Trahant: Take the ‘Voting Booth’ Challenge

Last winter, months before your Facebook feed started filling with videos of folks taking the “ice-bucket challenge,” Native Americans did the “winter challenge.” Participants jumped in ice-cold streams or banks of snow and challenged others to do the same. Imagine what could happen if Indian Country focused social media on addressing health or civic issues.

 By Mark Trahant, The Daily Yonder

Last winter, Native Americans adapted an old practice of private challenges to the new platform of social media. A swarm of Canadian cold-water plunges resulted.

I remember getting in trouble as a teenager. The story beat me home.  I was stunned at the velocity of information in a small community. The chain went like this: Something happened. People talked. And the story spread. Fast.

I guess that’s why social media, to me, is an old form of storytelling. It’s how we naturally tell stories, spreading the word to one friend (or follower) in real time. And then another. And again. But while the forum is essentially the same, there are two new twists: the use of digital tools and the increased size of our network. (A generation ago our “network” might be a few friends gathered for coffee at the trading post. Today it’s a thousand friends on Facebook, their thousand friends, and definitely more on Twitter, Tumblr or Snapchat.)

The ice-bucket challenge to raise money to prevent ALS — Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — or Lou Gehrig’s Disease is a great example of how social media works.  The brilliant campaign has earned more than $70 million with the goal of creating a world “without ALS!”

Every day my Facebook feed has new posts from someone taking this challenge.

Of course this whole challenge thing is familiar anyway. It’s a lot like the Winter Challenge that spread across Canada and Indian Country. Carielynn Victor, from Chilliwack, B.C., told Global News Canada that the idea was not a new one, but the concept of taking it public was new.

So why ALS? It’s a fabulous cause and worth doing. That said: What if Indian Country could harness social media to affect the diseases that are killing most of our friends and family?

So heart disease is the leading killer in Indian Country. What if we raised money for research and action for American Indians and Alaska Natives? Or diabetes? Or any disease that affects most of us. It could be money targeted to make a real difference in our lives.

Then, the power of social media is not just about money. Imagine what we could do to health disparities if social media challenged tens of thousands of people to walk more. Or eat better. Then post results in real time so that we all stay on task.

Beyond disease and public health, social media could be used to “challenge” American Indians and Alaska Natives to register and vote at levels that are unprecedented. If the same intensity of the winter challenge, or the ice bucket challenge, or any social media phenomenon, was applied to November’s balloting, well, it would upend the status quo. Guaranteed.

One reason the winter challenge and the ice-bucket challenge worked so well is that they were simple to do, and easy to pass along virally. It’s fun to see a friend jump in a creek. We laugh at the way people met their challenge. (I did a snow angel in the shadow of Denali courtesy of Laura John at the Montana Policy and Budget Center.)

So any election challenge must be simple and fun. And be specific. Laura challenged me. Then I added friends, creating an exponential network.

There have already been some really smart efforts to increase Native voting. Indeed, the last election cycle produced record numbers. In New Mexico and Montana, for example, Native Americans voted at a higher percentage than the general population, 77% and 64%. That could be across the country. Especially in Alaska, Oklahoma, Arizona, the Dakotas. Already this year, the National Congress of American Indians has called for a summer of action for the Native Vote (there was a Google hangout that explores details) to do just that.

Now it’s time to add to those efforts and tap the awesome power that is social media. If we can ask our friends to jump into a creek, we sure as hell can ask them to vote. We ought to do that in a video and on our Facebook page. Let’s take the ice bucket into the voting booth and really change the country.

Mark Trahant serves as the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

Tribes support changing feds’ recognition process

By PHILIP MARCELO, Associated Press

MASHPEE, Mass. (AP) – American Indians attending a Tuesday hearing at the Mashpee Wampanoag community center on Cape Cod said they support the federal government’s plan to make it easier for tribes to gain federal recognition.

But the tribal representatives, from New Jersey, Virginia, Missouri, New England and elsewhere, urged the U.S. Department of the Interior to go further.

They called for setting a time limit on the review process, which can sometimes take decades.

“There’s something wrong when a process takes more than a generation to complete,” said Cedric Cromwell, chairman of the tribal council for the Mashpee Wampanoags, which won federal recognition in 2007 after a 30-year quest.

Federal recognition brings tribes increased government benefits and special privileges, including seeking commercial ventures like building casinos and gambling facilities on sovereign lands.

