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Cedric Sunray: Cherokee Nation tries to 'Trump' federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act

The annual Red Earth Native American Cultural Festival in Oklahoma showcases Indian artists. Photo from Facebook

The Cherokee Nation's Trumpian Wall
By Cedric Sunray

The Oklahoma State Legislature recently passed HB 2261, whose intent it is to criminalize and force jail time upon individual artists, visual performers and writers whose tribes are not federally recognized.

Contradiction number one: Oklahoma has the second-highest overall incarceration rate in the country and the highest rate amongst women. Currently, a massive effort is underway in the state to divert jail and prison time for non-violent offenders due to extreme overcrowding issues and continual recidivism. Even so, our predominantly White legislature, many of whose members support efforts to create diversion programs for non-violent offenders, caved to an economically powerful lobby led by the Cherokee Nation.

Contradiction number two: Oklahoma currently has over 400 Title VII grantees in local educational agencies, Indian tribes and organizations, post-secondary institutions, and other entities which bring in millions of dollars to state coffers. The purpose of Title VII is to fund Indian, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Native education programs with “the goal of ensuring that programs that serve Indian children are of the highest quality and provide for not only the basic elementary and secondary educational needs, but also the unique educational and culturally related academic needs of these children.”

Title VII encompasses federally recognized, state-recognized and terminated tribes. While the state via this law would like to prohibit “non-federal” Indian inclusion in the state, rest assured, it will continue to receive the massive sums of money that “non-federal” tribes and their members bring to the state via Title VII. Students from “non-federal” tribes supported by these state and tribal institutions can then be prosecuted as criminals post-graduation one can only assume.

To no surprise, the crafters of HB 2261, Senator John Sparks and Representative Chuck Hoskins, are both members of the Cherokee Nation. Senator Sparks holds an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a law degree from the University of Oklahoma. Despite this, he wrote a bill that goes completely against the federal Indian Arts & Crafts Act of 1990; a state bill which he must think “Trumps” federal law. But as the holder of a Juris Doctorate, Senator Sparks certainly knows better. The Oklahoma Legislature is famous for developing frivolous “state’s rights” bills which are overturned at taxpayer expense due to their infringement on already well established federal law.

HB 2261 has come under swift condemnation from the likes of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and other state and national tribal organizations. National Congress of American Indians Resolution #PHX-16-068 was adopted by the General Assembly at the 2016 Annual Session (October 9th- 14th) and was titled, “Protecting Native Artisans Against Impermissible Restrictive State Legislation.”

It reads in part:
WHEREAS, the purpose of protecting the integrity and of authenticity of Indian Arts and Crafts is not served by the artificial exclusion of Native artisans based on their federal status, as the United States Congress has determined, in enacting the Indian Arts and Craft Act of 1990 (25 USC 305), which already governs the subject matter nationwide; the subject matter is preempted by both federal and tribal law (US v Michigan).

NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that the National Congress of American Indians affirms the inherent dignity and identity of all American Indian peoples and opposes any effort to alienate citizens of historic American Indian Nations from their identity, culture, inherent rights, or from federal regulations or international policies under which they are protected; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that NCAI calls on the State of Oklahoma to repeal HB 2261, which has now been codified into law, as it is preempted by federal law and is in contradiction to the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 (25 USC 305)

The Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference (OIMC), a large state organization in Oklahoma representing primarily identifiable and federally recognized tribal members belonging to the United Methodist Church, unanimously adopted Resolution 1606 at the 2016 Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference on June 10th. It reads in part:
WHEREAS, the State of Oklahoma’s attempt to define and regulate American Indian identity is in direct contradiction to the National 1990 law which uses a more inclusive and appropriate language for an “Indian Tribe” in Section 309.2.

WHEREAS, the United Methodist Church has many congregations within Oklahoma and nationwide whose membership is composed in full or in part of members of both federally-recognized and state recognized (historic “non-federally recognized” tribes) such as the Yuchi Tribe of Oklahoma, Nanticoke Indian Tribe of Delaware, Lumbee Nation of North Carolina, MOWA Choctaw of Alabama, and other tribes; and

WHEREAS, members of over 20 historic “non-federal” tribes who attended federal Indian boarding schools, including Chilocco in Oklahoma, will be eliminated from being able to represent their artistic creations as American Indian made; and

WHEREAS, House Bill No. 2261 authors did not consult the majority of Oklahoma Indian Nations and tribal organizations and the Bill did not have the support of the majority of Oklahoma Indian Nations; and

WHEREAS, the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference believes that we are called to social justice, equity, and honesty in our relations with others;

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that we stand united in our support of the diversity and richness of our God-given tribal identities and, thereby, request the removal of House Bill No. 2261.

