Friday, November 26, 2010

A Fistful of Dollars | Mother Jones

November/December 2010 Issue

IT TAKES A WHILE to notice Ruben's scars. Though they're hardly subtle, they don't catch your eye as readily as his strong, smooth features or the big-ass smile that's totally disarming despite his size: six foot three, 225 pounds. Neck like a waist. Friendly as you please. When I pointed to each of the healed-up gashes on his fists and asked what they were from, he replied, "Teeth. Teeth. These are all from teeth." He charges $1,000 for every one that he knocks out of a person's head. It's the same price for each bone he breaks in a face, a practice that's cost him a couple of knuckles.

The first people who hired Ruben, five years ago, were a regular, law-abiding couple from the Cherokee Nation who had been robbed, their savings snatched from under the mattress. The couple knew who'd stolen from them, but they couldn't prove it, and they didn't have any faith that the cops would take action. Ruben was a young Pawnee who had always gotten in a lot of fights and always seemed to win. He didn't have anything against the guy; it was just a job, like his other odd jobs, roofing or tiling or cement work. He waited for the guy to walk out of a bar one night and started hitting him. Two facial fractures: eye socket and cheekbone. Two thousand dollars. Ruben—who's asked me to use that name to protect his identity—says he can't count how many times he's played vigilante since then in the Indian nations of northeastern Oklahoma. Most often, it's about stolen property. Sometimes, it's about a raped sister or daughter.

"It's about justice," Ruben, 29, tells me when I say it doesn't make any sense for victims to scrape together a pile of beating-up money after getting their cash stolen. "People want people either beat up or locked up. And on a reservation, they're probably not gonna get anybody locked up."

Statistically speaking, he's probably right. The rate of violent crime among Native Americans is twice the national average (PDF); on some reservations, it's 20 times higher. At least one in three American Indian women will be raped (PDF) in their lifetimes. Yet just 3,000 tribal and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) officers—the only kinds of cops with jurisdiction on Indian land—patrol 56 million acres. In 2008, the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in the Dakotas had nine officers for 9,000 people in an area twice the size of Delaware. (A typical town with the same population has three times that number.) Tribal courts can only prosecute misdemeanors such as petty theft and public intoxication. They can't issue sentences longer than one year without meeting special criteria, and even then, three years is the maximum. More serious crimes must be handled by federal prosecutors, who turn down 65 percent (PDF) of the reservation cases referred to them.
"People don't care to report crime because it's just blowin' wind," says a former tribal police chief.

Non-Indians commit two-thirds of violent crimes against Indians, including 86 percent of rapes and sexual assaults. Yet thanks to a 1978 Supreme Court ruling, tribes can not prosecute outsiders who commit crimes on their land. (The case involved a white guy who'd assaulted a tribal police officer and another who'd attempted a high-speed getaway from reservation cops.)

"Going out there was like trying to do your job with one hand tied behind your back," says Damon Roughface, a former tribal police chief of White Eagle, in Oklahoma's Ponca trust land. "People don't care to report crime, because it's just blowin' wind. I'll have to admit that sometimes people think the code of the street works a lot better than the BIA." He points out that it's not uncommon in poor communities, Indian and non-Indian alike, for people to develop their own mechanisms of enforcement. "But on reservations," he says, "it's only compounded by the BIA's history."

"Informal justice on reservations is motivated by the perception that they will not receive justice, usually. Or that justice will take too long, or that the system is corrupt," says Jeffrey Ian Ross, an associate professor at the University of Baltimore's School of Criminal Justice who studies Native Americans and the legal system. "In a system like that, there's vigilante justice." Melissa Tatum, associate director of the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program at the University of Arizona, says reports of vigilantism aren't unheard of in parts of Indian country beyond Oklahoma, though it's hard to say how widespread it is. And some tribes, she notes, are successfully bypassing the courts in favor of traditional conflict resolution. But one element is constant: "There's frustration with the jurisdictional maze on Indian territory," says Carrie Garrow, a former St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Court judge and the executive director of the Center for Indigenous Law, Governance and Citizenship at Syracuse University.

That maze may not get more complex than it is in eastern Oklahoma, where Ruben and I drive past a series of signs announcing which Indian nation we're entering —Osage, Otoe, Iowa, Sac and Fox, Pawnee, Ponca—and where the land is a checkerboard (PDF) of tribal and non-tribal ownership [Click here to see Melissa Tatum's PDF chart of Indian Country jurisdiction]. County and tribal police sometimes agree to share jurisdiction over their mingled territory. But, as one Pawnee Tribal Police officer tells me, "They don't go out of their way to patrol our areas, and we don't really go in theirs." Ruben's been arrested dozens of times, but never, he says, on tribal land—simply because "the cops don't come."