Tribal leaders also strongly objected to a proposal they said effectively gives “veto power” to certain “third parties” when a tribe seeks to re-apply for recognition.

Dennis Jenkins, chairman of the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation in Connecticut, said the provision would allow states, municipalities and other organizations that oppose tribal recognition to stand in the way of the federal decision-making process.

“It would be next to impossible for us to re-apply if this proposal goes through,” he said.

One attendee, meanwhile, suggested the proposed changes would “devalue” federal tribal recognition by setting the bar too low.

“The current process was not intended to create a tribal existence where none had existed,” said Michelle Littlefield, Taunton resident who has been an outspoken opponent of the Mashpee Wampanoags’ plan to build a $500 million resort casino in that city. “It is meant to protect the integrity of the historical Native American tribes that have an honored place in our nation’s history.”

The hearing was the last in a series of nationwide meetings on the proposal, and the only one held on the East Coast.

Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn said the department believes it can make the tribal recognition process less costly and burdensome to tribes and more predictable and transparent without “sacrificing rigorousness.”

The Mashpee, who hosted the meeting, are among only 17 tribes that have been recognized by the Interior Department since the process was established 35 years ago.

The majority of the 566 federally-recognized tribes in the U.S. earned that status through an act of Congress.

The Interior Department proposes, among other things, lowering the threshold for tribes to demonstrate community and political authority.

Rather than from “first sustained contact” with non-Indians, tribes would need only to provide evidence dating back to 1934, which was the year Congress accepted the existence of tribes as political entities.

Washburn said that proposal, in particular, could help “level the playing field” among tribes.

Eastern tribes, he said, would otherwise need to provide a much more exhaustive historical record – sometimes dating as far back as 1789 – than their western counterparts.

“We’ve heard over and over that the process is broken,” Washburn said. “We’re going to do something.”

Native American health insurance enrollment surges in South Dakota, but some remain skeptical

In this July 10, 2014 photo, Denise Mesteth poses outside the powwow grounds in Pine Ridge, S.D. Mesteth is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, born and raised on the Pine Ridge reservation. She has signed up for health insurance through the federal marketplace. (AP Photo/Nora Hertel)
In this July 10, 2014 photo, Denise Mesteth poses outside the powwow grounds in Pine Ridge, S.D. Mesteth is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, born and raised on the Pine Ridge reservation. She has signed up for health insurance through the federal marketplace. (AP Photo/Nora Hertel)

By NORA HERTEL  Associated Press

PINE RIDGE, South Dakota — Denise Mesteth signed up for new health insurance through the federal Affordable Care Act, despite concerns that it may not be worth the money for her and other Native Americans who otherwise rely on free government coverage.

Mesteth, who has a heart murmur and requires medication and regular blood work, said she’s cautiously optimistic that the federal insurance will be superior to what she has now. Many other American Indians have been more reluctant to enroll, choosing instead to continue relying on the Indian Health Service for their coverage and taking advantage of a clause in the federal health reform law that allows them to be exempt from the insurance mandate if they meet certain requirements.

“If it’s better services, then I’m OK,” Masteth said of ACA. “But it better be better.”

Mesteth and other American Indians in South Dakota account for 2.5 percent of the people in the state who have signed up for insurance under the federal health care law, according to the latest signup numbers. The state, with nearly 9 percent of its overall population Native American, ranks third for the percentage of enrollees who are American Indian among U.S. states using the federal marketplace.

The Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Health Board, which provides support and health care advocacy to tribes, received $264,000 to help Native Americans in South Dakota navigate the new insurance marketplace.

Tinka Duran, program coordinator for the board, said people are primarily concerned about the costs of enrolling. Insurance is a new concept to most because health care has always been free, she said.

“There’s a learning curve for figuring out co-pays and deductibles,” she said.

During a U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing in May, tribal leaders chastised IHS as a bloated bureaucracy unable to fulfill its core duty of providing health care for more than 2 million Native Americans and Alaska Natives. IHS acting director Yvette Roubideaux said changes were underway but that more money will be needed than the $4.4 billion the agency receives each year.

She noted that federal health care spending on Native Americans lags far behind spending on other groups such as federal employees, who receive almost twice as much on a per-capita basis. Meanwhile, American Indians suffer from higher rates of substance abuse, assault, diabetes and a slew of other ailments compared to most of the population.

Native Americans and Alaska Natives are exempt from the health insurance mandate if they meet certain requirements. ACA also permanently reauthorized the Indian Health Care Improvement Act and authorized new programs for IHS, which also is starting to get funds from the Veterans Affairs Department to help native veterans.

