Wednesday, October 29, 2008

After Stevens, Questions for the Alaska Native Corporations

Published: October 29, 2008
The Alaska Native corporations have had Senator Ted Stevens to thank nearly every step of the way.

In 1971, a few years after he was first elected to the Senate, Mr. Stevens helped write the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Also known as the “Billion Dollar Deal,” the act established more than 200 corporations to manage almost 45 million acres and gave $962 million to Alaska Natives in return for their ceding of all aboriginal land rights.

When the Alaska Native corporations struggled in their early years as they tried to turn people who had survived on fishing and hunting into business managers and to teach thousands of villagers to call themselves shareholders, Senator Stevens was there, too.

He helped corporations with financial difficulties by persuading Congress to approve a provision in the 1986 Tax Reform Act allowing the corporations to sell their accumulated tax losses to profitable companies seeking tax write-offs.

That same year, Senator Stevens introduced legislation that allowed Alaska Native corporations to participate in a Small Business Administration 8(a) contracting program, a provision that has proven lucrative to many of them.

And just a month ago, in the wake of questions that some of the corporations were misusing the contracting program, he successfully pushed Congress to remove a provision from the 2009 Defense Authorization Act that would have limited their access.

After his conviction on Monday on charges he violated federal ethics laws by failing to report tens of thousands of dollars in gifts and services he had received from friends, Senator Stevens’s future in Congress is uncertain.

But Louis A. Thompson, 72, who has run one of the corporations, Kavilco Inc., for 36 years, said the companies had grown into sophisticated operations that could stand on their own. “Senator Stevens was very helpful early on and not just to Alaska Native corporations, to all Alaskans,” he said. “But times have changed.”

Indeed, the Alaska Native corporations have made strides since the early days, when they built seafood plants before negotiating for fish deliveries and constructed hotels in remote villages that had never seen tourists. Today, they consistently rank among state’s largest businesses. The small-business 8(a) contracting program has been important to that success.

As of May, 187 Alaska Native-owned companies were participating in the 8(a) program, according to a report by the Small Business Administration’s Office of Inspector General. From 2000 to 2006, Alaska Native corporations won nearly $13 billion in federal contracts.

Maver E. Carey, 41, the leader of one of those corporations, sees the federal contracts as the future of her business. And other small corporations are looking to her to help them navigate the complicated and expensive path to federal business.

Her enterprise, the Kuskokwim Corporation, represents Aniak and nine other remote Alaska communities. Its responsibilities cover a geographic area larger than New England, but without cellphone towers, major road systems or many jobs. “In Kalskag, one of our largest villages, there are 80 homes and 40 of them don’t have running water,” Ms. Carey said.

Kuskokwim’s 2,903 shareholders want regular corporate dividends, and many also seek educational and employment opportunities from the corporation.

Kuskokwim was founded in 1977 when 10 village corporations decided that they did not have the staff or resources to build businesses alone. The merged entity formed a headquarters in Anchorage and eked out dividends primarily through investments in Alaska real estate and a conservative portfolio of stocks and bonds.

Ms. Carey, whose maternal grandparents are Yupik Eskimo and Athabascan Indian, turned to Kuskokwim in 1994 after earning a college degree, working for an engineering firm and being laid off. “My village corporation offered me $9 an hour and I took it thinking I’d continue to look for a real job,” she said. By 2003, after she had worked in every corporate department, the board asked her to become the chief executive.

She pushed diversification, with a goal of building Kuskokwim’s shareholder equity to $100 million by 2015. Last year, it topped $18 million, up from $14 million in 2006. In 2005, the company started TKC Development Inc. to focus on federal contracting. TKC subsidiaries have won work from the United States Navy and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Last year, Ms. Carey started an Alaska Native village corporation association. Her inspiration came from conversations with other chief executives facing challenges similar to her own. A membership drive under way has registered about 50 Native corporation executives.

Their goal is to be as successful as the Afognak Native Corporation, one of Alaska’s largest businesses. Afognak is owned by 700 shareholders descended from the Alutiiq people of the Kodiak Archipelago. In 2006, its profits reached $18.8 million on revenue of $537.9 million, the latest figures available. That year, each shareholder received a dividend payment of $21,688. Afognak employs 5,000 people globally, and about 50 of them are shareholders.

Afognak is now run by a non-native chief executive with significant government experience. It won the first of its major contracts in 2000, when it secured a deal to operate Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. In recent years, it has won a contract to build a brigade combat team complex worth more than $100 million at Fort Bragg, N.C., and another worth more than $50 million to renovate the United States Embassy in São Paulo.

Still, there have been questions about the 8(a) contracts that have gone to Afognak and other Alaska Native companies. A 2006 study by the federal Government Accountability Office called for better S.B.A. supervision of Alaska Native corporations that hold 8(a) contracts. The agency’s inspector general is currently conducting an audit of S.B.A. oversight of 10 to 15 of the largest Alaska Native corporations engaged in federal contracting.

In August, it found that two companies, Goldbelt Raven L.L.C., owned by Goldbelt Inc. of Juneau, and APM L.L.C., a subsidiary of the Cape Fox Corporation of Ketchikan, violated terms of the contracting program by entering into agreements that resulted in millions of dollars in 8(a) revenues being paid to companies owned by non-native managers. The administration suspended them from the program and moved to end their eligibility. Both companies are appealing the move, according to officials representing Goldbelt and APM.

Steve Colt, the interim director at the Institute of Social and Economic Research at University of Alaska, who has studied Alaska Native corporations, said that many of the corporations struggled to stay afloat in their first two decades of operations and that Mr. Stevens and the rest of the Alaska delegation worked hard to keep them in business.

