Skip to main content

FCNL’s Native American Advocacy program seeks to remind members of Congress that addressing Native American needs is not just a matter of serving a special interest group but a trust and moral obligation.

The United States contains within it hundreds of other nations. Tribal nations — 567 of them — have a unique status in this country: they are not states, but they are more than just another ethnic group in our multi-ethnic society.

Tribal nations existed and ruled before the United States formed. But from the time of first encounters with Native peoples on this continent, Europeans proclaimed the “Doctrine of Discovery,” which they believed gave them the right as a conquering people and as Christians to own all of the land and resources they found. (See page 8.) Most of these Native nations were annihilated, conquered, or forced into the dominion of the federal government. But the survivors are still nations.

U.S. relations with tribal governments are described in complex layers of treaties, laws, and promises. The honor of the United States and the humanity of its varied peoples require these to be kept. The U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the U.S. signed in 2010 (with caveats and reservations), further commits the U.S. to transparency, consultation, and integrity in carrying out these treaties and promises. FCNL’s Native American Advocacy program seeks to remind members of Congress that addressing Native American needs is not just a matter of serving a special interest group but a trust and moral obligation.

Our work advocating with Native Americans is grounded first in listening. Here are some of the priorities we have heard.

Healing Past Wrongs

In the late 1800s, the U.S. government began a project of “assimilation” of Native Americans, many of whom had already been forced westward to land “reserved” for their use. Communally held land was broken up, and children were taken from their homes to be taught to suppress Native languages and traditions. These policies continued, with some variations, well into the 20th century.

Healing the experience of forced assimilation

From the 1880s until the late 1960s, many Native children were sent to boarding schools designed to eradicate all Native culture and practices believed to stand in the way of progress and assimilation. Quakers were among the denominational groups who offered to operate these schools.

Students were expressly forbidden to partake in their traditional ceremonies or practices, and observing Christianity was compulsory. The schools outlawed speaking in Native languages, forcing children to live with others from different tribes and to speak English at all times. Their hair was cut and they were dressed in Western clothing rather than the familiar clothing of their parents and ancestors.

These schools were closed or taken over and re-envisioned by tribes, but the effects endure. Generations of potential tribal leaders, teachers, and advisors grew up without a traditional understanding of tribal governance, compassion, and relationships to each other and to the earth. For Native Americans, culture lives in the community even more than in the individual. The schools helped fragment communities, leading many traditional practices and some Native languages to be lost.

As more people of faith are becoming aware of their denominations’ involvement in boarding schools, Native Americans encourage them to acknowledge that contribution as a way to begin the healing. Encouraging Congress and the administration to enact legislation to aid Native communities in their own efforts to recover, rebound, and rebuild their communities is another way to help.

While the effects of this trauma are visible today in the poverty, ill health, addictions, and suicidal behavior that are epidemic among Native peoples, resilience is also visible. Through resilience, creativity, and deep cultural knowledge, Native Americans have survived as peoples and nations.

Reclaiming Native languages

Language is critical to identity, both individual and shared. Native languages carry concepts of spiritual connection and community relationship. When the boarding schools forbid generations of Native children to speak their languages, they deprived later generations the opportunity to learn the languages — with all their nuances — from their elders.

Members of Congress heeded calls from the Native American community to help revitalize and reclaim this aspect of their culture by passing the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act, which became law in 2006. FCNL lobbied for the original passage of this act and most recently to reauthorize the program. The act promotes opportunities for children to learn their Native languages from elders and in schools. Proposed legislation, the Language Preservation Act and the Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act, would authorize Native language immersion programs, similarly helping to recover not just the traditional words but the deep values that they carry.

Investing in Native youth

Native youth are one of the most vulnerable populations in this country. Bearing the effects of historical trauma passed down generation to generation, they are less likely to have adequate education, health care, and food security, even in comparison to other people living in poverty in the United States. Native youth suicide is 2.5 times the national rate, showing the federal government’s failure to meet its trust responsibility. Many tribes are working to heighten young Native Americans’ sense of purpose, cultural understanding, and community belonging.

The Obama administration has made an important effort to reach out to and invest in Native youth, both highlighting the importance of their voice within the federal government and helping them to connect to other Native youth across the nation. This initiative is meaningful and is creating significant waves across Indian Country as Native youth are given some of the tools they need in order to take on leadership roles in their communities and to hold on to hope for their collective future.

Improving justice systems

Native lands are grossly underserved by police. In 2008, no more than 3 officers were ever on duty on the more than 2 million acres of the Sioux’s Standing Rock reservation. Since then tribal justice agencies have remained chronically underfunded or have actually lost funding.