Inside the Mint Bar in the town of Pawnee, the old men drinking draft beer at a big round table drop the phrase "those were the days" with almost comic frequency. One gestures above his head to a hole he once shot in the ceiling; the other guys instantly start pointing to the other bullet holes among the rafters. Nobody around here ever called the cops for nothin', they say. If someone roughed up your property, or your gal, you came down to the bar and got someone to take care of it.

When we leave, I get in the driver's seat of Ruben's car; his license has been suspended for DUIs. His rap sheet extends far beyond that: breach of peace, first-degree robbery, obstructing an officer, aggravated assault. He's never been arrested for a paid beating or done hard time for a regular fight, but he talks about how he should stop scrapping anyhow. He owes it to his kids. His ex has custody this week, but he talks to his five-year-old son and six-year-old daughter constantly on the phone. "You were the best player on that football team!" "I'm so proud of you doin' good on that test! You're going to be a spelling champion!" On the way back toward home in Osage Nation, he cracks into the 30-rack of Bud Light in the backseat and tells me how he landed a felony charge for assaulting an acquaintance who he felt was threatening his children.

Follow the link on the headline for the complete story and links to PDF files.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Zapotec Indians Grow Trees, and Jobs, in Oaxaca, Mexico -

Published: November 22, 2010

IXTLÁN de JUÁREZ, Mexico — As an unforgiving midday sun bore down on the pine-forested mountains here, a half-dozen men perched across a steep hillside wrestled back mounds of weeds to uncover wisps of knee-high seedlings.

Freeing the tiny pines that were planted last year is only one step of many the town takes to nurture the trees until they grow tall, ready for harvesting in half a century. But the people of Ixtlán take the long view.

“We’re the owners of this land and we have tried to conserve this forest for our children, for our descendants,” Alejandro Vargas said, leaning on his machete as he took a break. “Because we have lived from this for many years.”

Three decades ago the Zapotec Indians here in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico fought for and won the right to communally manage the forest. Before that, state-owned companies had exploited it as they pleased under federal government concessions.

They slowly built their own lumber business and, at the same time, began studying how to protect the forest. Now, the town’s enterprises employ 300 people who harvest timber, produce wooden furniture and care for the woodlands, and Ixtlán has grown to become the gold standard of community forest ownership and management, international forestry experts say.

Mexico’s community forest enterprises now range from the mahogany forests of the Yucatán Peninsula to the pine-oak forests of the western Sierra Madre. About 60 businesses, including Ixtlán, are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council in Germany, which evaluates sustainable forestry practices. Between 60 and 80 percent of Mexico’s remaining forests are under community control, according to Sergio Madrid of the Mexican Civic Council for Sustainable Forestry.

“It’s astounding what’s going on in Mexico,” said David Barton Bray, an expert on community forestry at Florida International University who has studied Ixtlán.

The Mexican government plans to showcase its success in community forestry at the global climate talks in Cancún next week. Despite fractious negotiations over reducing carbon emissions, talks on paying developing countries to protect their forests have moved further ahead than most other issues.

In developing countries, where the rule of law is weak and enforcement spotty, simply declaring a forest off-limits does little to prevent illegal logging or clearing land for agriculture or development. “Unless local communities are committed to conserving and protecting forests it’s not going to happen,” said David Kaimowitz, a former director of the Center for International Forestry Research, or Cifor, who is now at the Ford Foundation. “Government can’t do it for them.”

A recent Cifor study reported that more than a quarter of the forests in developing countries are now being managed by local communities. The trend is worldwide — from China to Brazil.

In Ixtlán, under Zapotec traditions, all decisions about the forest and its related businesses are made by a (mostly male) general assembly of 390 townspeople. These “comuneros” are required to contribute their labor as needed to the forest and its enterprises.

“You can see the harmony,” said Francisco Luna, the secretary of the committee in charge of the forest and its businesses. “For us to live in peace, we have to respect all the rules.”

Many of the problems that beset other forests in Mexico, like illegal logging and deforestation, rate barely a shrug here. Pedro Vidal García, a longtime forester in Ixtlán who now works for the Rainforest Alliance, laughed when he was asked about illegal logging in the 48,000 acres of forest the community owns.

“Anybody who tries their own illegal business is harshly judged,” he said. “The assembly is very tough.” A comunero who dares to work as a guide to illegal loggers or hunters is branded a traitor and could lose all property rights.

Rule by an assembly of equals based on ancestral customs can make running a business unwieldy. “It takes a long time to agree,” said Mr. García, whose father was one of the generation that sold their livestock to set up the community’s first sawmill. “The assembly can turn emotional, or technical.”