“If you look at the historical record, there were lots of incidents of Stevens being very helpful to Alaska Native corporations,” Mr. Colt said. “But I suspect that the number of assists has decreased over time.” He predicted that whoever holds the United States Senate seat for Alaska in the future will fight for legislation that protects Alaska Native corporations because they now have a major impact on the state’s economy.

Sherman Alexie on the Colbert Report

If you don't see the embedded video, follow the link on the title to see Sherman Alexie's appearance on The Colbert Report.
A Must See!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Obama's Play for Indian Country

Washington Dispatch: Barack Obama has vowed to expand the electoral map for the Dems. Turning out the politically neglected Native American vote may be the key to doing so.

By Nick Baumann

October 27, 2008

If Barack Obama wins New Mexico on November 4, he may want to thank Wizipan Garriott, the vote director of what the Obama campaign calls its "First Americans" voter outreach program. The effort targets the politically neglected but heavily Democratic Native American vote, which Obama strategists believe could be critical to putting some historically red states into play for Obama.

The Obama campaign is reluctant to discuss the details of its ground game, but it's clear the campaign's Native American outreach strategy is extensive. The campaign has two Chicago-based staffers devoted to coordinating the nationwide effort, and Garriott has recruited locals on reservations around the country to serve as paid organizers. Montana, Alaska, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and New Mexico have all been targeted at points in the campaign.

"If you're going to compete in traditionally red states as a Democrat, if you're going to expand the electoral map, then you're going to have to compete in places where native voices are of some considerable significance," says Keith Harper, a member of the Cherokee Nation who serves as the chair of Obama's Native American Policy Committee. "From time to time has a Democratic candidate opened an office on a reservation? Yes. But we have native outreach directors in numerous states. Before, it was hit or miss, little bit here, little bit there. Right now it's a comprehensive effort."

One of Obama's signature promises during the primary was that he could expand the electoral map for Democrats. And the Obama campaign sees an opening to do so in several reliably red states in the American West that have sizable Native American populations. Native Americans make up only about 1 percent of the population in the crucial swing states of Nevada and Colorado. But they're a significant presence in North Dakota (4.8 percent) and Montana (6.4 percent). And Indian country comprises nearly 10 percent of the population of New Mexico, which George W. Bush won by only a few thousand votes in 2004.

"Within many of these western states, particularly those who have over the last couple decades elected Republicans, one of the ways in which Democrats have been competitive is to ensure that they have been responsive to tribal communities," Harper says. "Democrats who have made a concerted effort to reach out to Indian country have solidified their base."

Mary Bowannie, a lecturer in Native American studies at the University of New Mexico who teaches a course called "The Native Vote," says she's noticed the Obama campaign has placed more of an emphasis on Native American voters than past Democratic candidates. "There's really been a push to get out the vote in Native American communities," she says. "There's a lot of participation and excitement. When [John] Kerry ran, he had people on the ground, but it was very much focused on getting the tribal leadership behind them. They did have some focus on community and getting out the vote, but not as much as they have recently."

It seems that the Obama campaign may be making its move for the Indian vote at just the right time, too. George Hardeen, the communications director for Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr., who has endorsed Obama, says that Navajos appear to be paying more attention to politics this year than ever before: "Access to information in a place as geographically isolated as the Navajo Nation is as great as it ever has been, and that alone has moved the message in. So even traditional Navajo people like my mother-in-law, who speaks no English...she knows who Obama is, and she knows who John McCain is. They're not watching Fox and CNN, but they are forming opinions."

For observers of Native American politics, one race in particular exemplifies this bloc's ability to determine an election. Late on election night in 2002, Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) was losing, with only a few counties left to report. It was already a banner election year for Republicans, who would finish the night having regained control of the Senate and expanded their majority in the House. Among the last votes to come in that night were from the Pine Ridge Sioux Indian Reservation, which includes Shannon County, the least white, most Native American, and second-poorest county in America. State Democrats' ambitious get-out-the-vote campaign had increased turnout among the state's Native Americans by more than 70 percent.

When all the votes were counted, more than 90 percent of Shannon County went for Johnson, who won by 524 votes over John Thune. (Republicans would later claim, falsely, that "phony Indian votes" stole the election for Johnson.)

"We swung that election," says Garriott. "And it was a huge win that reverberated around the nation. Since that time, there's been a lot more attention paid to the Indian vote."

Indian country has also been credited with delivering Montana to Bill Clinton in 1992 and a Senate seat for Democrat Maria Cantwell in Washington in 2000. In 2006, Montana Democrat Jon Tester unseated incumbent Conrad Burns due in part to vastly increased Native American turnout.

As Garriott notes, Indians' effectiveness as a voting bloc has traditionally been limited because Native Americans register to vote at far lower rates than the general population. So if the Democrats need Indian country to win in the West, they're also going to need to raise registration rates.

In concert with its outreach program, the Obama campaign began soliciting endorsements from tribal leaders as early as January 2007. It has thus far received public support from more than 100 tribal leaders and more than 20 tribes. Despite representing a state with no federally recognized tribes, Obama has put together a far-reaching Indian policy platform, calling for a White House senior adviser on Indian issues and a yearly "Tribal G8," which would bring leaders of different Indian nations together in Washington to meet with the president and help fashion the federal government's Native American policy agenda.

Sam Deloria, a long-time advocate of Native American causes, says endorsements are all well and good, but he's glad campaigns are no longer just focusing on tribal leaders. "Getting the tribal leadership to endorse you doesn't mean that they're going to put together a get-out-the-vote machine for you at their own expense," says Deloria, a lifelong independent. Both parties are starting to realize, he says, "If you want the votes, you're going to have to go out and get them."