The Alliance of Colonial Era Tribes (ACET), an organization representing numerous impacted tribes along the East and Southern coasts of the United States, passed Resolution # 2016-06-08, which remarks:
WHEREAS, the August 30, 2012 addendum on the situation of indigenous peoples in the United States of America in the Report of the Special Rapporteur, James Anaya, on the rights of indigenous peoples to the United Nations General Assembly mentions the inequities of federal policies which have left many non-BIA listed tribes “especially disadvantaged;” and

WHEREAS, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) states that Indigenous peoples have the right (inter alia) of self-determination [Article 4], “not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture” and to be protected from “Any action which has the aim or effect of depriving them of their integrity as distinct peoples, or of their cultural values or ethnic identities” [Article 8]; and

WHEREAS, the Oklahoma State Legislature has passed legislation to limit the definition of “American Indian” and related nomenclature to mean exclusively those who are members of tribes listed as federally recognized by the BIA; and

WHEREAS, such a misguided policy excludes many who are members of historic American Indian Tribes which are not listed as federally recognized by the BIA, placing the power to define American Indian people wholly and exclusively into the hands of the federal government, degrading inherent identity, dignity, and sovereignty of all American Indian Nations and Peoples and perpetuating the damaging effects of the doctrine of discovery and colonization.

These attempts of exclusion and wall building directed by the Cherokee Nation, which are eerily similar to the statements and actions of current Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump, have become too common place in Indian Country over the past two decades. The CNO has been highly proficient in placing its membership within the high-ranking arena of Indian politics. When President Obama began his annual meetings with tribal leaders, it was his Cherokee enrolled tribal liaison who pushed for the exclusion of historic “non-federal” tribes.

When the Office of Federal Acknowledgement within the Bureau of Indian Affairs was hiring for Director, an enrolled Cherokee received the position, despite his previously having stated his disdain for state-recognized tribes. When Haskell began banishing the members of historic “non-federal” and/or state-recognized tribes from the very school their people had attended for generations when a ¼ blood degree was required, it was a Cherokee enrolled Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs who drafted the memo and pushed the agenda; a specific result which the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) has found to be unlawful.

When the Bureau of Indian Education head, an enrolled Cherokee, at first supported this exclusion and remarked that such tribes never attended the school, a sentiment echoed also by a CNO council member at an annual NCAI conference in front of a large audience including “non-federal” attendees of Haskell, it would take a massive packet of documentation to receive a letter of apology from her. Such an apology, however, was never forthcoming from the CNO council member who produced the fraudulent remarks, who was well acquainted with the attendance history of these tribes.

When I spoke at two consecutive Bureau of Indian Affairs federal recognition listening sessions held on the Tunica-Biloxi Reservation in Louisiana, it was the Cherokee Nation’s greatest ally, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, who forced those not possessing a CDIB card from the meeting room, while allowing their white lawyers and lobbyists to remain.

I have been a firsthand witness to the attempted disenrollment of Cherokee Nation citizens from their tribe by a minority of tribal leadership. And the examples go on and on. Recent comments by individuals stating that the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians should enact similar legislation to HB 2261 in North Carolina may need a little more thought.

With historic “non-federal” tribes outnumbering the state’s lone federal tribe 10 to 1, there is a zero percent chance such a bill would ever see the light of day. Oklahoma, with 38 federal tribes and one “non-federal” tribe (the Yuchi Tribe), is ground zero for federal Indian exclusivity rhetoric disguised as a “Truth in Art Act”.

Sadly, I know firsthand that these actions by Cherokee politicians do not represent the majority opinion or sentiment of Cherokee Nation or Eastern Band citizens/members and I also know that the majority have not sanctioned this. I know this firsthand having lived and worked in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, where the Cherokee Nation is headquartered and being the father of a child who attended the Cherokee Immersion School during its inception years.

I know this firsthand having just returned from another trip back home to my father’s reservation in Alabama with my wife and children, where a quick look across our church congregation on Sunday showed numerous members of federal tribes, to include both the Cherokee Nation and the Eastern Band, who have intermarried with our people over the generations and who have called our reservation home for upwards of 60 years. I know this from the family and community members of mine who attended the Indian boarding schools with members of both of these Cherokee tribes, as well as having family members of mine via marriage who are Cherokee Nation citizens.

