The leaders of five tribal nations, including the chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribal council, recalled their negative experiences with the federal government in a panel discussion on protecting tribal lands and sacred sites on Tuesday, June 23.
Hosted online by the National Congress of American Indians, the tribal leaders rebuked the current administration, called for greater tribal autonomy and shared their unique experiences defending tribal lands and sacred sites from encroachment.
Chairman Cedric Cromwell of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe recounted his surprise when he was told in late March—during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic—that the US Department of the Interior had ordered that the reservation status of the tribe’s land be revoked.
“We’re that tribe that met those first settlers, sat down [and] helped them through their first harsh winters to survive, we gave up the first land which was Plymouth Colony to form this country,” Mr. Cromwell said. “Here we are at the 400th year of this anniversary and still today [have] this systematic problem of the Interior looking to take our land away.”
The chairman of the Mashpee tribe noted the June 5 court ruling that found the Interior Department acted “contrary to law” by misapplying its own departmental guidance when it issued a decision in 2018 that found the tribe did not qualify for reservation land.
The ruling from the Washington, DC, district court has maintained the reservation status of the tribe’s land at least until the department issues a new decision on whether the tribe qualifies under the 1934 law known as the Indian Reorganization Act.
“The Interior is expending resources at a record rate to really defeat Indian Country, and in fact defeat my tribe, versus being a trustee, a support system,” Mr. Cromwell said. “They’re actively overreaching, and the judge saw that.”
The Interior Department is the federal agency that includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs and is charged with being the trustee of Native American tribes. Tribes with federal recognition are supposed to have a government-to-government relationship with the United States.
The chairmen of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Tohono O’odham Nation and San Carlos Apache Tribe shared their own experiences with the federal government’s alleged violations of their land, sovereignty and sacred sites.
“We’ve become, yet again like many other tribal nations, a victim of United States’ longstanding policy of taking and stealing assets that belong to the tribe,” said Mark N. Fox, the chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation in North Dakota.
Mr. Fox noted that the Trump Administration’s Interior Department in May issued a legal opinion asserting that the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation did not own the riverbed of the Missouri River where the river crosses through the tribe’s reservation, despite former precedent.
“For 80 some years they didn’t care whether or not we owned the river bed or they did not own the river bed,” Mr. Fox said. “But all of a sudden they have great care, you want to know why? The reason why is greed; there has been drilling done underneath our river bed, much of it illegally; those assets, those royalties were taken.”
Harold Frazier, the chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, spoke of his tribe’s battle with the federal government over checkpoints to screen for COVID-19 that the tribe set up on highways through its reservation land.
Mr. Frazier said the checkpoints that had been set up to protect the vulnerable tribal population in rural South Dakota from the pandemic had drawn the ire of the state’s governor, who had turned to the federal government to get the tribe to remove the checkpoints.
“I think the federal government needs to step away now, I think the [Bureau of Indian Affairs] needs to fade away because in my experience basically the only way the BIA gets involved in anything is to try and control us Indians. They’re further eroding our sovereignty,” he said.
Ned Norris Jr., the chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation in Arizona, recounted a years-long struggle with the federal government over the construction of a border wall with Mexico.
“In February of this year, at the direction of the Trump administration, customs and border protection destroyed the nation’s sacred sites and burial grounds located within our ancestral homelands as part of the effort to speed the construction of the border wall,” Mr. Norris said. “The federal government’s intentional destruction of the nation’s, of the O’odham Nation’s, sacred sites and burial grounds, it to us represents one of the most egregious violations of the trust responsibility in recent times.”
“I echo the comments from the tribal leaders that have spoken today; this current administration has failed us, they have failed their responsibility to protect our interests, they have failed on their obligation and duty to ensure that their trust responsibility is fulfilled; they continue to fail us,” Mr. Norris said.
The chairman of another Arizona tribe, Terry Rambler of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, has advocated against a proposed copper mine in part of the Tonto National Forest in Arizona.
“This land transfer will result in a mine that will destroy sacred sites, desecrate Apache burial places, pollute water, pollute the groundwater and poison the land,” Mr. Rambler said. He called on tribal members to exercise their right to vote and elect leaders with respect for tribal sovereignty.
In response to a question about the 2020 presidential election, the tribal leaders called for an administration that would resume the White House Tribal Nations Conference, which has not taken place since President Donald J. Trump took control of the executive branch.
“There are systemic greed-based policies that hurt Indian people, that hurt indigenous people,” Mr. Cromwell said. “We need all of America, not just Indian country, but all of America to stand with all of us, to stand with Indian country because we are the history of this country.”
The federal government needs to restructure how it deals with Native Americans, Mr. Cromwell and the other tribal leaders said. Each tribal leader said the fight to maintain their tribal lands and sacred sites will continue.