So what about John McCain? If any Republican could have a shot at the Native American vote, it's the Arizona senator. McCain represents a state with 20 federally recognized tribes and is a former chair of the Senate Indian Affairs committee, where he oversaw the investigation that put Jack Abramoff in jail for defrauding the Native American tribes that were his clients. Hardeen, the Navajo president's spokesman, says McCain has a long history of maintaining good relationships with tribes. When Hardeen was a reporter, McCain spoke to him briefly about his relationship with tribes. "He told me his proudest moment in politics was receiving the endorsement of every Arizona tribe when he ran for reelection in the Senate. That's how well he was respected by tribes then," Hardeen says.

But for McCain the problem of history remains. Native Americans are traditionally Democratic voters, so he is automatically at a disadvantage when trying to convince a poor, rural population with scant access to information to back him. In many traditional homes (known as "hogans") in Navajo country, it's common to see pictures of John F. Kennedy. "I can't explain why John Kennedy resonated with traditional Navajo people going back all the way to the early '60s," Hardeen says. But he did. And Obama is poised to benefit from that.

On Thursday, the AP reported John McCain was drastically cutting his ad spending in Colorado. New Mexico has looked out of reach for the Republicans for some time. Kalyn Free, the head of the Indigenous Democratic Network, an organization that focuses on recruiting Native American candidates and mobilizing Indian voters, doesn't think it's over yet. But she's confident of one thing: "The next president of the United States will not win the White House without the Indian vote. We've come a long way."

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Danny's gone, but he helped his O'odham culture live on

By Tom Beal
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 10.22.2008

Danny Lopez, noted Tohono O'odham storyteller, was born beneath a mesquite tree in the Tohono O'odham village of Gu Oidak (Big Field).
As a boy, he helped his family water the fields by damming the arroyos as monsoon season approached.
As a young man, he moved to Tucson to work in the mines.
As an adult, he pursued his education and moved home to learn and teach his culture to a new generation.

As he lay dying in St. Mary's Hospital, his wife, Florence, held her cell phone to his ear as his students at Tohono O'odham Community College sang songs to him in the traditional tongue he had taught them.
Lopez died early Tuesday of stomach cancer. He was 71.

Lopez was a teacher, singer and storyteller who inspired his students with his own lifelong quest for knowledge.

Friend and colleague Ofelia Zepeda said Lopez, who held a master's degree in linguistics from Prescott College, was enrolled this semester in a linguistics course at the University of Arizona.
He continued to attend the UA's summer linguistics institute even as his eyesight deteriorated, said Zepeda, a noted poet and compiler of an O'odham dictionary, who is a Regents professor of linguistics at the UA.
It was part of his method of teaching, said friend Tristan Reader, co-director of Tohono O'odham Community Action.
"He felt it was one of the greatest things you can teach, that learning lasts through your life. It was his way of teaching. He didn't talk about the values . . . he lived them," said Reader.

Ethnohistorian Bunny Fontana devoted a chapter of his 1981 book, "Of Earth and Little Rain," to Danny Lopez. He called him an "exemplar of O'odham Himdag (the O'odham way of life)."
"He embodies all of those wonderful qualities that make up a traditional O'odham person," said Fontana.
"He was born under a mesquite tree in Big Field. He once pointed out the space, and I thought to myself: 'Most of us are born in a hospital or whatnot, but you talk about attachment to the earth, there it was.' "
Fontana visited Lopez in the hospital shortly before his death as he received a call from his students at the community college. Florence Lopez, Danny's wife, held up her cell phone so he could hear.
"They'd been practicing this song for two days. They wanted to sing a traditional song in O'odham to Danny. It went on for five minutes or more, and there was this angelic expression on Danny's face."

Lopez "could have run entire schools, he was such a competent educator," said naturalist and author Gary Paul Nabhan, a friend and sometime collaborator.
Instead, after he got his master's, he went back to teaching first- and second-graders because, "He thought if this language is going to keep among our people, we have to make sure the kids are comfortable with it.
"He cared so deeply about his culture and its traditions."

When he first met him, said Nabhan, Lopez was a dedicated student of his culture, interviewing elders and learning stories, songs and dances from the "great people" in the community who are considered important because of their knowledge of the culture.
Years ago, said Nabhan, he encouraged Lopez to write his own songs. "He said to me, 'The people that composed these songs aren't around anymore. You can't just pick it up. You have to dream your songs.' "
"He immersed himself so much in that tradition that he did become a singer and composer. . . . He became the 'great people,' " Nabhan said.

"He was a pretty extraordinary, wonderful, great guy," said fellow storyteller Jim Griffith.
Lopez formed a children's dance troupe that performed regularly at the San Xavier Festival, said Griffith. "His kids would always dance and he'd give a little talk."
Griffith said Lopez would tell the audience that O'odham culture had been devastated, their language was disappearing, their land was mostly occupied, and then say, "But we're very happy to have you here and we hope you enjoy the dance and the music."
There was no rancor in it, no bitterness at all in the man, Griffith said.
"He was a man who moved into Tucson, worked for the mine and apparently woke up one morning to realize he was in the process of losing something terribly important, and devoted the rest of his life to making sure that as little as possible of those important things disappeared.
"He worked very hard to make sure the kids, especially, had a chance to know who they are."

Lopez taught in the O'odham primary and middle schools and also at the community college level.
In addition, he had many students in the community.
Ronald Geronimo said he first approached Lopez when he wanted to enhance his knowledge of his culture.
"He said, 'Come back the next day' and he had a group of singers in his house. I read books and other things, but I realized that to really know, you have to live it. You can't just read it."
Geronimo, who is finishing up his master's thesis on Native American linguistics at the UA, is taking over one of Lopez's courses at the community college and plans to return when his studies are done "to pass on the knowledge I've gained and whatever I've learned and to try to keep the culture part of people's lives."

A viewing will be held at the San Xavier Elderly Center on Saturday from 5 to 9 p.m.
A wake and funeral will be held in the village of Gu Oidak, beginning with a 5 p.m. Mass Sunday. The funeral is scheduled for dawn on Monday.

