Why Native American Heritage Month Is Complicated


(ANALYSIS) November is Native American Heritage Month, an interesting if not complex time to celebrate Indigenous people. 

Many Indigenous people complain about November being selected for the celebration — after all, the month holds Thanksgiving. To many Native people, Thanksgiving is a reminder of the attempted genocide of many tribes by the settlers they helped, not to mention the theft of homelands and children stolen for boarding schools. 

As a result, many Indigenous people hold a Day of Mourning rather than a day of thanksgiving. 

What non-Natives don’t understand

During this heritage celebration, it becomes clear there are many things non-Natives do not understand about tribes. If there is one thing that baffles most non-Natives and starts a lot of arguments it is the fact all federally recognized tribes are sovereign nations within the United States. That is 577 separate countries living and working under their own laws as well as federal laws. 

Granted, it can be a bit confusing. After all, everyone is governed by the same federal laws and the Constitution, right? Not if you are on Native lands — then it is a very different world. 

First, a quick word about Native lands: Not all tribes have reservations. In fact, only about half — 300 out of 577 federally recognized and 100 of state-only recognized tribes — have a reservation. The rest are tribal lands. What’s the difference? 

Reservation vs. tribal lands

A reservation is permanent land given to a tribe as a permanent homeland through treaties, executive orders, administrative action or acts of Congress. Tribal lands, on the other hand, are not permanent and can be allotments trust lands, restricted fee lands or fee lands. Fee lands and restricted fee lands means the tribe or tribal members can hold the legal title, but the land is under certain federal restrictions.  

While land is complicated, even more complicated are the laws governing Native-held lands. Because of the sovereign nation status, some state and federal laws do not apply. Repeatedly — 33 times — the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a Native nation’s right to create its own laws and govern according to tribal customs and traditions.  

For example, the 2020 McGirt v. Oklahoma decision upheld a tribe’s right to hold its own courts and sentence tribal citizens for crimes. In addition, the majority opinion written by Justice Neal Gorsuch formally classified a majority of Oklahoma’s Eastern half — including the Tulsa Metropolitan area – as tribal lands.  

Other court cases have upheld tribal rights to deal with crimes, adoption, mineral rights and many other issues.

No free press in Indian country

One of most important issues in Indian country to me is that while most tribes have a constitution modeled after the U.S. Constitution (which was adopted from the Iroquois Confederacy’s Great Law of Peace), many tribes do not have a First Amendment clause, or at least one that is followed as closely as the one in the U.S. Constitution. Tribal councils are powerful and can decide their people do not need the rights guaranteed under such an amendment. 

What this means is there is very little free press in Indian country. And any free press right given by a tribe is only for Indigenous journalists, sometimes limited to only members of that tribe. 

Recently, the documentary “Bad Press” by Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler examined the case of the Muscogee Tribal Council revoking the tribe’s Free Press Act, censoring much of the news. The film follows the work of editor Angel Ellis, who fought to reinstate the law through a voter-supported constitutional amendment. 

This April, Landsberry-Baker, Peeler and Ellis will be in Moscow as the keynote speakers for the Oppenheimer Ethics Symposium sponsored by the University of Idaho’s School of Journalism and Mass Media. The documentary — an award winner at several film festivals including the Sundance Festival — will be shown at the Kenworthy Performing Arts Center. 

Native America is complicated, and tribes do not always agree with each other. However, learning more about the issues and the individual local tribes can help non-Natives understand the significant contributions Indigenous Americans make to daily U.S. life as well as the important matters facing tribal members that non-Natives don’t experience. Learning the substantial heritage of Native America can enrich everyone. 

This column is republished with permission from Spokane FaVs.

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