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Suzan Shown Harjo: Sen. Obama's words matter more
Monday, October 27, 2008
Filed Under: Opinion | Politics

Last week, as leaders of major Native nations in Arizona were endorsing Sen. Barack Obama for president over their own senator, one former California tribal leader was praising Sen. John McCain’s “deeds” over Obama’s “words.”

The past chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, Deron Marquez, now a doctoral student, wrote an opinion piece, “Deeds, not words, should persuade tribal nations” (Indian Country Today, Oct. 21, 2008): “Instead of more promises, let’s give attention to real accomplishments involving issues of significant importance, which have benefited Indian tribes because of Sen. McCain’s deeds.” He praised McCain as pivotal to enactment of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

It is precisely because of their review and assessment of McCain’s actions, including his repatriation and sacred lands record, that many top tribal officials support Obama for president. San Carlos Apache Tribe Chairman Wendsler Nosie, Tohono O’odham Nation Chairman Ned Norris, Jr., Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley, Jr., and others rallied on Oct. 22 at the Democratic headquarters in Phoenix to show Native support for Obama. Their three nations together own land equal to the combined territory of Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. They deal with all the issues faced by states, and with others states do not have to face, such as having to defend sacred places against desecration without the protections of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

I read the opinion piece with great interest because it reached a wrong conclusion based on a misreading of repatriation history and McCain’s role. As one of the people who made and wrote repatriation history and law, I can say that there are hundreds of people who could lay a better claim than the senator to being one of NAGPRA’s authors. It’s interesting that McCain himself does not make this claim and does not include Native cultural rights laws in his policy statements.

Before addressing the present topic, I offer a cautionary note for anyone reading the background of any law to keep in mind two things: 1) legislative history is merely a stipulated truth and is not truth or history and 2) members of Congress don’t give birth to ideas or campaigns for positive federal Indian law. In this case, even among his colleagues, the senator must stand behind scores of members who can more accurately be described as champions of repatriation.

The modern efforts to protect sacred places, stop grave-robbing, repatriate our dead relatives and living sacred beings, reform museums and build a national Indian museum next to the Capitol were not born in Washington, DC. Those goals were envisioned by a coalition that began working toward them after ceremonies at Bear Butte, SD, in June of 1967. That work led to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, which contained the first museum reforms and repatriations of human remains and sacred objects from federal museums and agencies. Our coalition grew to national scope and included tribal officials, traditional religious leaders and practitioners and Native cultural rights specialists.

In the 1980s, we began negotiating a repatriation agreement with the Smithsonian Institution, which was prerequisite to the nationalization of the world class Indian collection and the making of the national Indian museum. I was director and spokesperson for the National Congress of American Indians and a trustee of the Museum of the American Indian in New York, with Vine Deloria, Jr. (Standing Rock Sioux), and N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa). In the mid-1980s, we involved Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, who became the congressional champion for our repatriation and Indian museum campaigns.

Anti-repatriation scientists from Arizona and elsewhere slowed our momentum by having McCain insist that Indians take part in a national dialogue at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. I selected the Indian side of the national dialogue, which included Roger Buffalohead (Ponca), Oren Lyons (Onondaga) and other Native repatriators, who well remember it as the museums’ last-ditch effort to stop repatriation law and to insert “scientific rights” into our Native human rights law. We refer to it as McCain letting the anti-repatriation museums undermine certain aspects of repatriation law.

It is at the point of the national dialogue – more than 20 years after we began our work to achieve repatriation policy and museum reform and nearly 10 years after AIRFA -- that Marquez fancies McCain airlifting NAGPRA to the Indians. What did happen was that the Indian side of the table suspended the national dialogue in the summer of 1989 and returned that winter, only after we achieved the National Museum of the American Indian Act with the historic repatriation provision covering the Smithsonian. Walter Echo-Hawk (Pawnee) and I returned to the Heard for the final writing of the national dialogue report, in which some of the archeologists and physical anthropologists actually disassociated themselves by name and footnote from the term “human remains.”

We presented the national dialogue report to McCain in January of 1990, as we began our negotiations with representatives of museums nationally on NAGPRA, which was signed into law 11 months after the NMAI Act and 23 years after we formed our coalition. To maintain perspective, NAGPRA was the third repatriation law and followed numerous other amendments to related laws requiring tribal consultations.

While we have had many successes, part of our coalition work has not been realized: a cause of action to protect all our sacred places. McCain would not support such legal protections in the early 1990s, when Inouye was championing the Native American Freedom of Religion Act. If McCain, at any point in his long congressional career, had championed his own sacred places right of action or gotten out of the way of others’ attempts, the Native peoples in his state and nationwide would not be facing the spiritual crises of today at San Francisco Peaks and elsewhere.

Instead, he and others in the Arizona delegation took targeted action against one sacred place in their state, when they secured space for a federally financed telescope project atop Mount Graham, an Apache holy mountain. All laws that could have given the Apache peoples a voice in the permitting process were waived through earmarks, which the senator so famously claims to eschew. These deeds may have something to do with the entire San Carlos Apache Tribal Council endorsing Obama over McCain for president.

By contrast, Obama is pledged to legal protections of our cultural rights and sacred places. His Native American policy reads: “Native American sacred places and site-specific ceremonies are under threat from development, pollution, and vandalism. Barack Obama supports legal protections for sacred places and cultural traditions, including Native ancestors’ burial grounds and churches.”

Like the tribal leaders in Arizona and across the country, I’ll take Obama’s words and word over McCain’s deeds any day, particularly on November 4.

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee, is a writer, curator and policy advocate, who is President of The Morning Star Institute in Washington, DC. A founding trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian, she also is former executive director of the National Congress of American Indians and past news director of the American Indian Press Association. She can be reached at

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