Danny is survived by Florence, his wife of 46 years; his three children, Monica, Michael and Mark Lopez, all of Gu Oidak; eight grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Scoundrels and scandals in the Interior Department — High Country News

As the last vestiges of laissez-faire capitalism were being lowered into the ground on Wall Street last month, out on the Western edge of the high plains an administrative circus of a similar nature was unraveling. Its center was the Minerals Management Services (MMS) division of the Interior Department, in Lakewood, Colo.

On Sept.10, Earl Devaney, the Interior Department's Inspector General, released a report to Congress that documented -- in lurid and embarrassing detail -- the widespread use of sex, bribes and drugs by MMS employees to lubricate their professional relationships with officials of the oil and mineral industries.

What, you may ask, is the Minerals Management Service?

This is the office responsible for collecting royalties from energy companies that drill for oil and gas on public land owned by you and me. Last year alone, more than $14 billion in royalties was collected by MMS and deposited in our account. We cannot be sure of the real total, however, since MMS accounts are so bungled that no one can be sure if the reckoning is close to correct. Coincidentally, the MMS is also responsible for collecting royalties for resources taken from more than 11 million acres of Indian land.

It's a shame the Devaney report didn't stop with the drugs and orgies, since taxpayers deserve just a little vicarious entertainment along with all the bad news. But while the story's entertainment value was mostly swamped by the meltdown on Wall Street, few of its particulars were lost on the 400,000 plus plaintiffs in a lawsuit known as Cobell vs. Interior.

Indian plaintiffs have been waiting patiently to be paid $47 billion dollars in royalties they allege were stolen from Indian trust lands by government and industry officials since 1887, when Uncle Sam first began to manage Indian resources. For those who have not been following the American saga of Elouise Cobell, a community organizer for the Blackfeet Nation in Browning, Mont., and the lead plaintiff in this case, here's a recap of the highlights of her quest.

* In 1996, Cobell filed a lawsuit against the federal government for failing to account for tens of billions of dollars in mineral royalties that were never credited to Indian trust accounts. The suit quickly grew into the largest class-action lawsuit in American history.

* Accountants for Price Waterhouse studied the records and concluded that $50 billion in absconded revenues was probably a conservative number. Cobell played it safe and sued for $47 billion.

* Federal District Court Judge Royce Lamberth, a conservative from Texas who was appointed by the senior George Bush, oversaw the case until 2006. During that decade, Lamberth cited foot-dragging Interior Secretaries three times for contempt of court.

* In 2006, Lamberth had heard enough from federal officials. He was irate, declaring the Interior Department to be "the morally and culturally oblivious hand-me-down of a disgracefully racist and imperialist government that should have been buried a century ago… For those harboring hope that the stories of murder, dispossession, forced marches, assimilationist policy programs and other incidents of cultural genocide against the Indians are merely the echoes of a horrible, bigoted government-past…this case serves as an appalling reminder of the evils that result when large numbers of the politically powerless are placed at the mercy of institutions engendered and controlled by a politically powerful few."

A month after throwing down that gauntlet, Lamberth was removed from the case at the request of the second Bush administration.

On Aug. 7, 2008, Lamberth's replacement, Judge James Robertson, tried to end the case by awarding the Indians $455.6 million. Cobell scoffed at the figure and declared that Robertson's decision would not stand: "It's factually wrong and legally wrong, so we have to challenge it.” Attorneys for the Interior Department filed their own appeal, arguing that Robertson had no right to award the Indian landowners any money at all.

If you look hard enough, eventually you'll find a cool head who can make sense of all this. One such observer is Craig Miner, author of The Corporation and the Indian. He said that the real significance of the federal government's looting of Indian trust funds is this: The money was not only held back from its rightful owners, it was also used to help private industry exploit the mineral wealth on Indian lands.

An honorable people would have brought this shameful story to a just end long ago.

Paul VanDevelder is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He lives in Corvallis, Oregon, and is the author of several books. His latest, Savages and Scoundrels: the Untold Story of America's Road to Empire Through Indian Country, is due out in 2009.

Friday, October 17, 2008

News from NM: Navajo Nation Rally for Obama

The Navajo are the largest tribe in the United States, with something like 200,000 resident tribal members. Their reservation spans territory within the boundaries of three of the Four Corners states - Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.

Utah's safe Republican. Arizona probably is, too, especially since it's McCain's home state - with at least two of his many houses located there. Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr (elected) has already endorsed Barack Obama, and endorsed Barack Obama, in the New Mexico part of the reservation tomorrow - the day that early voting launches in New Mexico.

From today's Farmington Daily Times:

Mutton stew, fry bread, hamburgers and hotdogs will be served at the outdoor rally.

If you've ever read Tony Hillerman's novels (or if you've been there), you know the roads aren't exactly good. And that the people live scattered widely throughout the desert landscape, many without telephones or electricity. So GOTV is not a trivial undertaking in this corner of Indian Country. The Central Consolidated School District Center in Shiprock is serving as an Early Voting polling place.

Taos Pueblo

I've diaried about voting at Taos Pueblo before. Next Thursday, there will be a GOTV rally there - with a powwow drum group, musician Robert Mirabal, and frito pies for supper. (Looks like I'm gonna miss yet another of those Thursday night SNL extra shows.) In addition to NM-03 candidate Ben Ray Luján, Green candidate for Public Regulatory Commission Rick Lass will appear. There's no Republican on the ballot, so this race between a rather under-qualified Dem, and Rick Lass who got hustled onto the ballot as a Green at the last minute, could be interesting.