Last year, the community’s businesses made a profit of about $230,000. Of that, 30 percent went back into the business, another 30 percent went into forest preservation and the final 40 percent went back to the workers and the community where it pays for things like pensions, a low-interest credit union and housing for students studying in the state capital. Most of the enterprise’s foresters and managers are the university-educated sons and daughters of the older comuneros.

It is an odd business mixture, acknowledged Alberto Belmonte, who is in charge of finding new markets for the furniture and lumber that Ixtlán and two neighboring towns produce. “Pure simple socialism, which is what the communities have, and an idea of capitalism, where we say, ‘You know what? We have to be profitable.’”

Many of Ixtlán’s plain pine pieces are sold to the state government, and the factory is busy filling an order to furnish a children’s home with bunk beds and lockers. Mr. Belmonte has plans to jazz up design and crack the Mexico City market.

Julio García Gómez, 31, a sawmill worker, came back to Ixtlán five years ago from New Jersey, where he was working illegally, to raise his young family. The pay here has gone up since he returned, he said, “because of the equipment, because of the training.”

While a self-sustaining business, Ixtlán is still a work in progress. Nongovernment organizations, as well as the Mexican government, all provide financing and advice. And even the strongest advocates of community forestry acknowledge that it is not the answer to protecting forests everywhere. It works best in areas that produce quality timber, Mr. Bray said.

But it is a huge improvement on what came before.

“Things are working,” said Francisco Chapela, an agronomist who first came to Oaxaca 30 years ago and now works for the Rainforest Alliance in Mexico. “Forest management is a big success,” he continued. “If you look at old aerial photographs and compare it with what is now, the forest is increasing here.

“A lot of jobs have been created and a lot of money has come to the communities.”

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Cornell Chronicle: Arizona SB 1070 affects Natives profoundly

By Caitlin Parker

Arizona Senate Bill 1070 has seriously affected Native Americans, said Michael Flores, an indigenous peoples' rights activist, speaking on a panel Nov. 3 in Goldwin Smith Hall.

The bill, which was signed into law April 23, made it legal for police officers to request evidence of citizenship during a lawful stop. Illegal immigrants at least 14 years of age are required to register with the U.S. government and acquire proper documentation. Carrying these documents is now imperative to avoid facing a misdemeanor charge, explained the panelists.

The event was part of a series of activities on campus organized by Cornell's American Indian Program to recognize American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month.

SB 1070 also states that driving, hiding and protecting an illegal immigrant constitute punishable crimes, Flores noted. One of the most noticeable effects of the law, he said, is that increasingly, non-indigenous individuals are replacing indigenous workers in fast food chains. He added that many non-Natives claim that indigenous migrant workers take all the jobs, but the truth is that these are jobs that very few non-Native people want, he said.

More importantly, he added, since the bill became law, racism has become legitimized, and violence against Native peoples "is more blatant than ever." Recently, "tribal members out in the desert chopping wood have been handcuffed and beaten because they didn't have any identification on them," he said. Although the people were on their tribal land, he noted, "somehow the border patrol saw this as a legitimate way to detain people and abuse people violently."

Panelist Alan Gomez, a professor at Arizona State University, attributed such violent treatment of indigenous people to the border control's acting on the premise that "hierarchies within humanity" rightfully exist, and those on top are lawfully endorsed to enforce power.

"You do away with people's ... ability to dream and have their culture, and you limit their ability to move," he said, emphasizing that the law invokes an atmosphere where "there's an expectation of certain communities [acting] to police other communities."

This expectation of racial prejudice is troubling when considering younger generations brought up under such mentalities, he said, and how these mentalities will affect their treatment of racially diverse communities.

Panelist Margo Tamez, an assistant professor at University of British Columbia, who has interviewed Native Americans affected by the law and worked closely with various Native American tribes, remarked that indigenous communities have directly felt the Mexico-United States border wall's segregating consequences. On a physical scale, they have lost access to burial sites and other important traditional locations, she said. On a socio-cultural scale, they are losing the tribe's inherited sense of identity.

"Indigenous peoples are resisting numerous kinds of destruction to our lives, our bodies and to our communities," she said. The new law has increased racist acts against Native peoples, she added, who continue to work for justice in the region and elsewhere.

Monday, November 01, 2010

On an Indian Reservation, a Garden of Buddhas


Published: October 31, 2010

ARLEE, Mont. — On a rural American Indian reservation here, amid grazing horses and cattle, a Buddhist lama from the other side of the world is nearing completion of a $1.6 million meditative garden that he hopes will draw spiritual pilgrims.

“There is something pure and powerful about this landscape,” said Gochen Tulku Sang-ngag Rinpoche, the 56-year-old Tibetan lama, as he walked down a gravel road on a sunny fall day. “The shape of the hills is like a lotus petal blossoming.”

