National Briefs: October 2014
Monday, October 06 2014
Written by The Circle Staff,
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HELENA, MT – Hundreds of thousands of Native Americans received the final cash payments the week of Sept. 16 from one of the largest government settlements in U.S. history, about three years after the deal was approved.

Checks ranging from $869 to $10 million were sent beginning on Sept. 16 to more than 493,000 people by the administrators of the $3.4 billion settlement from a class-action lawsuit filed by the late Elouise Cobell of Browning, Mont. Approximately $941 million was distributed in this second round of payments.

Cobell, the former Blackfeet tribal treasurer, sued after finding the government squandered billions of dollars in royalties for land it held in trust for individual Indians that was leased for development, exploration or agriculture. The mismanagement stretched back to the 1880s, the lawsuit found. She died of cancer in 2011, after more than 15 years of doggedly pursuing the lawsuit, rallying Native Americans around the cause and lobbying members of Congress for its approval.

Cobell was present when a federal judge approved the settlement just months before her death. But it took years to work through the appeals and then sort through incomplete and erroneous information provided by the government to identify all the beneficiaries. Some 22,000 people listed in the data provided had died, while 1,000 more listed as dead were still alive, according to officials.

The payments are the second of two distributions in the settlement. The first distributions of $1,000 apiece went to more than 339,000 people. This second, final round of distributions is based on a formula looking at 10 years of the highest earnings on those individual landowners’ accounts.

The settlement also includes a $1.9 billion land buy-back program now underway in which willing landowners sell the government their land allotments to be consolidated and turned over to the tribes.



RAPID CITY, S.D. – Sixteen tribes from South Dakota, North Dakota and Nebraska want the federal government to turn over to tribal care the three parcels of land where an American Indian boarding school sat in the late 1800s.

The Great Plains Tribal Chairmans Association, along with other tribal governments and citizens, petitioned the government to release the roughly 165 acres of land to federal tribal trust, on Sept. 26. The tribes consider the parcels as spiritual land guaranteed to the Sioux Nation under the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie.

The boarding school opened its doors in 1898 under federal assimilation policies. It was one of dozens of government-operated schools where students were forced to speak English and were punished when they were caught speaking in their native languages.

Children from tribes in the Northern Plains were funneled into roughly 1,200 acres dedicated by the federal government to the Rapid City Indian Boarding School. A 1928 government-commissioned report found that Indian children at boarding schools were severely punished, malnourished, overworked and poorly educated. The failed school closed in 1933 and the land eventually was dissolved into the lots that remain under tax-free federal trust.

Only the Sioux San Hospital, an original structure of the facility, continued to operate when the school was shuttered. According to the association's executive director, Gay Kingman, while there are no definite plans for the acreage, she said the hospital would remain under control of the Indian Health Service. She added that the hospital has been a focal point for the Native American community.

“All of the tribes had people who attended the boarding school,” Kingman said. “I can’t say enough about what we’re trying to do here. The Sioux San Hospital itself means so much to our people.”


FORT BELKNAP, MT – A major effort is underway to record Native American languages in Montana so they won't vanish completely.

Statistics show that out of about 6,000 residents of Montana's Native communities, there may be five percent or fewer actual speakers of traditional tribal languages.

A recent grant from the Montana Legislature resulted in a two-year pilot program for recording and archiving these endangered languages.

"What we're trying to do now is get it electronic – make it more feasible make it more accessible to everybody – not just in the schools here," Ray Cichosz, Gros Ventre Tribe project coordinator said. "They could go on to the Web site, they could go click on links. Say there's Gros Ventre living in Wyoming, Washington, California and they're always wondering, 'My grandma was so and so. Where do I come from'?"

The video production phase of the program was completed in September.


NASHVILLE, TN – In August, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious joined an effort to urge Pope Francis to renounce a series of 15th century Catholic Church documents used to justify colonization of the Americas and the forced conversion and murder of indigenous peoples.

In November of last year, Sister Maureen Fiedler hand-delivered a letter to Pope Francis’ ambassador in Washington, D.C., calling on the pontiff to renounce the concept of the “Doctrine of Discovery.” She doesn’t know if the letter made it to the Vatican. But she’s hopeful the recent resolution by LCWR will spur the pope to repudiate the doctrine.

The Doctrine of Discovery is a series of papal bulls, or decrees, that gave Christian explorers the right to lay claim to any land that was not inhabited by Christians and was available to be “discovered.” If its inhabitants could be converted, they might be spared. If not, they could be enslaved or killed.

The doctrine’s modern influence re-emerged recently in the debate about the racism and exploitation of Native American sports mascots, Fiedler said. It has justified efforts to eliminate indigenous languages, practices and worldviews and it affects Native American sovereignty and treaty obligations.