Musician Mirabal is registered Green himself. Taos Pueblo as a tribe has, for the first time ever this year, endorsed a Presidential candidate. Obama, of course.
Taos Pueblo voted about 94% for Kerry/Edwards in 2004. Other tribes vote predominantly Democratic for the most part, too. So GOTV efforts on-reservation make good sense. I don't know about events planned on the other 20 reservations in NM (18 other Pueblos, and two Apache groups - Jicarilla in the north and Mescalero in the south). But the Obama campaign's being pretty thorough, so I'm guessing there will be more events over the next couple of weeks, coupled with efforts to get voters to the polls early.

Obama has a First Americans vote director, Wizi Garriott from Rosebud Sioux. From a September interview in Indian Country Today, about why Obama has been received well in Indian Country:

I think there are a few reasons. One, of course, he is a very unique candidate and, I think, we as Indians really identify with him. He grew up in a single-parent household; his grandparents helped to raise him; he didn’t grow up with much wealth; and he knows what it’s like to struggle personally. For a lot of us in Indian country, that’s how we grew up. That’s our reality.

I think also, he’s the type of person who really listens. He doesn’t go in wanting to preach to tribal leaders about what he thinks should be done – he listens to Indian people and is willing to ask, "What are your ideas; what are your needs; how can we fix the government?"

That's a contrast with the Republicans of the Bush Administration. Dubya first ran for office saying he thought the federal trust relationship should end and what's left of the treaties be broken, and tribes become subject to state jurisdiction. Tribal leaders in this part of the world have complained that they couldn't even get anyone in this administration to have a meeting with them at all. To talk or to listen. (Unless, of course, for the few tribes who funneled a lot of money through Jack Abramoff.)

If you're interested in Indian affairs, I suggest reading the whole article on Indian Country Today ( In brief, Obama's credited with being serious about nation-to-nation relations, giving more respect that the "government-to-government" practices of the feds since Nixon. Obama also promises to establish a White House staff position dedicated to Indian affairs. Plus as a constitutional lawyer, Obama understands that treaties are the highest form of law, and he's serious about honoring them.

One of the things I liked about Obama, early on in the primaries, was that he had thought out some good, substantial positions on Native America. Tom Daschle is credited with helping bring him up to speed.

Indian Country is already mostly Democratic. But this year, GOTV efforts might make the role of the country's indigenous population more important than ever. Lots of swing states have significant Indian populations - such as New Mexico, Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

Its Native Tongue Facing Extinction, Arapaho Tribe Teaches the Young

Published: October 16, 2008

RIVERTON, Wyo. — At 69, her eyes soft and creased with age, Alvena Oldman remembers how the teachers at St. Stephens boarding school on the Wind River Reservation would strike students with rulers if they dared to talk in their native Arapaho language.

“We were afraid to speak it,” she said. “We knew we would be punished.”

More than a half-century later, only about 200 Arapaho speakers are still alive, and tribal leaders at Wind River, Wyoming’s only Indian reservation, fear their language will not survive. As part of an intensifying effort to save that language, this tribe of 8,791, known as the Northern Arapaho, recently opened a new school where students will be taught in Arapaho. Elders and educators say they hope it will create a new generation of native speakers.

“This is a race against the clock, and we’re in the 59th minute of the last hour,” said a National Indian Education Association board member, Ryan Wilson, whom the tribe hired as a consultant to help get the school off the ground. Like other tribes, the Northern Arapaho have suffered from the legacy of Indian boarding institutions, established by the federal government in the late 1800s to “Americanize” Native American children. It was at such schools that teachers instilled the “kill the Indian, save the man” philosophy, young boys had their traditional braids shorn, and students were forbidden to speak tribal languages.

The discipline of those days was drummed into an entire generation of Northern Arapaho, and most tribal members never passed down the language. Of all the remaining fluent speakers, none are younger than 55.

That is what tribal leaders hope to change. About 22 children from pre-kindergarten through first grade started classes at the school — a rectangular one-story structure with a fresh coat of white paint and the words Hinono’ Eitiino’ Oowu’ (translation: Arapaho Language Lodge) written across its siding.

Here, set against an endless stretch of windswept plains and tufts of cottonwoods, instructors are using a state-approved curriculum to teach students exclusively in Arapaho. All costs related to the school, which has an operating budget of $340,000 a year, are paid for by the tribe and private donors. Administrators plan to add a grade each year until it comprises pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade classes.

“This environment is a complete reversal of what occurs too often in schools, where a child is ridiculed or reprimanded for speaking one’s heritage language,” said Inée Y. Slaughter, executive director of the Indigenous Language Institute, a group in Santa Fe, N.M., that works with tribes on native languages.

“I want my son to talk nothing but Arapaho to me and my grandparents,” said Kayla Howling Buffalo, who enrolled her 4-year-old son, RyLee, in the school.

Ms. Howling Buffalo, 25, said she, too, had been inspired to take Arapaho classes because her grandmother no longer has anyone to speak with and fears she is losing her first language.

Such sentiments are not uncommon on the reservation and have become more pronounced in the five years since Helen Cedar Tree, at 96 the oldest living Northern Arapaho, made an impassioned plea to the tribe’s council of elders.

“She said: ‘Look at all of you guys talking English, and you know your own language. It’s like the white man has conquered us,’ ” said Gerald Redman Sr., the chairman of the council of elders. “It was a wake-up call.”

A group of Arapaho families had sent their children to a pre-kindergarten language program for years, but it was not enough. Heeding Ms. Cedar Tree’s words, the tribe began using Arapaho dictionaries, night classes, CDs made by the tribe, and anything they could find to help resuscitate the language. In the end, “we knew in our hearts that immersion was the only way we were going to turn this around,” said Mr. Wilson, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe.

He was referring not just to the potential for the Arapaho language’s extinction but to a host of other problems that have long plagued the vast reservation, which the tribe shares with the Eastern Shoshone.

“Language-immersion schools offer an environment that goes beyond teaching the language,” Ms. Slaughter said. “It provides a safe place where a child’s roots are nurtured, its culture honored, and its being valued.”