Richard Gere has not been seen house shopping here — yet. But on the land of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes, a 24-foot statue of Yum Chenmo, the Great Wisdom Mother, has risen in Mr. Sang-ngag’s farm field. Nearby, in his old sheep barn, amid rubber molds and plaster, some 650 statues of Buddha sit in neat rows, illuminated by shafts of light pouring in through broken boards.

It seemed the perfect setup for a clash of two cultures when Mr. Sang-ngag, a high-ranking Buddhist lama, came to this remote part of Montana a decade ago, liked the landscape feng shui and bought a 60-acre sheep ranch. At the foot of the towering, glacier-etched Mission Mountains — not unlike his native Tibet — he and a band of volunteers began building a Garden of 1,000 Buddhas to promote world peace.

The arrival of the exotic culture here in cowboy country, with multicolored prayer flags flapping in the breeze, made some from the Salish and Kootenai tribes uneasy, to say the least.

An unusual land ownership pattern was partly to blame. While most Indian reservations are majority-owned by the tribes, a 1904 law allowed nonmembers of the tribes to homestead land. And as a result, there are four to five times as many non-Indians on the reservation as there are Indians.

Mr. Sang-ngag called his place Ewam Sang-ngag Ling, or the Land of Secret Mantra, Wisdom and Compassion. It turns out that it was sacred to the tribes as well, a place where, oral traditions hold, a coyote vanquished a monster and drove out many bad spirits so the people could live here.

Julie Cajune, the executive director for American Indian Policy at Salish Kootenai College and other Indians began working to build bridges between the tribes and the Buddhists. They suggested that the Buddhists bring traditional gifts, prayer scarves and tobacco, to the tribal council, which they did.

“Many people move here without recognition they are a guest,” Ms. Cajune said. “None of the mainstream churches or the Amish have done that.”

Buddhists in Japan, Taiwan and China have sent money for Buddha statues. The Dalai Lama has agreed to come and consecrate the Garden of 1,000 Buddhas after the project it is finished, perhaps in 2012.

But the patchwork of Indian and non-Indian land holdings within the reservation remains contentious. Some tribal members are worried that groups drawn to the Buddhist garden will buy up nontribal land, driving prices further out of the reach of Indians, and ignore tribal rules and customs.

They point to the case of Amish families who have bought farmland within the reservation, said Ms. Cajune, who is Salish.

“It’s ironic, but many Indian people can’t afford to buy land on their own reservation,” she said. A typical acre for building a home here might cost $30,000 — an enormous amount in rural and tribal Montana.

But Ms. Cajune said there was also an uncanny kinship between the tribal and Buddhist cultures, based on understandings of sacred landscapes, and even notions of honor and respect.

The biggest driver of rapprochement here is a shared history of subjugation and displacement — for the Tibetans, at the hands of the Chinese (Mr. Sang-ngag spent nine years in a Chinese labor camp) and for the tribes, by the American government.

“There is a shared vision of cultures being under pressure and surviving,” Mr. Sang-ngag said through a translator.

The heart of the 60-acre development is the 10-acre Garden of 1,000 Buddhas. When tribal elders came and blessed it, the two groups found they both used juniper and sage as purifying incense for ceremonies, for example, as well as similar prayer cloths and ritual drumming.

After much outreach by the Buddhists, including asking permission from the tribe to have the Dalai Lama consecrate the ground, Ms. Cajune said, “I think local people are feeling more comfortable.”

The sheep are gone from the green hills here now. “They achieved Buddhahood,” joked Mr. Sang-ngag, as he walked through the garden, designed in the shape of the dharma wheel, which symbolizes the core teachings of Buddhism. The Great Wisdom Mother statue contains sacred vases and holy texts. Swords, guns and other symbols of war are buried underneath, to symbolize a triumph over violence.

In the Buddha barn, meanwhile, is a Norton motorcycle, which members here jokingly refer to as the sacred chopper. It will be raffled to raise money to finish the garden. About half the money has been raised.

Last week the Buddhists began planning with the tribal officials about managing pilgrimages to the site, a possible headache for the tribe. “Some people want to keep the reservation a good, quiet secret,” Ms. Cajune said.

But Mr. Sang-ngag says good karma, or spiritual energy, is ebbing from the earth, and the garden will help enhance it. “It’s designed to awaken the Buddha nature” of wisdom and compassion in anyone who gazes upon it, said Lama Tsomo, a student who lives nearby.

A potential cultural clash has become cultural reconciliation. “It’s two cultures honoring each other in peace,” Ms. Cajune said. “That’s a powerful story people need to hear.”