Sovereignty: Past, Present and Future
About a dozen people sat in rows of chairs facing the front of room as “Sovereignty: Past, Present and Future” was set to begin. Organized by PCC’s Native Nations Club and hosted inside of Room 202 in Cascade Campus’ Student Union building, this event’s purpose was to open a dialogue about the concept of sovereignty and its place in the struggle of Native Americans. Attendees conversed and greeted one another almost inaudibly as a group of traditional drummers played and sang in the corner of the room. As the volume began to grow, so too did the amount of people until in the audience – until there were enough it seemed, for the night to begin. Renea Perry, former Native Nations Coordinator at PCC asked the audience to form a half circle – and after bodies and chairs were shifted into position- the current Native Nations Coordinator Simona Arteaga spoke. Upon finishing reciting the PSU Native American Studies Land Acknowledgement, which honors the tribes and lands and nations of “the Multnomah, the Kathlamet, the Clackamas, Tumwater, the Watlala bands of the Chinook, the Tualatin Kalapuya and many other indigenous nations of the Columbia River”, Arteaga introduced the three speakers of the evening:
Tawna Sanchez, Northeast Portland’s State Representative for District 43, Chris Rempel, a Cultural Educational Specialist of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, and SIletz Tribal member Jennifer Pirtle.
The three were asked to reflect of the meaning of the word sovereignty and its role in the struggle of all Indigenous peoples.
Reluctantly admitting to be the elder of the three, Sanchez decided to discuss the topic first. She recounted that as a “young radical” she found that the idea of sovereignty really started to form amongst herself, her fellow activists, and community members across the country after the “Longest Walk” took place in 1978. The Longest Walk began on Alcatraz Island located in California’s San Francisco Bay Area. Alcatraz was the site of an occupation by native activists from November of 1969 to June of 1971 which led to Former President Nixon ending the “Termination Act” in 1970. The Termination Act of 1956 mandated the elimination of federal recognition for native nations. From Alcatraz, participants of The Longest Walk travelled 2,700 miles across the continent to Washington D.C. The walk began to protest 11 congressional bills that restricted the land, fishing, and hunting rights of Native Americans. This walk inspired a reclamation of identity and unity for many, and for Sanchez, it changed the magnitude of the struggle. The Longest Walk was organized by the American Indian Movement and was met with support from the prominent chicano leader Reies Lopez Tijerina and the actor Marlon Brando during demonstrations in Washington. The walk succeeded in stopping the bills from passing.
Sanchez discussed the issues that Native American nations face when the only access to welfare, education, and protections is in the hands of the Federal Government. She noted that in September of 2018, the Mashpee Wampanoag faced a Trump Administration decision which nullified their right to large amounts of land in Eastern Massachusetts and claimed it as Federal Land. A main topic that Sanchez discussed was the jeopardy that the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) is in under the Trump Administration. The ICWA guarantees that Native children will not be adopted by non-native families. According to Lakota People’s Law Project, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit against the ICWA claiming that it was unconstitutional “because it places the child’s race over their general best interest.” Judge O’Connor upheld Paxton’s reasoning in court, undermining the ICWA.
Not everything reported by Sanchez was doom and gloom. She took time to praise the Senate Bill 13 of 2017 which mandated that, in Oregon, schools will teach about the Native history within the state.
Chris Rempel began by discussing his own history with words like “sovereignty” and “decolonization” and the fact that these words didn’t really exist for him growing up. He connected a historical understanding of the colonization of North America to the word Sovereignty. He explained that the very idea of Sovereignty comes from the European perspective that land is a resource. He claimed that to be sovereign in a European society meant to have an “ownership” of land rather than experiencing the validity of a culture which is directly tied to the land its people have occupied for generations. According to Rempel, the European concept of land ownership is something that didn’t really exist in North America before colonization and is an ideology and political stance which has since has been forced upon Native Nations. This ideology still influences how the federal government will choose to recognize or not recognize nations and tribes that have existed on this land for hundreds of years before the first settlers landed. Rempel emphasized that “sovereignty is granted to tribes as long as it is convenient” by the United States Government.
He stated firmly that Tribal Colleges that do not have to be aligned or affirmed by western standards of teaching would be a very important step to native sovereignty – as tribes must be able to spend time teaching about their culture and way of life.
To Rempel, true sovereignty means not needing or seeking recognition from the Federal government?. Like Black Lives Matter leaders, he believes that people need to be working inside and outside of institutions to ‘get the boots off of people’s necks’ and preparing a vision for the future by analyzing the past. Finalizing his time talking, Chris Rempel stated that “a hundred years ago we would have been rounded up” for participating in such an event as Sovereignty: Past, Present and Future.
Jennifer Pirtle a member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, focused on the aspects of healing necessary to gain a sense of sovereignty, asking questions such as: “How can we take care of our own?” and “How can we take care of our kids?” She agreed with Chris Rempel about the importance of self-directed schooling – connecting it to the experience of her daughter feeling isolated in public school. We can observe historically the impact between schooling and the erasure of Native American cultures in American History. Hundreds of thousands of children were forced into boarding schools and removed of their culture through strict religious conditioning. The absence of self directed native education programs seems to mirror this technique of erasure in the minds of these two speakers. Pirtle was very focused on the healing of trauma – noting that the history of violence imposed onto Native Americans has left a generational scar. She understands the importance of trauma healing in terms of the “principle of seven generations,” which states that an individual should be thinking about how their actions will influence seven generations after them and how they are influenced by seven generations before them.