Reflections on Reconciliation, Sacred Sites, and Broken Treaties

The term “reconciliation” is a deeply problematic word when it comes to indigenous-colonizer relationships. The word refers to restoring friendly relationships when for indigenous peoples, friendly relationships never existed with colonizers.

Canada had a lengthy Truth and Reconciliation Commission, something not attempted yet in the United States. We struggle with the first half of the proposition — simply telling the truth.

And even Canada’s “reconciliation” process fell well short of the mark. Consider the proposed Trans Mountain Tar Sands Crude Oil Pipeline from Alberta to British Columbia. Tar Sands mining has been devastating to First Nations peoples and the Trans Mountain pipeline was strongly opposed by them and many in British Columbia. Opposition was so strong that the Canadian government tried to salvage the project by buying the pipeline from Kinder Morgan and running it as a national enterprise. True, the courts recently struck a significant blow to the project, but the fact the government went so far to save the pipeline indicates that the Truth and Reconciliation process failed to elevate Native voices and concerns, at least in this particular debate.

Andrea Landry (Anishinaabe from Pawgwasheeng) expressed her thoughts on reconciliation in her essay “This Reconciliation is For the Colonizer” in the “Indigenous Motherhood” blog. It starts out:

This reconciliation is for the colonizer.

This settler-colonial reconciliation branded by the government is artificially sweetened with handshake photo-ops and small pockets of money buying out silence on real issues. …

And concludes:

The only reconciliation that exists for us, as Indigenous nations, is the reconciliation we need to find within ourselves and our communities, for agreeing and complying to this madness for so long.

The essay landed in my inbox around the same time as three U.S. news stories arrived that highlight past broken treaties and current efforts to break treaties and ignore Native voices. Those stories are fleshed out below, and are: Navajo Nation fights back against Trump administration’s attack on treaty rights; The 30th anniversary of the desecration of Mount Graham; and Carpenter v. Murphy, a legacy of broken treaties.

These all are examples of why terms like “reconciliation” will land with a thud for many indigenous peoples.

Navajo Fighting Back on Trump Administration Attacks on Treaty Rights

The Navajo Nation is pushing back on the Trump Administration’s efforts to classify Native Americans as a race instead of sovereign nations, a move that would undermine treaty rights, according to a recent article in Native News

At issue is the Medicaid work requirement the Trump administration launched earlier this year. It requires work or community service by Medicaid beneficiaries who are not elderly, pregnant, and disabled..

The federal government has treaty obligations to Native nations, including health care. The federal government has created a completely separate Indian health care system. Native nations believe the new Medicaid work requirements should not apply to them.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services wants to classify Native peoples as a race so it can make the twisted argument that waiving the work requirement for Native peoples would be racial discrimination.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye issued the following statement, according to the story:

“This ill-considered action undermines tribal sovereignty, disregards the Constitution, ignores Supreme Court decisions and violates the treaties between the federal government and Indian tribes,” President Begaye said. “This policy represents a fundamental misunderstanding of federal Indian policy and a mischaracterization of Indian tribes as a racial group. On behalf of all tribes, the Navajo Nation asks that CMS provide Native people with access to health care as promised through our long-standing treaty rights and prior negotiations with the federal government.”

30th Anniversary of Desecrating Mount Graham

Thirty years ago this month,  Senators John McCain, Dennis DeConcini, and Representative Jim Kolbe got a legislative rider passed exempting the University of Arizona and its astronomy partners from all environmental, cultural and religious laws so they could build a telescopes on Mount Graham, a sacred place to the Western Apache, according to a Nov. 18 news release from Wendsler Nosie, Sr., Apache Stronghold, and Robin Silver, M.D., Center for Biological Diversity.

The U.S. Forest Service Supervisor in charge of Mount Graham at the time the rider passed admitted that he knew of and covered up the central sacred importance of Mount Graham to the Apache, the release said.

The University of Minnesota was one of several partners in the University of Arizona’s telescope project. Others included: the Vatican, Germany’s Max Planck Institute, Italy’s Arcetri Observatory, Northern Arizona University, Arizona State University, Ohio State University, the University of Virginia, and Notre Dame University.  “Vatican priest-astronomers testified in court against the Apache sacred claims,” the release said.

For more, see the Mount Graham Coalition.

Carpenter v. Murphy: The Legacy of Broken Treaties

In the 1830s, the United States forcibly removed the Creek Nation and other Native nations from their homelands in the southeastern part of the country and relocated them on what was believed to be relatively useless land in what is now eastern Oklahoma. At the time, Congress promised tribes they would own their land — permanently and absolutely — and their lands never would be part of any state, according to a recent SCOTUS blog.

Well, we all know how that worked out. The United States didn’t uphold the agreement. The case Carpenter v. Murphy is the latest legacy of this treaty breaking.

The Murphy in Carpenter v. Murphy is Patrick Murphy, a convicted murderer. The Carpenter in the case is Mike Carpenter, the warden at Oklahoma State penitentiary where Murphy now resides. Here’s the legal issue. The place where Murphy committed the murder in eastern Oklahoma is technically still in the Creek Nation Reservation. Legally, the federal government — not the state of Oklahoma — is supposed to try murder cases and other major crimes that occur on Native “reservations.”

Here’s how the SCOTUS blog explains the current legal knot.

The problem is complicated because Congress often has taken title away from Native American tribes without removing the land from the reservation. Thus, the mere fact that the overwhelming majority of the Indian Territory has passed into the hands of settlers is not directly relevant [to this legal case].

If the land where the murder took place still is legally on the “reservation,” precedent seems to be on Murphy’s side, the blog said. But if the court rules for Murphy, the practical implications are huge. Oklahoma lawyers say if Murphy prevails, Oklahoma would lose authority to prosecute all major crimes in Tulsa and the eastern part of the state. That work would fall to federal prosecutors, not to mention the implications for voiding past major crimes convictions on “reservation” lands.

Comment: First, this case is a reminder of our nation’s legacy of broken treaties. Second, if the courts side with Murphy, there most likely will be a swift response in Congress. If Congress tries to disestablish the reservation, who knows what will get thrown into that legislation that could negatively affect treaty rights.

Just considering these three stories plucked from recent news, what would reconciliation mean?

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