Tribes press U.S. to honor sacred obligations
Facebook Twitter Email

SOVEREIGNTY RUN: Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Quinault Nation President Pearl Capoeman-Baller march to U.S. Supreme Court. Photo © NSM.

Quinault Nation member and run leader Fawn Sharp.
Tribal leaders and their supporters gathered on the steps of the United States Supreme Court on Monday for a rousing rally in support of self-determination.

More than 100 people turned out on the opening day of the Court's fall session to draw attention to attacks on tribal sovereignty. The focus was on recent judicial rulings but speakers called on all branches of the federal government to respect Indian rights.

"Our tribal nations entered into treaties with the United States," said National Congress of American Indians President Tex Hall, "and we've lived up to that commitment."

"It is our inherent right to self-government," he added. "We're trying to make the Supreme Court live up to that contract with America."

The rally was the culmination of a 2,800-mile cross-country relay organized by tribal leaders and Indian advocates. A small team of runners left the Quinault Nation in Washington on September 11 and made their way through 12 states, braving tough weather, occasionally rough terrain and sometimes going it alone for hundreds of miles.

"The last day we faced a mountain," recalled group leader Fawn Sharp, who coordinated the effort with fellow Quinault tribal member Natalie Charley. "Over the course of time, we've had leaders that have had to face many, many hills and mountains."

"They conquered those mountains," she said.

Once seen as a protector of Indian Country, the Supreme Court in recent years has issued a series of rulings that have limited tribal jurisdiction. In the 2000-2001 term alone, tribes lost five out of six cases, including one to strike down the Navajo Nation's right to tax.

"It is because of this decision and the decisions in other recent cases that have an adverse impact on Indian Country that we have banded together," observed Navajo President Kelsey Begaye. "This will be a long fight but we are warriors and we have the stamina to continue this fight for as long as it takes."

The Justices haven't accepted many Indian related cases since that fateful term. But they will hear the Bush administration's appeal of two breach of trust rulings that will define the limits of the government's obligations to tribes.

Efforts to counteract past and future rulings are underway. Hall and Begaye chair the Sovereignty Protection Initiative, which has drafted legislation to clarify tribal authority over their lands.

Tribe also are turning to Congress to create standards for management of Indian property. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who joined the runners on the final leg to the Court, promised help.

"The federal government has unique legal and moral obligations to Native Americans and it's critical that we honor those obligations," he said.

Oral arguments in the Navajo Nation and White Mountain Apache Tribe dispute are expected in December. The tribes have separate cases but the Court will hear them jointly.

Relevant Links:
Sovereignty Run -
Sovereignty Protection Initiative -

Related Stories:
Sovereignty Run ends at Supreme Court (10/7)
Supreme Court beginning new term (10/1)
Historic sovereignty run starts today (9/11)
'It's going to change Indian Country' (8/14)
Tribes seek to overturn Supreme Court (2/27)
Inouye challenges tribes on sovereignty (2/26)