And not only have I witnessed the attacks of these small numbers of “representatives” on various individuals and tribes throughout the years, but I have been a firsthand recipient of the comical vitriol of these small factions, primarily operating under pseudonyms, which at last count have attempted to say that I have claimed to be about 14 different tribes, that my European surname Sunray is a “faux Indian name," that I or my parents are adopted, that my first name Cedric proves I am “part Black," that I am exclusively white, that I and my tribe are mulatto (they say this about virtually every historic “non-federal” tribe in the East and South), that I am a violent criminal, etc.

Fortunately, through this I have met the many it has been my honor to engage with through the social justice efforts that combating these exclusionary politics entails. I have been relayed information that some people feel my articles are divisive. Divisiveness to me is when injustice is met with silence.

We live in a world where shaming no longer works. Nothing I can say could ever shame anyone. People no longer get shamed due to the non-stop barrage of negative comments made about virtually everyone online these days.

We have politicians who sexual harass women cheered by massive crowds. We have star athletes who physically beat women being applauded by crowds in the tens of thousands. We are way past rational thought. Nothing anyone could say about me could impact my marriage, parenting, place within my tribe and family, outlook on myself, employment or other central element of my life. We have all long ago become numb to comment and ridicule and our now tasked solely in matters of equity and justice, it seems, with “outwitting” each other in changing law and policy.

Yes, this is how bad it has become.

If having to prove descendant status from a single federal Indian roll, many of which were haphazardly put together, is what dictates Indian identity and stands as some mythical authenticator, then we are in for a world of hurt and a list of contradictions so long I do not have even the possibility of listing them here. If a 1/8,192 (and no that is not a typo) by blood Cherokee Nation citizen/member can be legally considered an Indian writer, visual performer, and artist and a Yuchi, Nanticoke, Lumbee, MOWA Choctaw, Upper Mattaponi, Unkechaug or other historic “non-federal” tribal member whose tribes generationally attended the Indian boarding schools and/or live on some of the nation’s oldest Indian reservations can’t, then we all should just literally thrown in the towel of reason.

To the members of my own tribe and others like us, as well as countless individuals, I have always expressed the same sentiment. If someone cannot call you an adulterer. If they can’t say you have been disrespectful and hurtful to your spouse and children. If they can’t say you never gave of your time to others and actively worked to make a positive difference for your community. If they can’t say you did not express empathy to the world. If they can’t say you didn’t allow people second-chances. If they cannot say you walked away from issues of social justice. Then what are you worried about?

If the “worst” thing they can say about you is that you are a “fraud," an “appropriator," or a “wannabe” via their misguided and at time humorous justifications, then you have indeed lived a blessed and fruitful life.

The Cherokee’s Trumpian Wall must fall. Turning Oklahoma into an isolated island in Indian Country serves no purpose for anyone. Exclusion is a brain drain on Indian Country. It is a positive energy remover. Against its author’s desired effect, it does not in essence isolate Indigenous people who are not on a BIA list, but rather it is serving to further isolate the Cherokee people and whatever shrinking number of allies they have accumulated.

And if the Cherokee Nation leadership continues to purvey this idea of being “the only one to solve the problems and have the answers”, a la Donald Trump, their continued fortunes in Indian Country will be as likely as Donald becoming the next President of United States.

And no, I am not attempting to appeal to anyone’s sensibilities, morality, or ethics here. The day in America where those can possibly be leveraged or convinced of anyone has either passed or more realistically, never was present in the first place. To Donald’s credit, he simply and forcibly placed the Elephant (and Donkey) of economic power, racism and misogyny over sensibility, morality and ethics front and center in the room for everyone to finally acknowledge. Long live HB 2261!?

Cedric Sunray is an enrolled by-blood, sweat, and tears member of the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians (daddy), with proven white guy ancestry, who was born in Canada (momma) and raised in the Conch (Bahamian/Cuban) culture of Key West, Florida during the drug dealing heydays of the 1970s and 1980s prior to the island’s contested reinvention and gentrification as a playground of the elite (and wayward tourists). He currently serves as an Indigenous student coordinator and teacher at the collegiate level in Oklahoma. If you would like full copies of the resolutions mentioned in this article, he can always be reached at: