Bush sovereignty pledge welcome but follows Western Shoshone dispossession

Analysis: Bush sovereignty pledge welcome but follows Western Shoshone dispossession

Posted: September 27, 2004 - 10:25am EST
by: Jerry Reynolds / Washington D.C. correspondent / Indian Country Today

WASHINGTON - President George W. and First Lady Laura Bush welcomed tribal leaders and U.S. congressional members to the White House Sept. 23, recognizing the unprecedented Indian presence in the nation’s capital for opening week of the National Museum of the American Indian.

Speaking from the East Room, where more than 30 years ago President Richard M. Nixon delivered the "Special Message" to Congress that ended tribal termination as policy and recognized a new era of self-determination, Bush announced an executive memorandum ordering federal agencies to respect tribal sovereignty and self-determination in their decision making. "My government will continue to honor this government-to-government relationship."

The words brought the second ovation of the morning, exceeding even the first at mention of "Indian members of our U.S. military."

Executive orders and memoranda have been standing features of presidential power since the founding of the republic. They lack the force of law and can be canceled or ignored by later officeholders; though in this case Bush continued an order already in place from the Clinton years. Every president has issued executive orders. Only Bush has issued an Indian-specific one within six weeks of a presidential election; but then only Bush has had an occasion like the NMAI opening, with more Native people gathered in the capital city at one time than ever before.

The other theme of the morning was sovereignty. The president repeatedly emphasized tribal sovereignty. Later, in a day filled with Indian meetings around town, a woman would remark that maybe he was trying to make up for a blunder some months ago, when he told a Native audience that America had "given" sovereignty to tribes (as Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., regularly notes around Washington - the U.S. Constitution does not grant, but recognizes and guarantees, the prior sovereignty of tribes). Tex Hall, elected leader of Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota and of the National Congress of American Indians, minimized the oversight as a matter of inadequate briefing from the president’s staff.

If so, the staff had briefed him fully this time around, and the president had gotten the message. He said in several ways that he understands it and embraces it, and enforces it to the extent of issuing an executive memorandum on the government-to-government relationship to federal agency executives.

Whether or nor he’ll defend it was another question in some minds that morning. This is the president, after all, whose signature was added to legislation intended to dispossess millions of acres and billions of dollars of mineral-rich Western Shoshone treaty lands in four western states. At least one of them, Nevada, is among the so-called "battleground states" in the presidential election, raising speculation as to what Indian resources a second-term president, with no need to position himself for re-election, might find it in his power to sign away. Notable in this regard is that the U.S. Congress encouraged and validated the activities of a "shadow" Western Shoshone tribal government, as against the constitutional ones, that provided Congress with a tissue of legitimacy for resource piracy, in the opinion of many Indian people. In Iraq, Bush made it earthshakingly obvious that he’ll exercise U.S. national sovereignty without too many questions beforehand and without apology after. In the Western Shoshone case, he may have made it a little too clear for tribal comfort that he’ll exercise it domestically too, though with the discretion befitting domestic dependent nations whose only transgression is their inconvenience.

Bush’s role in all this hasn’t been an open book, but a Republican administration is not without power in a Republican-controlled Congress. In any case, a presidential veto of the controversial Western Shoshone dispossession bill could not have been overcome. So at the end of an exuberant week for Indians in Washington, the question of what pirate flags the U.S. ship of state may raise next in Indian waters still fluttered over the East Room.

But for the happy companionship within, the president’s words were tonic, appealing and timely. They not only encouraged the tribal leaders present; they also disassociated the president and the presidency from the right-wing groups that continue to insist tribal sovereignty is a contestable issue. With the strains of a Native-language national anthem from the Cherokee National Youth Choir still rich in memory, the president made it plain that tribes and their sovereignty are central:

"Native American cultures survive and flourish when tribes retain control over their own affairs and their own future. … Long before others came to the land called America, the story of this land was yours, alone. Indians on this continent had their own languages and customs, just as you have today. They had jurisdiction over their lands and territories, just as you have today. And these sovereign tribal nations had their own systems of self-governance, just as you have today."

The national museum is appropriately located on the National Mall, he added, "because the American Indian experience is central to the American story."

He closed to a third ovation: "The National Museum of the American Indian affirms that this young country is home to an ancient, noble and enduring Native culture. And all Americans are proud of that culture. Like many Indian dwellings, the new museum building faces east, toward the rising sun. And as we celebrate this new museum and we look to the future, we can say that the sun is rising on Indian country."

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the Colorado Republican who retires after the current Congress as the Senate’s only Indian member, introduced the president with an assurance that Bush "wasn’t going to be about hollow promises."

Campbell said he met with the president about Indian country during the 2000 presidential campaign. He marked his promises of Indian school construction funds for future reference because he considers it a crucial issue - kids can’t study amid leaky ceilings and peeling walls. Four years later, Campbell said, Bush has spent three times as much on Indian school construction as any previous administration.

"Quite simply, he kept his promise to us."

Later in the day though, at another of those Indian meetings in a week full of them, Hall said he missed a rollout of future promises in the form of an Indian agenda for a second term if Bush is re-elected. Otherwise, Hall considered it a great morning at the White House.

This article can be found at http://www.indiancountry.com/?1096295890

Esperanza Luján
Indian Law Resource Center
601 E Street SE
Washington, D.C. 20003

Informant: Carrie Dann


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