary, for example, classrooms are set up to teach children Lushootseed, one of Washington state's native languages. Approximately 80 percent of the students are of Native American decent, but nonnative children are just as interested in learning the new language. Incredibly, the article reports that by fourth grade, many of the children can speak in sentences, writing and following commands, all in Lushootseed. I had to learn English when my family immigrated from Poland and it's amazing how quickly I picked up the language as a seven year old child. It was easy and fun for me to learn a new language. Just as it is easy for the children attending Tulalip Elementary.  The article reports that  the students take to the language with ease and greatly enjoy the cultural experience of learning a new tongue, especially in the earliest grades.

According to the article, before the arrival of Christopher Columbus, more than 300 languages were spoken in North America. Today an estimated 175 or so indigenous languages are spoken in the United States but about 90 percent are moribund, with very few children speaking them as their first language. Today, there are about 16 native languages still spoken in Washington. They are languages as musical as their names: Makah; Okanagan, Klallam, Quileute, Lushootseed.

It is incredibly inspiring to hear that not only have Tribal elders taken a proactive role in preserving Native American languages, but that the youth have embraced learning the language that will give them one of the most intimate connections to their cultural heritage possible -- and that is one of the greatest gifts of all.