Brian Patterson: Native lands are ours to defend or ours to lose

Land. Native Land. Good land. Our land. Sacred land. The land that holds the dust of our ancestors since time immemorial.

Land. The place we know as home, where our roots sink deep – roots that tie us to the past and assure our future.

Land. Our ancient Creation stories and rituals bring us back to the land from which we have sprung and from which springs our responsibility to be good stewards and caretakers of Mother Earth.

Land. Something large and deep in our hearts and in our minds and in our spirits.

Land. Our respect for all beings and all creatures and all things is inseparable from our respect for the land that supports us all and those time honored teachings that connect us to the land.

Land. Native cultures are varied but we are united and in communion on one thing – our deep roots in our land.

Land. On our lands, we laugh and cry and know that we have survived and we dream dreams of a brighter future for our people and plan unto the seventh generation.

Land. It is not simply the foundation of our past, but the very foundation upon which we build to assure the well-being of our future generations, both spiritually and economically.

Land. It is not something we can guarantee to our children, but something for which we must fight every day - as our ancestors did before us. It is something coveted by others, who seek control and ownership of what is ours for reasons alien to us.

And so we must take a hard look at things as they really stand. In Washington, D.C., significant forces seek to prevent us from regaining what was stolen. They act to block the recognition of our ancient rights, the expression of our inherent sovereignty and the fulfillment of the commitment of the United States to recognize and respect Tribal sovereignty, which is founded upon land.

Recently, through our strength in unity, we regained some of our authority with the passage of the Violence Against Women Act, which includes provisions recognizing Tribal criminal jurisdiction over non-Indian offenders. And we regained an increased measure of control with passage of the Hearth Act, which for most purposes puts the leasing of our lands in our control, not the BIA’s.

But we have suffered defeats including, most notably, the Supreme Court’s opinion in Carcieri v. Salazar, where the Court held that Interior cannot take land into trust for some Tribes, although we don’t know for sure which ones. And in the Supreme Court’s opinion in Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians v. Patchak, where the Court overturned decades of precedent to hold that Indian lands, once considered secure after being taken into trust, are still subject to challenge. And in the Supreme Court’s opinion in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, we saw our rights to our children narrowed – our children can be taken from us and thus from our lands who may not know their voices, feel their footsteps, and know the caress of their care.

As our ancestors before us, we must rally to the defense of our land. We must fight for the land rights of all Tribes, including the overturning of Carcieri with the Carcieri fix, and the advancement of the Patchak Patch, and efforts to defend the constitutionality of federal laws which recognize Tribal rights, including the right to raise our children on our land.

Only together can we protect our lands. Only divided are we assured of failure. As the seasons change, and as spring comes each year, we are reminded of renewal and the triumph of life; so, too, let us be renewed to the effort to defend our lands and to the future of our children.

Native lands – ours to defend or ours to lose.

Brian Patterson is President of United South and Eastern Tribes, Incorporated, which is dedicated to promoting Indian leadership, improving the quality of life for American Indians, and protecting Indian rights and resources on Tribal lands. Although its guiding principal is unity, USET plays a major role in the self-determination of all member Tribes by working to improve the capabilities of Tribal governments. Established in 1969, United South and Eastern Tribes Inc., is a non-profit, intertribal organization that collectively represents its member Tribes at the regional and national level.

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