According to tribal statistics and the United States Attorney’s Office in Wyoming, 78 percent of household heads on the reservation are unemployed, the student dropout rate is 52 percent and crime has been rising.

Most recently, in June, three teenage girls were found dead in a low-income housing complex. The F.B.I. has not yet released autopsy results, but many tribal members think drugs or alcohol were involved. The deaths left the reservation reeling. Officials here hope that the school will herald a positive change, just as programs elsewhere have helped native youth become conversational in their tribal languages, enhancing cultural pride and participation in the process. A groundswell of language revitalization efforts has led to successful Indian immersion schools in Hawaii, Montana and New York.

Studies show that language fluency among young Indians is tied to overall academic achievement, and experts say such learning can have other positive effects.

“Language seems to be a healing force for Native American communities,” said Ellen Lutz, executive director of Cultural Survival, a group based in Cambridge, Mass., that is working with the Northern Arapaho. At a recent ceremony to celebrate the school’s opening, held in an old tribal meeting hall, three young girls sang shyly in Arapaho. Behind them, a row of elders sat quietly, their faces wizened and stoic, legs shuffling rhythmically as familiar words carried through the building.

“They are the ones who whispered it on the playground when nobody was looking,” Mr. Wilson said, referring to the elders. “If we lose that language, we lose who we are.”

Monday, October 13, 2008

Palin's Rural Adviser Quits

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) -- Gov. Sarah Palin's rural adviser resigned Monday amid criticism of the governor's record on hiring Alaska Natives.

Rhonda McBride, who is not an Alaska Native, made the announcement in an e-mail to several Native leaders, saying there needs to be more Native voices in Palin's administration.

''I definitely think it would help to have an Alaska Native in this position,'' McBride told The Associated Press.

Many Alaska Natives have said they felt neglected when Palin, now the Republican vice presidential nominee, made appointments to her administration, including the rural adviser post.

State Sen. Al Kookesh, a Democrat, said Palin left the position unfilled her first year in office and ignored Native leaders' suggestions on the selection process.

''We were really disappointed when an Alaska Native wasn't appointed,'' said Kookesh, a Tlingit Indian who held the job in a previous administration.

Natives bristled early in Palin's administration when she named a white woman to a game board seat held by a Native for more than 25 years. An Athabascan Indian eventually was named to the post after protests.

Relations worsened after Palin didn't remove a game board chairman who once suggested that Alaska Natives missed a meeting because they were drinking beer, seen as insensitive since the Alaska Native community has high rates of alcohol abuse.

Alaska Natives make up about 20 percent of the population.

Palin's husband, Todd, is part Yup'ik Eskimo, and her 13-member cabinet includes two Alaska Natives.

''In all honesty, I have never felt authentic in my role,'' McBride wrote in her e-mail, a copy of which was obtained by the AP.

McBride, who covered rural issues as a reporter before becoming rural adviser last year, said she would return to journalism to help bring attention to Native issues.

She said her last day would be Oct. 23.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Sooners’ Bradford Is Accidental Cherokee Hero

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — The meeting between the two North American Indian leaders had been called to discuss international issues, but Phil Fontaine, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, could not help deviating from the agenda.

Fontaine, whose organization represents more than 800,000 American Indians in Canada, wanted to know what the Cherokee Nation principal chief, Chad Smith, thought of Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford. “I heard he’s Cherokee,” Fontaine told Smith. “He’s having a great year.”

Smith confirmed that Bradford was indeed a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, and they continued talking about him. “It was a great conversation,” Smith said. “There we were talking Sam Bradford and O.U. football.”

Entering Saturday’s Red River Rivalry between No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 5 Texas, Bradford is at the forefront of Heisman Trophy conversations, and at the center of attention in the Cherokee Nation, the second-largest tribe in the United States. Bradford is believed to be the first Indian to start at quarterback for a Division I university since Sonny Sixkiller, a full-blooded Cherokee, who was born here and starred at Washington in the early 1970s.

But Bradford is just one-sixteenth Cherokee and until Oklahoma publicized that heritage last season, his father Kent said he had probably only talked to his son about it two or three times as he grew up in Oklahoma City. Kent Bradford said his great grandmother, Susie Walkingstick, was a full-blooded Cherokee.

The elder Bradford, who was an offensive lineman at Oklahoma in the 1970s, said: “There’s a lot of people in Oklahoma that have Indian blood. I wasn’t brought up to really know much about it. I can’t really give him a lot of information either.

“At times, it’s somewhat awkward in that he and I are indeed portrayed as Indians,” he said. “We do have some Indian blood, but that isn’t us out there counting that.”

That has not tempered interest within Cherokee Nation, which counts 280,000 citizens and consists of a jurisdiction that includes all or parts of 14 counties in northeastern Oklahoma.

Bradford is followed fervently at Sequoyah Schools, an Indian boarding school for grades 7-12 that is financed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and operated by the Cherokee Nation.

Tucked away on a sprawling campus near the Cherokee Nation’s headquarters, Sequoyah Schools has 380 students, of which 261 are Cherokee Nation citizens. There, students wear Oklahoma football T-shirts, football players talk about which of them could be the next Bradford, and female students swoon at the mention of his name.

“He’s cute,” said Shelby Botone, 16, a 10th-grader who is primarily Creek and Cherokee. “He’s like perfect.”

Smith, the Cherokee Nation chief, said Bradford’s success had provided much-needed inspiration for Cherokee youth. Bradford’s demeanor is similar to that of Cherokee elders, he said. “He’s a great example of simple, quiet, humble leadership,” Smith said.

Ross Reeder, a tight end and defensive end at Sequoyah Schools, said he felt an immediate connection when he learned that Bradford was also Cherokee.

“It’s pretty cool to see an Indian in such a high limelight,” said Reeder, 17, who is three-thirty-seconds Cherokee. “It’s a very rare thing.”

Reeder would like to meet Bradford and hoped he would someday visit Sequoyah Schools. Reeder even said Bradford’s play was helping Indians shed stereotypes that have haunted them.

“Sam Bradford is kind of like he’s the best of Indians,” Reeder said. “He shows that we’re not lazy and that we don’t give up. He’s what we really represent.”

Bradford is a frequent subject of conversation for Smith, whether at the Cherokee Nation headquarters just outside Tahlequah or anywhere else he goes. Earlier this year, Howard Dean, the Democratic Party chairman, raved to Smith about him.

“It is kind of neat in Oklahoma with how prominent that is in our state heritage,” the Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said. California is the only state with more Indian residents, according to the United States Census, and Oklahoma was the birthplace of the legendary Indian athlete Jim Thorpe.

Bradford, a redshirt sophomore in his second season as the starter, has emerged as the face of the top-ranked Sooners (5-0, 1-0 Big 12). Entering Saturday’s bitter matchup against Texas (5-0, 1-0 Big 12), he has thrown for 1,665 yards and 18 touchdowns with just 3 interceptions. In his victorious debut against Texas last season, he threw for 244 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Bradford remains reserved about his links to that ancestry. After Oklahoma’s victory at Baylor last Saturday, he said little in front of a throng of news media when asked how proud he was of his Cherokee heritage.

“Uh,” Bradford said, “very.”

Kent Bradford said his son understood the significance of his Cherokee heritage.

Sam Bradford said: “I just kind of look it as another opportunity that football has blessed me with. So I just try to make the most of it and be as positive as I can for those kids.”

The first time Sixkiller learned of Bradford was while browsing an Oklahoma media guide in 2006 when the Huskies played a road game against the Sooners.

“To me, he looked like he was Cherokee,” Sixkiller said in a telephone interview. “That was my first thought.”

Sixkiller, who works for a company that owns the media rights to the University of Washington’s athletics, has never spoken with Bradford, although Oklahoma played at Washington last month. He said he understood that Bradford was in an awkward position.

Sixkiller recalled feeling off-field pressure from Indians while playing at Washington.

“You get tugged in this way and tugged that way while still trying to do what you can do as a college kid,” Sixkiller said.

But Sixkiller said Bradford should embrace the attention. “You’re not a messiah,” he said. “You’re just well thought of and respected being who you are.”

Bradford has a standing invitation to visit the Cherokee Nation, Smith said, adding: “We’re not looking to capitalize on his fame. We would just prefer to treat him as a member of the community.”

Someday, Smith said he believed Bradford would want to know more about his Indian heritage and become involved with the Cherokee Nation.

“It’s inevitable,” Smith said. “What ultimately drives people is their sense of identity. When we’re younger we don’t think about it as much. As we grow older, the cosmos in the universe becomes a little bit clear.”

If that day ever comes, the Cherokee Nation will be ready for Bradford, Smith said.

“The community will accept him with the widest arms you can have,” he said.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Rain Forest Tribe’s Charge of Neglect Is Shrouded by Religion and Politics

Published: October 6, 2008
PUERTO AYACUCHO, Venezuela — Three years after President Hugo Chávez expelled American missionaries from the Venezuelan Amazon, accusing them of using proselytism of remote tribes as a cover for espionage, resentment is festering here over what some tribal leaders say was official negligence that led to the deaths of dozens of indigenous children and adults.

Some leaders of the Yanomami, one of South America’s largest forest-dwelling tribes, say that 50 people in their communities in the southern rain forest have died since the expulsion of the missionaries in 2005 because of recurring shortages of medicine and fuel, and unreliable transportation out of the jungle to medical facilities.

Mr. Chávez’s government disputes the claims and points to more spending than ever on social welfare programs for the Yanomami. The spending is part of a broader plan to assert greater military and social control over expanses of rain forest that are viewed as essential for Venezuela’s sovereignty.

The Yanomami leaders are wading into a politicized debate about how officials react to health care challenges faced by the Yanomami and other Amazonian tribes. In recent interviews here, government officials contended that the Yanomami could be exaggerating their claims to win more resources from the government and undercut its authority in the Amazon.

Meanwhile, the Yanomami claims come amid growing concern in Venezuela over indigenous health care after a scandal erupted in August over a tepid official response to a mystery disease that killed 38 Warao Indians in the country’s northeast.

“This government makes a big show of helping the Yanomami, but rhetoric is one thing and reality another,” said Ramón González, 49, a Yanomami leader from the village of Yajanamateli who traveled recently to Puerto Ayacucho, the capital of Amazonas State, to ask military officials and civilian doctors for improved health care.

“The truth is that Yanomami lives are still considered worthless,” said Mr. González, who was converted to Christianity by New Tribes Mission, a Florida group expelled in 2005. “The boats, the planes, the money, it’s all for the criollos, not for us,” he said, using a term for nonindigenous Venezuelans.

The Yanomami leaders offer a far different image of the tribe than those found in anthropology books, which often depict it in Rousseaulike settings with painted faces and clad in loincloths.

There are about 26,000 Yanomami in the Amazon rain forest, in Venezuela and Brazil, where they subsist as seminomadic hunters and cultivators of crops like manioc and bananas.

They remain susceptible to ailments for which they have weak defenses, including respiratory diseases and drug-resistant strains of malaria. In Puerto Ayacucho, they can be seen wandering through the traffic-clogged streets, clad in the modern uniform of T-shirts and baggy pants, toting cellphones.

Earlier this decade, the anthropology world was consumed by claims by the writer Patrick Tierney that American scholars may have started and exacerbated a measles epidemic in the late 1960s that killed hundreds of Yanomami.

