DENVER, Colo. – At a Large Land Based Tribal Nations task force meeting held during the 75th annual convention of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), President Russell Begaye called upon large land-based tribes and the NCAI to stand on the strength of their treaties.
President Begaye said tribal nations need to reinforce their sovereignty by standing on their treaties, federal trust responsibilities and federal Indian law.
Citing a 2017 case in which the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Navajo Nation against the Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM), President Begaye said the decision overwhelmingly supported tribal sovereignty. The result of the opinion was that outside entities like PNM must receive the approval of tribal governments when seeking right of way over tribally owned lands.
The Navajo Nation won this case in New Mexico district court but PNM appealed the decision all way up to the Supreme Court.
“Ultimately, this means we have the law on our side and the status of Indian nations supersedes federal law when used strategically,” President Begaye said. “For sovereign nations, this win was phenomenal. It proved our treaties are stronger than statutory laws.”
The most recent challenge to tribal sovereignty came when a Texas federal court ruled that the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was unconstitutional.
On Oct. 4, a federal court in Texas struck down the ICWA law that aims to protect Native American children in welfare custody by placing them with Native families first.
President Begaye said the Navajo Nation has been denied the right to be a party to this case, although one of the children involved is half-Navajo.
“The fight is definitely here and people don’t understand the treaty status of our nations,” President Begaye told the task force. “These issues are a constant battle and as tribes, we need to unite for significant change on behalf of Indian Country.”
The Large Land Based Tribal Nations Task Force was moderated by President Begaye, Fort Hall Shoshone Bannock Tribal Chairman Nathan Small and task force board representative Gay Kingman.
Kingman is one of the founders of the Coalition of Large Tribes (COLT), which President Begaye is the current chairman of.
The task force’s purpose was to strengthen the ability of large land-based tribes to advocate on behalf of issues facing their tribal nations and communities.
Large land base tribes have tribal nations consisting of 100,000 acres or more. These tribes are unique in that they are full service tribes. They operate their own court systems, police forces, judicial systems and full health programs.
Kingman said COLT was founded in 2011 when large land based tribes found themselves outnumbered in fighting for their budgets against the majority of smaller tribes.
“We brought this to NCAI to have them give large land base tribes time. It’s a constant battle for us to get funding for all of our tribal government,” Kingman said. “Collectively we need to work together to get budgets for our departments and tribal governments.”
Chairman Small encouraged all tribes to defend their sovereignty as it comes under attack by both state courts and the Supreme Court.
“Large land based tribes have intense issues. With President Trump, he’s loosening the policies that we’ve fought to put in place,” Chairman Small said. “Our nations have a lot of issues and it’s a continuous fight.”