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Working with Native Americans to Bend the Arc of History to Justice

By Ruth Flower, November 1, 2019


FCNL’s work on Native American started soon after it established an office on Capitol Hill. The stories that arise from the decades of the work behind us are not just our stories—they are still connected to the lives of many of our relatives.

One story was retold to me recently by a young Seneca man, who was filming a discussion at a conference on Indian boarding schools. He said his grandfather remembered the work of the Quakers in the late 1950s to stop the building of the Kinzua Dam in Pennsylvania. The dam was part of a plan to save Pittsburgh from flooding, by flooding one-third of the land reserved for the Seneca Nation.

Led by Arthur Morgan, a civil engineer and Quaker, FCNL and the American Friends Service Committee advocated diverting the water elsewhere to preserve Seneca lands while saving Pittsburgh from the floods. When the Army Corps of Engineers rejected this proposal, FCNL lobbied for compensation and relocation assistance for the Seneca.

From the late 1950s through the mid-1970s, volunteers led FCNL’s policy work.

From the late 1950s through the mid-1970s, volunteers led FCNL’s policy work. The work was based largely on a series of consultations by a group equally made up of tribal and yearly meeting representatives. These consultations led to opposition to the U.S. government’s termination policy that ended federal recognition of many tribes as government entities.

The consultations also strengthened grassroots support for adequate funding for schools and health care, for the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (P.L.92- 203) Act, and for oil rights for the Osage Nation.

Staffing the Program

In the mid-1970s, the work continued with the establishment of a staffed Native American program. It was supported by several yearly meetings, the United Society of Friends Women, and a few individuals. The inaugural staff were Diane Payne and Brian Michener, who served as Friends in Washington starting in 1975.

In summarizing FCNL’s work with Native Americans in the two years she was at FCNL, Diane Payne Working with Native Americans to Bend the Arc of History to Justice By Ruth Flower wrote: “The Friends in Washington worked on water rights (Colorado River, Orme Dam flooding, and unauthorized sale of water by the Department of the Interior), helped draft amendments on the Indian Health Care Improvement Act (P.L. 94-437), and arranged for expert testimony on the upcoming crime bill regarding its impact on Native Americans.”

She added that FCNL staff helped 45 members of the Lakota Treaty Council in arranging meetings with 70 members of Congress about the violence at Pine Ridge. They also sought congressional hearings on the activities of the FBI and the U.S. Army in the reservation.

For more than 40 years, FCNL’s work has continued to touch on this wide range of issues.

Native American Children

In the late 1970s the FCNL staff was augmented by Mennonite volunteers and a Jesuit priest. FCNL played a major role in the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act (P.L. 95–608). To curb the all-too frequent practice of removing Native children from their families and making them easily available for adoption, this law required tribes to be notified and given the opportunity to be involved in decisions about their placement.

FCNL staff helped 45 members of the Lakota Treaty Council in arranging meetings with 70 members of Congress about the violence at Pine Ridge.

Don Reeves, an FCNL lobbyist, and his wife Barbara had adopted a Native child in Nebraska. They testified in Congress based on their own experience and their growing understanding that Native children need their own families and communities to thrive. Their testimony and FCNL’s lobbying helped move the bill through Congress. The law is under attack again today and needs support.

In more recent decades, FCNL has supported the restoration of Native languages, resulting in the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act of 2006 (P.L. 109-394). The law promotes opportunities for children to learn their Native languages from elders and in schools.

Working with our interfaith colleagues, FCNL also had significant impact in obtaining funding to rebuild Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools. About 40,000 Indian children attend the 183 BIE schools; more than half of the schools needed to be torn down and replaced. FCNL and other faith-groups lobbied vigorously for adequate funds to replace all the schools in poor condition, at an estimated cost of $1.3 billion. While Congress declined to provide that amount, it did increase funding to $58 million by 2016, allowing the worst of the schools to be replaced.

Tribal Justice Systems

Another area of FCNL’s Native American advocacy has been the tribal justice systems. The “termination era”—when tribal governments were weakened, and many members were dispersed to cities—seriously challenged tribal governments’ ability to keep their citizens safe.

Jurisdiction over tribal lands and tribal citizens is fraught with overlapping complications, laws, and interpretations. This crazy quilt of laws has prevented the underfunded and overextended tribal police and courts from protecting tribal citizens.

In most cases, tribal police could not arrest—and tribal courts could not try—a non-Indian accused of a serious crime in Indian Country. FCNL lobbied for the Tribal Law and Order Act (Public Law 111–211) in 2011. In 2013, it lobbied for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). For the first time, VAWA included language specific to tribal jurisdiction and provided resources directly to tribal justice systems.

FCNL’s work in this field continues now with a focus on missing and murdered Indigenous women.

These newer laws introduced some changes that now allow tribal police in some circumstances to arrest a non-Indian for certain kinds of crimes committed in Indian country. FCNL’s work in this field continues now with a focus on missing and murdered Indigenous women.

All these stories from FCNL’s past hold significant places on a long arc of change. Nothing happens quickly, but looking back it is possible to see clear contrasts with previous policies, and even sharper contrasts with the way things might have gone if FCNL and other advocates had not engaged in the effort. The long arc of history bends toward justice, but only when people of each generation stand on it.

Ruth Flower is former FCNL legislative director. This article is based on her remarks during the event Oct. 23, 2019 event, Indigenous People Day: The Long Arc of FCNL’s Advocacy (fcnl.org/qwc). Her original paper, “Quakers, Indians, and Congress: 40 Years of Engagement,” is available online at decolonizingquakers.org.

Ruth Flower

  • Annual Meeting 2018 Keynote Speaker, Consultant, Native American Policy

Ruth’s work with FCNL began in 1981, when she joined the staff to lobby on domestic issues. After a decade with the American Association of University Professors, she rejoined the staff in 2006 to lead FCNL’s domestic lobbying team. Her leadership on lobbying and in coalitions has spanned issues from health care and federal budget priorities to immigration and the death penalty. In 2016, the Coalition on Human Needs honored Ruth at its Human Needs Hero Reception. Most recently, Ruth has worked with FCNL to launch the Native American Congressional Advocacy program.