Matter of Opinion 5/96

It's A Matter Of Opinion

by Guest Columnist Winona LaDuke
May 1996





Don't Cheapen Sovereignty




Editor's note: Because we are receiving an increasing number of written and telephoned complaints from tribal members against their local tribal government in all parts of the country, this column written by Winona LaDuke, a White Earth Chippewa, is extremely timely. In future issues, we will feature the kinds of problems which are hindering the growth and progress of our Indian Nations. LaDuke is also a Board member of Greenpeace, and the 7th Generation Fund.


"The man who is to be chief must have certain qualifications. He must be a man who is honest. He must have "Hoeyiaha" or the "good mind" as we say. He must have great concern and do the right thing by his people. He must not be a womanizer... The clan mother can remove the chief..deposed instantly without being even forewarned"
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Desenta, Onondaga Clan Mother



In this era, there seems to be a lot of talking about sovereignty, but not many sovereign actions. As an Anishinabe, I'd like to see more of the latter than the former. All this cheap talk, whether (coming from) Skip Finn, Darrell Wadena, or other various White Earth (Chippewa) enrolled members (who elect to avoid child support payments) cheapens the values (which) our parents and grandparents stood for, all the more.

Three circumstances recently turned my stomach. First, State Senator Skip Finn, pleading that the state had no jurisdiction to prosecute him on embezzlement charges based on his sovereign status as an enrolled Leech Lake (Chippewa) tribal member. Then White Earth tribal council members are pleading sovereign immunity to the 44 federal indictment charges. They were not saying they were innocent, just arguing that the Feds could not prosecute. And there are those White Earth men, many of them voicing opposition to the Wadena administration, parading in front of the Becker County Courthouse with their sovereignty, arguing that the state has no jurisdiction to secure their child support payments.

There is an immense amount of talk about rights. But what of our responsibilities? What about our sovereign rights, our hunting rights, our rights to our children?

If our sovereign rights are so important, why did the White Earth Tribal Council enter into "acts" with the state relinquishing a sales tax exemption on the reservation, or the right and responsibility to regulate hunting and fishing licenses within the reservation? If sovereignty is important why would the alleged election fraud occur? If our sovereign rights are so important, why did the White Earth Chairman agree to the White Earth Land Settlement Act, despite the implications for Indian land title on this reservation?

How about hunting and fishing rights? There is a fish consumption advisory in effect for a number of lakes on White Earth, Leech Lake and Red Lake reservations. That means that women of childbearing age, for instance, should only eat so many fish because there is mercury or other heavy metals in those fish. This gets worse every year, as it is cumulative. There is little point in fighting over rights to fish for what you cannot eat. Where are all the people who fought for spear fishing when the state had hearings to increase the allowable mercury levels and emissions?

And the children's rights. What is the point of an Indian Child Welfare Act when there is so much disregard for the rights and well being of the children? Some of these guys from White Earth are saying the state has no jurisdiction to exact child support payments from them. Traditionally, Native men took care of their own. Do they pay their own to these women? I don't think so. I know better. How does that equation better the lives of our children? How is that (real) sovereignty?

The U.S. government is so hypocritical about recognizing sovereignty. And we, the Native community, fall into the same hypocrisy. I would argue the Feds only recognize Indian sovereignty when a first Nation has a casino or a waste dump, not when a tribal government seeks to preserve ground water from pesticide contamination, exercise jurisdiction over air quality, or stop clear-cutting or say no to a nuclear dump. "Sovereignty" has become a politicized term used for some of the most demeaning purposes.

How does the present White Earth Tribal Council's exercise of sovereignty immunity help our people? The fact is our ancestors and our leaders fought and died for principles of our nations culture and our sovereignty. George Aubid (Mille Lacs Chippewa) stood up to the state against land taxes on White Earth and opened up this era of land struggle. David So Happy (Columbia River) went to jail and died over a right to fish. Buddy LaMonte got a bullet in his head over the Oglala people's right to self determination. The actions of today's alleged leaders and Ogitchidaag Warriors do not stack up well against tradition and our values.

Let us change the tide. The Northern Cheyenne reservation enacted a very strong tribal code on child abuse. Let us follow with a code to secure child support from our own tribal members. Let us secure labor laws so that tribal workers may be free from recrimination. That's sovereignty.

The traditional Seminole Nation of Florida continues to speak their language and practice their ceremonies, shunning America, while struggling for a land base. They refuse federal recognition and tribal enrollment. They refuse to allow America to interfere with their business. They have no casino, but practice sovereignty and have their dignity.

Some Anishinabe from Red Cliff and elsewhere in northern Wisconsin are looking at a Seventh Generation amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The amendment to any tribal constitution or traditional law would say, "All decisions now must be considered in light of the impact on the Seventh Generation from now." This would rule out nuclear waste, toxic waste and clear-cutting. This would be an honest practice of sovereignty.

I challenge the White Earth Tribal Council and all who oppose (environmental pollution) to act and live by a standard that denotes sovereignty and not the cheapening of it. Let's be the people our grand-children can be proud of, with good minds, good hearts, and good actions.

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