When American Indians do obtain insurance, it means fewer people are tapping the IHS budget, said Raho Ortiz, director of the IHS Division of Business Office Enhancement.

“If more of our patients have health insurance or are enrolled in Medicaid, this means that more resources are available locally for all of our patients,” Ortiz said in an emailed statement. “This, in turn, allows scarce resources to be stretched further.”

Those who sign up for federal health care can still use IHS facilities but have the option of seeking health care elsewhere, Ortiz said.

State Democratic Sen. Jim Bradford is among the skeptics. The Oglala Sioux member lives on the Pine Ridge reservation, home to two of the poorest counties in the nation.

The U.S. government provides health care to Native Americans as part of its trust responsibility to tribes that gave up their land when the country was being formed. Bradford and others object to the shift in health care providers on the principle that IHS is obligated by treaty to supply that care.

Harriett Jennesse, a member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe who lives in Rapid City, said she already has seen the benefits of the new health insurance and doesn’t mind paying a little out of pocket.

Jennesse said she put off treatment for a painful bone chip in her elbow after IHS denied a doctor’s referral to a specialist on grounds that it wasn’t an urgent enough need. She’s now seeing a specialist for dislocation in her other elbow and will also try to get the bone chip fixed when the other arm heals.

Study finds widespread oral health problems among Navajo

By Medical Press

A new study from Colorado School of Public Health shows that despite some modest improvements, poor oral health remains a major problem in the Navajo Nation and among American Indians overall.

“The among Native Americans is abysmal with more than three times the disease of the rest of the country,” said Terrence Batliner, DDS, MBA, associate director of the Center for Native Oral Health Research at the School of Public Health. “The number one problem is access to care.”

The study, published recently in the Journal of Public Health Dentistry, showed that 69.5 percent of Navajo had untreated tooth decay. While that’s better than the 82.9 percent in 1999, it’s still unacceptably high.

“The percentage of children with untreated decay appears to have declined in the past decade, although it remains today substantially higher (three to four times) than national averages,” the study said.

Batliner and his colleagues, including Patricia Braun, MD, MPH, who directed the study on the Navajo Nation, looked at 981 children in 52 Head Start classrooms on the reservation. Of those, 89.3 percent had oral disease in the past and 69.5 percent had untreated tooth decay.

That 69.5 percent of untreated decay compares with 20.48 percent among all other race and ethnic groups.

The Navajo Nation is the largest reservation in the country, stretching over 25,000 square miles. Much of it is remote with 22 dental clinics serving 225,639 residents. The dentist-to-patient ratio is 32.3 dentists per 100,000 residents, among the lowest in the country.

The researchers found that half of all Native American children need to be treated in the operating room due to the severity of their .

To increase access to care, Batliner advocates the creation of dental therapists for the reservation.

“They learn how to do fillings and extractions along with providing preventative services,” Batliner said. “This program has proved to be a raging success among tribes in Alaska. The quality of care is good.”

The American Dental Assn. opposes dental therapists and has filed suit to block their use on tribal lands.

“The American Dental Association is fighting the idea of dental therapists,” Batliner said. “But many of us perceive as a Native solution to a Native problem. Children and adults are suffering and this is a solution that can help.”

Native Americans struggle to bring teachers to Reservation Schools

By TOM LUTEY, The Billings Gazette

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) _ Desperate for new teachers, Hays/Lodge Pole School District Superintendent Margaret Campbell has pulled out all the stops: A three-bedroom home to live in for $230 a month, with utilities paid; a $1,000 signing bonus; and even a dollar-for-dollar match for up to $300 on monthly student loan payments.

And still, luring teachers to the school district on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in the shadow of the piney Little Rocky Mountains is extremely difficult. Starting pay is about $26,000 a year.

“A lot of people don’t want to live in a remote area,” said Campbell, who this summer is looking to hire three teachers and a principal. “It’s isolated here.”

Isolated, and challenging. In Montana, teachers are in demand, especially those capable of teaching special education, English and math. A report issued each December on teacher shortages listed 1,169 teaching vacancies, including 463 in critical areas like special education, English, math and science. The shortages are worst on American Indian reservations and rural schools on the outskirts of reservations.

American Indians as a whole represent a relatively small 11.8 percent of Montana’s 142,000 K-12 students, but in 40 Montana school districts American Indians make up at least half the student body. Of those districts, 34 did not meet No Child Left Behind standards.

The 20 most needy schools are all located in these areas. The schools are not only remote, but also lead the state in the percentage of students eligible for federally subsidized free and price-reduced school lunches, as well as low student achievement based on No Child Left Behind results.

The economies on reservations are the worst in the state, with double-digit unemployment rates on all but one reservation. On the Crow Reservation, the rate is 25 percent, according to Montana’s Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

Poverty at home and the social problems that come with it make school that much more difficult.

“I think on reservations there are major challenges in terms of poverty and associated issues,” said Madalyn Quinlan, chief of staff for the Montana Office of Public Instruction. “We talk a lot about the trauma the students bring to schools and it also affects teachers.”

Quinlan authors OPI’s annual report on critical teacher shortages. The report helps steer Montana’s Quality Educator Assistance Program, which provides up to four years of direct student loan payment for teachers who meet critical needs. There was money available for 246 teachers in 2014.

Both state and federal governments have tried to sweeten the pot for teachers willing to work in rural American Indian schools, but superintendents like Campbell say not all hurdles can be overcome with incentives.

“If you’re married, whether it’s your wife, or your husband, they need to work. On reservations there are strict hiring preferences for tribal members, Campbell said. “Your spouse is going to have a hard time getting a job.”

There’s also a professional isolation that can be difficult for teachers with a specialized skill, said Dan McGhee, Pryor Public Schools superintendent. Even in rural schools teachers have peers, but they often don’t have colleagues who specialize in the same subjects who can compare notes.

The student population is also fairly transitory: A significant number of students move in and out of Pryor School during the academic year, which makes teaching difficult. Teachers new to the school have to be ready for that challenge.

“The eight kids you start with in third grade you might wind up with five of the same kids at the end of the year,” McGhee said. The three kids who leave are more often than not replaced by three newcomers. The situation can be incredibly challenging for teachers trying to keep everyone up to speed with the curriculum.

Starting pay for a new teacher is just over $29,000 a year. That’s not a lot of money, McGhee said. Pryor has been offering $2,000 bonuses to non-tenured faculty, but the money came from a state program that is expiring.

McGhee said he would like to offer his teachers more pay, but school funding is pretty tight on reservations, where much of the property is owned by tribal government and tax exempt.

Schools receive Federal Impact Aid money to compensate for tax-exempt property. The money is similar to payments in lieu of taxes given to Montana counties with significant areas of tax-exempt federal land.

But federal budget cuts have reduced the amount of Impact Aid for schools by 10 percent, McGhee said. For school districts on Montana reservations, the cut means six-figure losses in funding and a much more difficult task of hiring teachers.

Ideally, the new teachers in the classroom would be American Indian.

In 2012, Montana State University and Little Big Horn College partnered to help American Indians receive master’s degrees in school administration. The goal is to boost achievement in underperforming schools.

Earlier in June, Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., introduced a bill to completely forgive student loans for American Indian teachers who were teaching in schools with a percentage of American Indian students.

The bill was proposed to Walsh by tribal leaders concerned about the need for more American Indian teachers. The loans would be forgiven up to $17,500, provided American Indian teachers were in schools with at least 10 Indian students or not less than 25 percent of the total number of individuals enrolled in the school.

American Indians share their Yosemite story

Les James, right, who is Miwuk-Chukchansi, beside two examples of traditional housing called umachas with tribal elder Bill Tucker, a Miwuk-Paiute, seen to the left, on a tour of a village site in Yosemite Valley just a few yards from the main loop road driven by thousands of visitors. A umacha is constructed with a frame of cedar poles covered by cedar bark using wild grape vines to tie joints together, according to Tucker and James. Photographed on Monday, June 9, 2014 in Yosemite National Park. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA — Fresno Bee Staff Photo
Les James, right, who is Miwuk-Chukchansi, beside two examples of traditional housing called umachas with tribal elder Bill Tucker, a Miwuk-Paiute, seen to the left, on a tour of a village site in Yosemite Valley just a few yards from the main loop road driven by thousands of visitors. A umacha is constructed with a frame of cedar poles covered by cedar bark using wild grape vines to tie joints together, according to Tucker and James. Photographed on Monday, June 9, 2014 in Yosemite National Park. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA — Fresno Bee Staff Photo


By Carmen George, The Fresno Bee, June 27, 2014

Editor’s note: Information in the third and fourth paragraphs has been revised to clarify details.

Two little American Indian girls hid motionless in a cave, covered in brush as soldiers passed through Yosemite Valley.

Older members of their Yosemite tribe made a quick escape up a steep, rocky canyon, and the girls were temporarily left behind, told not to make a sound.

This was the mid-1800s during the era when armed soldiers marched into Yosemite Valley not as explorers, but as men out for blood. At the first, they burned villages and stores of acorns, meat and mushrooms. Later on, they patrolled, yet the fear of them remained.

One of those concealed girls, Louisa Tom, lived to be more than 100 years old. She never got over those early images. Into old age, when uniformed park rangers entered her village in Yosemite Valley, she would run and hide behind her cabin, recalls great-granddaughter-in-law Julia Parker, 86, who has worked in the Yosemite Indian museum for 54 years.

For many American Indians, the inspiration for Yosemite National Park did not start with flowery prose from John Muir or a romantic vision of Galen Clark in the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias as its “first guardian.” It began with murder and destruction.

TIMELINE: Slide and click through Yosemite’s history

For them, the story of Yosemite since the mid-1800s is tragedy and tears, yet resilient Native Americans have survived and still live in this mountain paradise.

“We’re still here, living in the Yosemite Valley,” Parker says. “So you can’t keep a good people down.”

On Monday, many descendants of these “first people” will attend a ceremony in the Mariposa Grove to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Yosemite Grant Act — precursor to national parks. Les James, 79, a tribal elder active in Yosemite’s native community, will say a blessing, but he won’t be celebrating.

“The changes, the destruction, that’s what I don’t like about it. You destroyed something that we preserved for thousands of years. In 150 years, you’ve ruined it.”

For most of his life in the Yosemite area, James has worked to return cultural activities. He also had a 31-year career in Yosemite, starting in 1959, making trail and warning signs. Over his lifetime, there have been 24 park superintendents.

Helen Coats, 87, is the great-granddaughter of that little girl hiding in the cave. Coats, born in Yosemite Valley, lived in its last native village, destroyed by the Park Service by 1969.

She now lives down Highway 140 in the Mariposa area. She sees “busloads after busloads” of tourists pass by every day. Sometimes, it makes her sad.

“They are just trampling my home to death.”

A dark chapter

To understand the viewpoint of Yosemite’s first people, go back to March 27, 1851 — about 13 years before the Yosemite Grant Act was signed.

On that spring day, during a hunt for Indians who were rumored to be living in a mountain stronghold, the first publicized “discovery” of Yosemite happened.

The natives living in this ethereal place were called the Ahwahneechees, and they already were competing with the Gold Rush to survive. In 1849, there were 100,000 miners swarming the foothills, wrote Margaret Sanborn in “Yosemite: Its Discovery, its Wonders and its People.”

SPECIAL REPORT: Yosemite celebrates 150th anniversary

After an attack on a trading post on the Fresno River near Coarsegold owned by pioneer James Savage, 23 natives were killed by a volunteer company. The group, led by Savage, became the Mariposa Battalion. Federal Indian commissioners — eager to make treaties — told Savage to not “shed blood unnecessarily.”

The battalion discovered Yosemite searching for Indians. During early military expeditions, some natives were shot and killed or hung from oak trees in Yosemite Valley.

Lafayette Bunnell, a battalion member, recorded Chief Tenaya’s reaction finding his son shot in the back trying to escape.

“Upon his entrance into the camp of volunteers, the first object that met his gaze was the dead body of his son. Not a word did he speak, but the workings of his soul were frightfully manifested in the deep and silent gloom that overspread his countenance.”

Later, Tenaya tried to escape by plunging into the river, but was spotted. “Kill me, sir captain! Yes, kill me, as you killed my son; as you would kill my people, if they should come to you! … Yes, sir American, you can tell your warriors to kill the old chief … you have killed the child of my heart …”

The assault would splinter the Ahwahneechee tribe — some fleeing over the Sierra, others rounded up in the foothills.

Their descendents live on. Today, at least seven organized Native American groups have traditional ties to Yosemite, according to Laura Kirn, Yosemite’s cultural resources program manager.

But the pain of their past lives on, too.

Jack Forbes, a former American Indian studies professor at the University of California at Davis, writes about the previous era in “Native Americans of California and Nevada.” He suggests few chapters in U.S. history are more brutal and callous than the conquering of California Indians.

He writes: “It serves to indict not a group of cruel leaders, or a few squads of rough soldiers, but, in effect, an entire people; for the conquest of the Native Californian was above all else a popular, mass enterprise.”

Weight of difference

Coats was born in Yosemite Valley in May 1927.

As a child, she loved to roam and pound berries atop boulders in her village, where women pounded acorns. Sometimes she would dress in buckskin and beads to visit grandmother Lucy Telles weaving baskets for tourists.

It was a good childhood, Coats says, but she couldn’t help notice being treated differently than white children. She recalls that at her Yosemite school, she drew pictures or made dolls, and then was met with an encouraging “Oh, that’s so nice” from the teacher.

“They didn’t try to teach us,” Coats says of schooling for natives. “I guess they thought we wouldn’t make a good pupil maybe for reading and writing.”

Coats was born in the “old Indian village,” tents by current-day Yosemite Village, which now includes a large gift shop, market and pizzeria. In the early 1930s she was moved to a new Indian village near Camp 4, more than a mile away with 17 small cabins. Kirn says the move was to provide more privacy and better housing.

But Coats sees it differently. “The old village, we were too visible. People could really see us there, the way we lived in tents, you know. We were the poor people of Yosemite.”

The Indian cabins lacked what other park houses had, like private bathrooms, warm water, bigger windows and second stories, Coats says.

Feeling the power

Walking through a Yosemite Valley meadow, Bill Tucker, 75, points to plants his Miwuk and Paiute people ate. Many also were used for healing.

Coats recalls a doctor who said her great-grandma would die overnight, but family members placed cooked wild onion on her chest. “Next morning, she was fine.”

In the meadow, Les James looks up at the cliffs. “I can feel that power.”

“Everything is living on Mother Earth,” he says, and even the rocks have stories. Like El Capitan, the world’s largest granite monolith. The name “captain” was thought fitting for this massive stone, but according to native legend, it was named after one of the smallest creatures: An inchworm.

This comes from a tale about the rock’s creation, much like the “Tortoise and the Hare.” The story goes that two children sleeping on a stone awoke to find it grown. All kinds of animals tried to scale its sheer face to rescue them. Then came a little worm.

“This little guy, he’s the underdog,” James says, “and they laugh at him about what he’s going to do, inch his way up and save the kids.” But the worm succeeds. “Even if you’re a little guy, don’t worry, you’ll be famous someday,” James says with a smile.

El Capitan is not El Capitan. It’s the “Measuring-Worm Stone.”

Many visitors today miss Yosemite’s wonder, says Lois Martin, 70, who grew up in the native village and is chairwoman of the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation. “It’s so commercialized.”

But many hold to a hope that in Yosemite, humanity might still connect to indigenous roots shared by all. The late David Brower, the Sierra Club’s first executive director, once said people need places to be reminded that “civilization is only a thin veneer over the deep evolutionary flow of things that built him.”

Meadow manhole

Walking through green grass in Yosemite Valley, James and Tucker come upon concrete. Tucker, a retired park plumber, says it’s part of an old sewer line — a manhole in the meadow.

It gets him thinking about his 30-year career in the park. Memories of burst sewer lines and the wastewater treatment ponds in Tuolumne Meadows, in the high country, give him chills.

Many of Yosemite’s American Indians also worry about species management: the killing of “non-native” fish and plants considered invasive in Yosemite Valley, such as blackberry bushes, which have been sprayed with pesticides. Over five years, 40 acres have been treated with a weed killer, Kirn says. “We believe that if an animal does digest it, it’s about as safe as a chemical can be.”

Yosemite’s first people weren’t trying to preserve an untouched wilderness, but they understood nature and lived light on the land. They had the advantage of thousands of years of experience.

The park often has glossed over the native role in the evolution of Yosemite’s meadows, says University of California at Davis lecturer M. Kat Anderson in “Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources.” For example, the natives regularly set fires to help oaks produce more acorn.

“They told us how many mushrooms to pick, how many fish to catch,” James says of the Park Service. “They think we didn’t know that. We taught them that.”

Park officials over the years gradually have come to recognize the value of native stewardship.

Some of the natives, however, question how the Park Service manages things.

In the Camp 4 parking lot, James and Tucker spot a new paved trail leading toward Yosemite Falls. They don’t understand how the park is touting removing pavement in the Mariposa Grove as more is laid down in Yosemite Valley.

Yosemite National Park spokesman Scott Gediman said the native community has many legitimate concerns, but the park gets almost 4 million visitors a year, and managing the place is “always a balancing act.”

But, he said, “our highest calling and our No. 1 priority is always preserving the natural environment of Yosemite, and the less development the better.”

Coats says she understands why the Park Service does some construction: “The park is kind of like Disneyland. There’s so many people in there. I can kind of relate to them fencing off things because in the old days they didn’t have to do that.”

What, then, is the value of the indigenous perspective in this new, much more populated and modern Yosemite? Maybe it boils down to this, says James: “For thousands of years, we were here before them. That’s because we lived by nature’s law. If you don’t live by nature’s law, you are not going to survive. That’s really the bottom line.”

Losing home

Archaeological evidence shows people in Yosemite Valley about 7,000 years ago, Kirn says. In areas bordering the park, evidence dates back 9,500 years. That’s about the time people perfected hunting woolly mammoths.

That residency in Yosemite ended for many in the 1960s when descendants of those original people, like Coats, were told to leave.

A bed of pine needles covers the place where Coats’ cabin once stood, but the 87-year-old still can find her way to this spot, following the boulders.

This was the park’s last native village. In the 1960s it was decided only natives with full-time work could live in Yosemite. As many lost seasonal employment, like Coats, who did tourists’ laundry, their homes were destroyed by the Park Service.

A few families with full-time work were moved elsewhere. Parker says, “When they separated us, I couldn’t go out there and sing a song, I’d be disturbing the neighbors.”

Today, the community is rebuilding its village. Included in the 1980 general management plan, it will be used for ceremonies and gatherings.

The project hit a rough patch a few years ago. Roundhouse beams were deemed unsafe and the park put a stop to construction. Yosemite’s native community needed to follow building codes.

“They’ve got codes for churches, bowling alleys, everything else, but not for roundhouses,” James says. “The white man is trying to tell us how to build a roundhouse when he doesn’t know how to build it himself.”

This month, a compromise was reached. An American Indian engineer will be hired.

Kirn is eager to see the roundhouse built. “It’s a place in which they can continue to be present in the park and work in partnership with all of us to maintain the sacred nature of Yosemite.”

Preserving culture in national parks is taking on growing importance, says William Tweed, retired chief park naturalist at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, in “Uncertain Path: A Search for the Future of National Parks.”

“In this new century, where nothing natural or wild seems beyond the threatening reach of humankind, the cultural values associated with national parks may ultimately be their most important feature.”

The return of culture

In the last half century, spiritual camps were started — ceremonies for healing and honoring all life, and an annual spiritual walk, tracing ancestors’ steps over the Sierra.

The walk is important to Tucker, as it’s a time of learning. Like above Mono Lake, when children see the sunrise for the first time, glittering on distant water. And watching kids turn into young adults, helping elders carry backpacks and pitching tents before thundershowers.

There also are sunrises over Tenaya Lake, known by the first people as “Lake of Shining Rocks” for granite domes rolling above the water. Tucker thinks of those mornings. “Pretty soon that good ol’ fog comes up out of that lake, and just kind of dances out there.”

Tucker also helps with bear dances, ceremonies held three times a year in Yosemite to honor the bear as it awakes from winter, forages in the summer and returns to hibernation with the onset of new snows.

The natives share a special connection with the bear, says Jay Johnson, 82, a Miwuk and Paiute instrumental in the native community and who worked in park forestry for 41 years.

Johnson’s aunt once spoke to a bear lying in the road after a line of angry motorists failed to clear the path. “Uncle, you’re going to have to move,” she told the bear in her native language. “We have to go down after groceries, after food.” The bear moved.

Johnson has worked to get the Miwuk tribe federally recognized. But an application, submitted in the early 1980s, remains before the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Many suspect their homeland being in a national park has played a role in the delay.

“As long as they keep pushing us back, we’re like a lost tribe,” says Coats, who is Miwuk and Paiute.

Finding a voice

After basket weaver Lucy Telles died, Parker, her granddaughter-in-law, was asked by the Park Service to fill her place in the Indian museum.

But Parker said she “wasn’t scholarly,” couldn’t make baskets and wasn’t from Yosemite. The orphaned Pomo and Coastal Miwok woman moved to the park at age 17 and a year later married a native to Yosemite.

Yet she gave it a shot and learned to weave when she was about 20. One day, she heard things said of natives that weren’t correct, “so I thought I better answer the question and put my basket down. And now my grandchildren say, ‘You can’t stop talking, Grandma!’ ”

Today, four generations of women in her family weave baskets and share native stories. Parker’s baskets have been given to the queen of England, king of Norway and the Smithsonian Institution.

