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It’s time to fix centuries of broken promises: Indigenous representation in Congress is a start

Congress now has an opportunity to begin a long-avoided conversation around reconciliation, and Minnesota is uniquely equipped to lead the way.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaking on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on November 17.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaking on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on November 17.
REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

On Nov. 16, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a statement claiming that “[t]he House Democratic Caucus will continue to explore a path toward welcoming a delegate from the Cherokee Nation into the People’s House,” which could finally address one of many broken promises made to the Cherokee people in the 1835 Treaty of New Echota. This treaty, which led to the horrific events known as the Trail of Tears, was one of hundreds of treaties made between Native American nations and the United States government that remain unfulfilled or broken nearly two centuries later. Congress now has an opportunity to begin a long-avoided conversation around reconciliation, and Minnesota is uniquely equipped to lead the way.

In 1968, Native activists created the American Indian Movement (AIM) in Minneapolis, where AIM and several other Native organizations met in 1972 to write the “Twenty-Points Position Paper” and embark on a cross-country caravan to Washington, D.C., visiting Indigenous communities along the way and hearing their grievances. Although the “Twenty-Points Position Paper” did not receive much attention from U.S. lawmakers at the time, it still provides valuable insight into avenues of reconciliation for today. It outlines key objectives such as restoring the treaty-making authority of Indigenous nations, enacting mandatory relief against treaty rights violations, restoring 110 million acres as a permanent Native American land base, and creating structures in Congress and the executive branch of the federal government to restore the sovereign rights of Indigenous nations.

The American Indian Movement has continued to advocate for the rights that were promised to Indigenous peoples through treaties, decades after the organization’s creation in 1968. Earlier this month, AIM completed a two-and-a-half month “Walk to Justice” from Minneapolis to Washington, D.C., calling for the Biden administration to grant clemency for Leonard Peltier. Peltier, an AIM activist illegally arrested in Canada in 1976, is considered to be the longest serving Indigenous political prisoner in America. While the activists were on their way to Washington in September, the Democratic National Committee appeared to take notice and unanimously passed a resolution urging President Biden to award Peltier with executive clemency. This resolution comes after years of criticism of Peltier’s imprisonment by prominent civil rights leaders and organizations such as Nelson Mandela, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Amnesty International, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People.

Jordan Rynning
Jordan Rynning
While AIM has been instrumental in the advocacy of Indigenous people’s rights, they have not been alone. There are several other organizations, along with top scholars at the University of Minnesota, contributing to the greater movement of reclaiming Indigenous sovereignty and ways of life in the State. Professor Vicente M. Diaz, for example, has been putting decades of research in Indigenous studies into practice, leveraging Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge to build connections between Indigenous communities and fuel the resurgence of Indigenous practices. Jill Doerfler, chair of the American Indian Studies department at the University of Minnesota Duluth and member of the White Earth Anishinaabe, is another Indigenous scholar who has worked to shift the narrative on the federal government’s criterion for “Indian” and tribal identity. Throughout Minnesota and all of North America, the voices of Native activists and leaders are calling for justice, and it is time that we all listen; it’s time to release Peltier, to give Indigenous nations a seat at the table in the People’s House, and to start our long walk to justice and reconciliation.

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There are serious questions arising as to how it will be possible to seat a Cherokee Nation delegate in the near future, as it will likely be a difficult task in either a lame-duck session of Congress or with the coming Republican majority next session, but it is crucial that lawmakers find a way to make this first step in reconciliation. As U.S. citizens, to be silent on this issue prolongs the violent histories of colonization, assimilation, and integration, but we have an opportunity to create a new relationship with our Indigenous neighbors that breaks away from those histories. Instead, we can strive for relations built on mutual respect and equal partnership, but that will only happen if we allow Native leaders their place to speak and be heard in the halls of power.

Jordan Rynning is originally from Kennedy, Minnesota. A United States Navy veteran, he has a professional background in military intelligence analysis and he holds a degree in political science from the University of Hawaii.