Living Civil Rights Heroes

Symposium explored 50 years of the Indian Civil Rights Act.

Published March 30, 2018

Special to Native News Online

 From the 2018 two day symposium about 50 years of the Indian Civil Rights Act

ALBUQUERQUE – In mid-February, I reflected that my tribe, the Lil’Wat in BC Canada, are working towards sovereignty. This caused me to wonder about the general status of US tribes regarding sovereignty and individual rights so I requested time off, registered for the symposium, and arranged to stay with a friend. Then I waited…studying my tribe’s strategic plan.

Thursday morning, March 8, passed slowly as I anxiously watched the clock tick from one minute to the next. I was excited to leave for Isleta Casino and attend the 2:00 pm kickoff. An IT analyst, I imagined a wonky analysis of legal tidbits. I expected intellectual stimulation with a mostly dispassionate unpacking of legal minutiae relating to individual Indians or to tribes.

My expectations were wrong. There was ample legal analysis but presentations were vibrant, and representative of living, breathing experience. They explored modern legal questions, historical precedent, and areas of evolving legal jurisdiction. The speakers were not only passionate but their analyses of legalized racism and bias were apt. We explored questions of criminal rights and habeas corpus, Indian sovereignty, police violence, blood quantum requirements for membership, and tribal politics. Each topic was based in the context of tribes’ survival or the transition of Indians from exile and neglect to empowered citizens. The speakers inspired us with relevant topics that confronted personal pain and tragedy as well as cultural trauma. Healing was available and everyone was challenged. There were explorations of traditional values informing restorative justice which highlighted, for me, how our US legal system would benefit from similar innovation. I saw a coalition of sovereign nations strengthen bonds, search for original solutions and look for new ways to incorporate traditional law into the structures that had been forced upon them. Everyone looked to collaborate and bring healing to our communities. This event was transformative, inspired, and hopeful.

The kick-off was a talking Circle at 2:00 pm on Thursday. Twelve Indians from differing tribes with differing backgrounds and offering differing perspectives shared. They encouraged us to dig deep into conversations and explore uncomfortable truths. They acknowledged Indian progress but focused on what still needs to be done. Many opened with traditional blessings in their native languages and all shared visions of hope and dreams for tribal success and empowerment. I was humbled by the depth of experience, expertise, and accomplishment in the room. I was out of my league, possibly the least qualified and accomplished person in the room.

There were Indian governors and council members. Two seats away sat a Chief Justice of Navajo Nation’s Supreme Court. Numerous attorneys held degrees from Stanford, Harvard, or the Indian Law Program at the University of Oklahoma. There were attendees who had argued cases in front of the US Supreme Court, others clerked for Supreme Court Justices. There was a federal judge and a representative from the US Department of Justice. I had arrived feeling proud of my success as an IT Business Analyst with a Project Management Professional (PMP) certification but as I met the other attendees, I realized how very outclassed I was and I was honored to share the room with such giants.

On the morning of the second day, one speaker, I believe Professor Barbara Creel from Jemez Pueblo, suggested that we think about our favorite American Indian Civil Rights hero throughout the day. I realized with some embarrassment that couldn’t name any Indian Civil Rights hero. Typically I could name several but right then, I couldn’t think of even one. I considered Tecumseh but realized he occurs for me like a superhero rather than a real human being. I set the question aside to focus on presentations.

Len Foster, Diné elder and spiritual adviser to Leonard Peltier at Alcatraz Island.

In the early afternoon, a Navajo elder named Lenny Foster stepped to the podium. He had been part of AIM and he brought sweat lodges into Prisons for incarcerated natives. I wanted to hear him because I used to help prisoners transition from lockup to life outside. Also, in the late 1990s, I wrote articles for Indian Country Today about an Indian prisoners’ rights activist who later died in a car crash. Mr. Foster’s presentation was engaging and inspiring. He spoke with the authority of an elder and his very stature demanded our attention and respect. His spirit shone bright and he clearly had lived through deep pain, which he used to help others.

Mr. Foster recounted his involvement at Wounded Knee and in the occupation of Alcatraz. He introduced himself as a negotiator, pointing out that legal conflict is risky, and legislation can be slow, whereas negotiation can be effective with the right people at the table. The Wounded Knee standoff, however, highlighted that violence may be necessary for self-defense in some instances.

He talked about surviving numerous armed conflicts at Wounded Knee and made it clear that he remembered every single firefight because they all terrified him. He mentioned friends who had fallen and referred to the Wounded Knee activists as dog soldiers. He shared about subsequent efforts to hold sweat lodges in prisons across the country and how Native prisoners who practiced Native spirituality often left prison as free-men, who never reoffended. He talked about challenges in negotiating with wardens, many of whom were resistant. But he recounted how he kept trying incessantly, and respectfully heard “no” many times but kept asking until he was allowed to help Indian prisoners. Mr. Foster described criminals healing through the power of tradition, becoming servants for the people. He talked about counseling death-row Indians and about visiting Leonard Peltier, who is near death, and whose sole wish is to die outside the confines of prison.

Then, Mr. Lenny Foster stepped away from the microphone and applause ensued.