Even when tribal police apprehend someone who has committed a crime, jurisdictional issues on Native lands can hinder effective responses. In most cases, tribal police may not arrest — and tribal courts may not try — a non-Indian accused of a serious crime in Indian Country. This patchwork of laws protecting Native peoples was improved when Congress reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act in 2013. FCNL was a strong advocate for the provisions of this legislation helping victims of domestic and sexual violence in Indian Country. But much more needs to be done.

Self-Governance and Self-Determination

In the mid-20th century, the U.S. government began to terminate the official “federal recognition” of dozens of tribes. Tribal governments lost authority, and tribal citizens were encouraged to move to cities. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that tribes began to regain autonomy, as the federal government shifted its policies to emphasize self-determination and self-governance. This policy shift was carried further in the next century, beginning with President Clinton and continuing under President Obama, with required federal agency consultations and attention to stronger government-to-government relations with tribes.

Protecting Native religious freedom

Federal policies and practices that address Native American sacred sites, objects, and land are heavily influenced by the idea that the Christian settlers who “discovered” the land have a better claim to ownership than those who lived on it for centuries. As Jefferson Keel, 20th president of the National Congress of American Indians, said, “We were a people before ‘We the people.’”

Even with the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993 and later laws and cases, sacred sites tend to lose in competitions with “progress.” Even federally reserved land can be sold for the right price to a mining company, without consultation with tribes in the area. As just one example, in December 2014 a provision slipped into the National Defense Authorization Act exchanging one federal land parcel for another. This exchange gave away a site holy to the San Carlos Apache tribe and four other tribes in Arizona to an international copper mining corporation, in spite of tribes’ protests. FCNL lobbied hard against this provision and continues to press back against legislation that violates treaty obligations and cultural legacies.

Advancing self-determination

Tribal governments must address the same education, infrastructure, and economic development issues as most state and local governments — typically with fewer resources, and with an additional layer of federal bureaucracy and requirements to contend with.

Over the past 15 years, most federal government agencies have been in consultation with tribal governments. A number of tribal assistance programs were rewritten in the 1970s and later as “self-determination” or “self-governance” programs. These laws authorize tribes to administer a program and receive federal reimbursement for administrative costs. As of 2009, almost half the tribes had self-governance arrangements with the Department of the Interior, and about sixty percent with the Department of Health and Human Services. FCNL has lobbied for full payment of administrative costs, even when federal agencies’ budgets were strained by spending cuts.

President Obama has convened Tribal Nations Summits annually since his first year in office in 2009. These summits are an occasion for cabinet agencies to meet with tribal leaders to hear their concerns, questions, and views on current or planned federal activities. Government-to-government relations are rarely smooth, especially when one government controls the resources and has a long history of dealing in bad faith with leaders and citizens of the other government. But the consultations open the doors for repairs and rebuilding.

Preserving land and resources

Like any nation, an Indian nation’s land base helps define the community and provide resources for its survival. Within its borders, the tribal nation keeps the peace, cares for children and elders, honors and keeps traditions, and develops and sustains an economy. Reservations governed by tribes range from the 16-million-acre Navajo Nation, with lands in three states, to a 1.32-acre parcel in California where the Pit River Tribe’s cemetery is located. Many reservations are smaller than 1,000 acres, and many tribes have no land base.

About 56 million acres remain in Indian Country within the continental U.S. Alaska Natives control another 44 million acres, which they own directly through regional corporations and villages. In much of Indian Country, however, lands are held “in trust”: the federal government owns and is obligated through various treaties to protect the land, and the tribe retains an “equitable interest.” As with all federal land, state and local governments can tax neither the trust nor the business conducted there. As tribes’ revenues have increased, from extractive and gaming industries in particular, more municipalities are resistant to this arrangement. Today, U.S. and tribal leaders are considering how to “modernize” the definitions of the trust relationship – keeping the essentials that honor the treaties made long ago, and modifying some of the more paternalistic aspects of relationship.

In all these areas of government and culture, Native peoples are taking action and advocating for their interests and survival. As they seek to overcome the legacy of violence and subjugation in their past – and the effects and legacy still felt today – there is an important role for people of faith and conscience to educate ourselves to be effective and compassionate allies and to hold our elected leaders accountable for upholding our moral and legal obligations to the Native peoples in our communities.

There are many needs in Indian country. The federal government should provide adequate funding for the essentials of life, not as a gift or as charity, but as the fulfillment of commitments made at the founding and throughout the expansion of this nation.