And claims of medical neglect emerged before Mr. Chávez expelled the American missionaries, who numbered about 200. They administered care to the Yanomami with donated medicine from the United States and transported them to clinics on small propeller planes using dozens of airstrips carved out of the jungle.

New Tribes, the most prominent of the expelled groups, has denied Mr. Chávez’s charges of espionage but declined to comment for this article, citing the tense relations between Venezuela and the United States.

Mr. González and other Yanomami leaders provided the names of 50 people, including 22 children, who they said died from ailments like malaria and pneumonia after the military limited civilian and missionary flights to their villages in 2005. The military replaced the missionaries’ operations with its own fleet of small planes and helicopters, but critics say the missions were infrequent or unresponsive.

The Yanomami leaders said they made the list public after showing it to health and military officials and receiving a cold response. “They told us we should be grateful for the help we’re already being given,” said Eduardo Mejía, 24, a Yanomami leader from the village of El Cejal.

The official in charge of transportation in Amazonas’s interior, Gen. Yomar José Rubio of the 52nd Infantry Brigade in Puerto Ayacucho, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But other officials here questioned the claims.

“The missionaries were in Amazonas for 50 years, creating dependent indigenous populations in some places, so their withdrawal was bound to have positive and negative effects,” said Carlos Botto, a senior official with Caicet, a government research institute that focuses on tropical diseases.

“But one cannot forget that the Yanomami and other indigenous groups have learned how to exert pressure on the government in order to receive food or other benefits,” he said. “This does not mean there aren’t challenges in providing them with health care, but caution is necessary with claims like these.”

The dispute has also focused attention on an innovative government project created in late 2005, the Yanomami Health Plan. With a staff of 46, it trains some Yanomami to be health workers in their villages while sending doctors into the jungle to provide health care to remote communities.

“We have 14 doctors in our team, with 11 trained in Cuba for work in jungle areas,” said Meydell Simancas, 32, a tropical disease specialist who directs the project from a compound here once owned by New Tribes Mission.

Dr. Simancas said that more than 20 Yanomami had been trained as paramedics, and that statistics showed that doctors had increased immunizations and programs to control malaria and river blindness across Amazonas.

The Yanomami leaders complaining of negligence acknowledged Dr. Simancas’s good intentions. But they said serious problems persisted in coordinating access to doctors and medicine with the military, which the Yanomami and government doctors both rely on for travel in and out of the rain forest.

Dr. Simancas suggested the claims of the dozens of deaths originated in the village of Coshilowateli, where a holdout American evangelist group, Padamo Mission, has fought expulsion by arguing that its leaders cannot be expelled because they hold Venezuelan citizenship.

“There is subjective data that could be worth investigating,” Dr. Simancas said, referring to Coshilowateli, “but it comes from a community in a situation of political tension.”

Michael Dawson, a leader of Padamo Mission, denied the claims of negligence were exaggerated or politically motivated. He also said they originated not in Coshilowateli, but in villages where the Yanomami were converted to Christianity by missionaries Mr. Chávez had expelled.

“It is easier for them to just blame us rather than admit they have really not helped the Indians much,” said Mr. Dawson, 53, who was born and raised among the Yanomami. “Every name on the list is a verified case of an emergency where repeated requests for help went out over public airwaves via ham radio.”

For their part, Yanomami leaders point to what they consider to be a broad pattern of neglect and condescension from public officials. “They put pictures of Yanomami everywhere, on tourist brochures, in airport lobbies, even on ambulances here in Puerto Ayacucho,” said Andrés González, 38, a Yanomami leader.

“That’s where they want us, in pictures, not positions of power,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Yanomami who do make it here for medical care stay at a squalid compound once owned by foreign missionaries who were expelled in 2005. In the property’s trash-strewn yard, women cook manioc in steel pots over a fire, under the shade of a mango tree.

The men lounge in hammocks slung in an open-air shed. Pedro Camico, 36, said he traveled here from El Cejal after one of his children died of malaria; she was not on the Yanomami leaders’ list of 50 dead. He stood by his son, Misael, 4, also sick with malaria but with the hope of recovery through medicine here.

“I have one child dead and another alive, but I am here with my son,” Mr. Camico said. “I am one of the lucky ones.”

Saturday, October 04, 2008

6 Villagers Killed in Clash at Mexico Ruins

Published: October 4, 2008
Filed at 8:59 p.m. ET

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico (AP) -- Police clashed with hundreds of villagers who seized the entrance to a Mayan archaeological site and six protesters were killed, state officials said Saturday.

Hundreds of villagers had occupied the entrance to the Chinkultic ruins for nearly a month, saying they were protesting excessive entrance fees and a lack of investment in the area.

The protesters fought police with sticks, rocks and machetes, according to the state Justice Department. Protesters managed to wrest guns away from some officers and poured gasoline on others, threatening to set them on fire, the department said.

Six protesters were killed in Friday's raid, and two dozen other people were injured, including 16 police, the department said.

Irma Trinidad, an indigenous leader who participated in the clash, said six of her comrades were shot to death by police. She said 10 other protesters had bullet wounds and 28 were arrested.

Chiapas state Justice Secretary Amador Rodriguez Lozano ordered 300 state police who participated in the raid to be detained for questioning. No charges have been filed.

Chinkultic is a Mayan archaeological site about 1,200 years old, located near the Montebello lakes near the Guatemalan border.

The villagers, most of them from the Mayan Tzeltal and Tzotzil cultures, drove administrative workers off the site on Sept. 7 with sticks, but allowed the archeologists to keep working.

The protesters charged visitors 20 pesos (US$1.80) for entrance rather than the official 35 pesos (US$3) and said they would use the money to fix roads and make other infrastructure improvements.

Tourists continued to visit the site during the takeover. At a booth outside the entrance, officials from the National Institute of Anthropology and History warned tourists about the protests but said the site was still open to visitors.