Mesmerized by what had been said, I smiled, realizing that Lenny Foster is an American Indian Civil Rights Hero. The applause began to subside and I thought, “they should give him a standing ovation!” The applause almost ended when I thought, “…I should give him a standing ovation. I’m going to give him that honor.” So I timidly rose to my feet and clapped a little louder. My cheeks flushed with embarrassment as I worried that others might look at me and think I was being silly but I buried that thought and clapped louder. I was inspired by Mr. Foster, by what he had done, and what he continues to do. I stood alone, clapping for what felt like ten minutes (it was probably 10 seconds) and I was about to sit when a young Indian who sat behind me stood. Then six more rose to their feet and the applause intensified. Across the room, an Indian who had introduced himself as a civil rights lawyer stood and nodded towards us. In a few moments, Mr. Foster was receiving a standing ovation.

Unaware, he walked towards his chair, when another speaker touched his arm and pointed to the room. He squinted against the light and recognized the standing ovation. Then, Mr. Foster stopped, straightened his body, raised both arms in the air and yelled to us in his native language. His face was fierce and his fists clenched. Some responded in their native language and the applause intensified.

After a few moments, I straightened my back, raised my right arm, and clenched my fist high in the air. I stood there silently saluting Mr. Foster this way until others did the same. For a few moments, we stood saluting this dog soldier, this elder, this warrior for the people. We saluted him offering silent respect until he sat down, then we too sat. That moment was powerful, it infused the air with purpose and set the space for the next presentation.

Mike Adams

The next panel included David Garcia, an elder from the Tohono O’odham tribe near Tucson. Mr. Garcia spoke in opposition to the proposed US/Mexico border wall. He was introduced as an activist who leaves water and rations in the desert for immigrants traveling north. Mr. Garcia talked about his tribal lands stretching across the border into Mexico, and he pointed out that animals travel unaware of those human defined lines that separate two nations. He shared about tribal members traveling North and South for ceremonies and festivals. He pointed out that the proposed wall will interfere with his people and his tribe’s sovereignty. Later, when I caught up with Mr. Garcia, I thanked him for leaving water in the desert. He said simply that he had to. There was no choice in doing the right thing. We are all interconnected and he couldn’t just let people die in the desert. He described how members of his tribe feared he might provoke a US Government reprisal and they told him to stop, threatening to remove him from council, but he couldn’t stop because leaving water is the right thing to do. He would keep doing it, even if he lost his position, even if he lost his friends. As I listened, I realized that he too is a civil rights hero. I asked for his contact information and thanked him for doing the right thing regardless of potential consequences. As I write these words, I hope that others will be inspired by Mr. Garcia’s commitment and that they will join him in fighting for what is right.

The event closed with a talking Circle, just as it had begun. But one speaker, a young woman who identified as an Acoma Indian, really caught my attention. She was working to complete a Masters of Social Work (MSW) degree at UNM. She talked about her decision to attend school and pursue an MSW so that she could help her people.

Then she paused, her voice cracked, and she said that she had to share her personal story, which she hadn’t intended to do. As tears slid down her cheeks, she recounted, in a trembling voice, how she wasn’t allowed membership in her tribe. Her blood quantum wasn’t enough. She couldn’t learn the language, despite having participated in sacred dances since she was 12. She simply couldn’t join, despite having gone through the rights of passage. She was a brown-skinned outsider. She talked about being abandoned by her people, and by her elders. Tears formed in my eyes. Her pain resonated in my heart. I am a Canadian Indian, but I grew up in New Mexico because my mom was forcibly taken from her tribe as a child by the US Government in its effort to assimilate native savages. As this young woman spoke, my pain came alive because, like her, I have been alone and displaced. I’ve been an Indian surrounded by Indians but accepted by none.

She then talked of her work. She talked about going out onto the streets of Albuquerque, looking for homeless people, and helping them find what they need. She’d help them find medical care, food, and/or clothing. She talked about substance abuse and how it robs Indians of their future and robs our cultures of a precious resource; people. She talked about finding young homeless Indians who knew that they were Indian, who knew their tribe, but they knew nothing of their tradition or the power in their culture. She talked about people, including Indians who would see these homeless souls, and shake their heads with disgust, complaining of lazy drunk and wasted Indians. She talked about reaching out to these vulnerable Indians; about trying to help them find a way back to their tribes and their traditions. She talked about how they felt the tribe had nothing for them, they felt they were already ruined, and they had failed their tribe; that they could not return and even if they wanted to, they felt they would not be welcome.

She paused and then addressed the elders and said, “I mean no disrespect, but you have failed these Indians. You have abandoned them.” Her words were powerful, honest, and they pierced our hearts. She asserted that these homeless Indians had been abandoned by their people and that she now needs help in reaching the brokenhearted and hopeless Indians who littered our city streets. Again, her words were resonant in my heart. I have been sober for 22 years, and prior to getting sober; I was a drag on society. I was a lazy and drunken Indian.

I understood the potential of helping these Indians find their way back to the lifeblood of our Indian communities. I knew that the people she was talking about were living into one possible future determined by their loss of power over alcohol or drugs. I knew that their only safe path is to abstain and that they are living inside the hopelessness that once overwhelmed me and which could take me again if ever I fall prey to drugs or alcohol.

As I sat there with tears blurring my vision, I recognized this young college-aged woman as an American Indian civil rights hero. And, later, when I told her so, she cried and she hugged me.

The 2018 “50 years of the American Indian Civil Rights Act symposium” at Isleta Casino was a transformative event. It was filled with inspiring warriors for our Native communities. It was an opportunity to meet living, relevant and powerful civil rights heroes. It was an opportunity to become inspired and to consider how I want to live; how I want to dedicate my life. I am grateful to have attended and I know that I need to find a way to serve my people and all Indian people.


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