Since 1823, it was enshrined in U.S. law and in 2005, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited the Doctrine of Discovery in a land-claim ruling against the Oneidas, one of the six nations of the Haudenosaunee.

In August, LCWR members overwhelmingly approved a resolution during its annual conference in Nashville, Tenn.

Indigenous groups repeatedly sought to overturn the doctrine since 1984. In its 2007 Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the United Nations criticized policies like the Doctrine of Discovery as “racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust.”

LCWR’s resolution calls on the pope to publicly acknowledge the continuing harm indigenous peoples suffer; clarify and repudiate any remaining legal status of the doctrine; dialogue with indigenous people and collaborate in planning a sacred ceremony of reconciliation; and issue a pastoral statement to courts of settler nations, urging them to change laws derived from the doctrine.

The Vatican said that later bulls and papal apologies show the church no longer supports the doctrine. “The wrongs done to the indigenous people need to be honestly acknowledged,” Saint John Paul II said in 1998. He also delivered a sweeping apology in 2000 for the church’s mistreatment of groups, including indigenous peoples.


WASHINGTON – The Senate passed a bill Sept. 18 that would stop the Internal Revenue Service from taxing tribal welfare benefits.

The House passed the bill by voice vote earlier in the week and the Senate cleared it through a unanimous consent agreement. The legislation was signed into law by President Obama on Sept. 26.

Previously, the IRS doesn’t include state and local welfare benefits as part of a person’s taxable income, but because Native American tribal jurisdictions are not the same as a state’s, the IRS has taxed tribal welfare benefits in the past.

The Tribal General Welfare Exclusion Act, H.R. 3043, would ensure that tribal housing assistance, emergency medical care and education assistance are treated as nontaxable income.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) said the bill is about parity and ensuring that tribal members are treated the same as other federal taxpayers.

The bill also establishes a Tribal Advisory Committee to help the Treasury Department and the IRS to understand how best to address tax issues affecting Indian country. Wyden said the legislation was necessary to stop aggressive IRS audits that hindered economic and social development within tribal communities.

“Tribal governments have a long history of providing critical benefits to tribal members, and these programs are fundamental to the sovereignty and cultural integrity of tribes,” Wyden said. “Tribes, and not the IRS, are in the best position to determine the needs of their members and provide for the general welfare of their tribal citizens and communities.”


HELENA, MT – Federal prosecutors can't always use past tribal court convictions as proof of a defendant's criminal history, a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found in a Montana case.

The determination came on Sept. 30 as the three-judge panel ruled that two federal counts of domestic assault filed in 2011 against Michael Bryant, Jr. must be dismissed.

The judges said Bryant was convicted of previous crimes in Northern Cheyenne Tribal Court and served time in custody but didn't have an attorney. The judges said those convictions would not be considered legal under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees a defendant the right to an attorney.

Northern Cheyenne tribal court rules say defendants can hire their own attorneys but it does not guarantee an attorney will be appointed.

The U.S. attorney's office in Montana argued that tribal courts aren't governed by the U.S. Constitution, and that Bryant's convictions were legal under tribal law. The 8th and 10th circuits have agreed with similar arguments.

While Justice Paul J. Watford agreed with the decision in Bryant's case, he argued the case law on which the judges based their decision case should be revisited. He also noted that the 9th Circuit is inconsistent because another decision allows tribal court convictions to be used as a basis to charge someone with being a felon in possession of a firearm, even if that conviction didn't meet Sixth Amendment standards.

The U.S. Attorney's office could ask for the entire court to consider the matter or seek to raise the issue with the U.S. Supreme Court.


TAHLEQUAH, OK. – The Cherokee Nation boasted six of its citizens named named as winners of the Great 100 Nurses of Oklahoma.

The national Great 100 Nurses Foundation honors standout nurses for their contributions to health care. The state of Oklahoma participated in the celebration for the first time this year.

A dinner was held Sept. 30 for the recipients at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa. The honorees were selected based on their contribution to the nursing profession and for serving as role models after being nominated by patients, peers, administrators or their community.

The six Cherokee recipients include: Mona Brown, W.W. Hastings Hospital; Katherine Hollenbeck, Sam Hider Jay Health Center; Marguerite Parker, W.W. Hastings Hospital; Dorothy Snider-Peters, Cherokee Nation Home Health; Lisa Woodworth, Muskogee Three-Rivers Health Center; and Sheryl Young, public health community nurse.

“It’s an honor to get this award since I’m just doing what I love to do,” Brown said. “Really, every one of our nurses at Cherokee Nation deserves this award.”

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