In earlier years, Parker also worked in the gift shop of glamorous Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite Valley. “I was probably one of the first Indian ladies to work in the gift shop. When I worked in the gift shop, they had me stand in the corner like a wooden Indian. They didn’t think I could handle any of the cash register.” One day she filled in for a cashier but was told she couldn’t handle more than $10.

Eventually, she was made manager of a new Indian shop. Parker’s request that five American Indians work there was granted.

At 86, she still is in the museum. Earlier this month, Parker was awarded the Barry Hance Memorial Award, an honor presented annually to a park employee for strong work ethic, good character and love for Yosemite. Over 54 years, “sometimes I think, is it worth all this? Having people ask you, ‘Are you a real Indian?’ ”

But then, “If I wasn’t here, who would be here?”

Parker makes a point to connect with children when they visit. They like her stories, baskets and games. She likes helping them think about grandmas. She wants them to know a grandma’s stories are important.

Coats feels the same. “Ask your grandparents. They are not going to tell you nothing unless you say, ‘What happened in your day?’ They are going to think you’re not interested. … The way you learn our history is through us. You don’t read this in books. You have to read it through the elders.”

Making peace

Walking from Yosemite’s last native village, Coats thinks about what happened to her ancestors, the killings and the displacement.

“They came and took what they wanted, as they did all over America. … There’s always going to be a little anger inside.”

But, she adds, “What good is it to get angry? You can’t do anything with anger. Some things you have to accept — but you never forget, you pass on your history.

“The more people become aware of some of the background of the Native Americans, the more I think they try to understand. I think understanding can bring people closer together, to maybe work together, instead of being prejudiced — and that goes both ways.”

Read more here:

Respect for ‘people, homelands, culture’ motivates Native American troops

Air Force Master Sgt. Shenandoah Ellis-Ulmer, second from left, poses with other members of the Native American Women Warriors, an all-female color guard that support Native female veterans. (Photo courtesy Shenandoah Ellis-Ulmer)
Air Force Master Sgt. Shenandoah Ellis-Ulmer, second from left, poses with other members of the Native American Women Warriors, an all-female color guard that support Native female veterans. (Photo courtesy Shenandoah Ellis-Ulmer)

By Mallory Black , Medill News Service

Even with a family military background dating back to World War I, Shenandoah Ellis-Ulmer never considered while growing up that serving in the military might be the right choice for her, too.

But that changed in her sophomore year in college after she was placed on academic probation at the University of Minnesota — what she now says was a much-needed wakeup call to spur her to seek more purpose and direction.

Still unclear, though, was exactly what purpose she should pursue and what direction she should take.

Then she recalled overhearing two classmates in the National Guard talk about the opportunities that had opened up to them after enlisting.

And for Ellis-Ulmer, there was that purpose and direction.

Nearly 20 years later, Air Force Master Sgt. Shenandoah Ellis-Ulmer, now 40, is an intelligence analyst at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Washington.

She’s also a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate of the Lake Traverse Reservation in South Dakota, the first woman in her family to serve in the military and just one of thousands of Native Americans who are serving or have served their country in uniform.

Ellis-Ulmer, who has served in South Korea and the Middle East in addition to her various stateside assignments, said serving in the Air Force “has given my children, my husband and myself a different outlook on the world.”

“I want to give my children a different perspective on life because life is not what the reservation is,” she said. “Life is what you make of it.”

A tradition of service

Army Lt. Col Tracey Clyde, a Navajo from Shiprock, New Mexico, during a deployment to Joint Base Balad in Iraq. (Photo courtesy Tracey Clyde)
Army Lt. Col Tracey Clyde, a Navajo from Shiprock, New Mexico, during a deployment to Joint Base Balad in Iraq. (Photo courtesy Tracey Clyde)

The Defense Department reports a total of 27,186 American Indian and Alaska Native active-duty officers and reserves, and the Veterans Affairs Department reports more than 156,000 Native American veterans. They have served in every war in American history, and 25 have have received the nation’s highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor.

At least 70 Native American and Alaska Natives have died during combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and 513 others were wounded in those combat zones.

Native Americans traditionally have had a strong military presence because they have a strong sense of patriotism, said Clara Platte, executive director of the Navajo Nation Washington office.

“There’s a deep tie to the land and our people and our culture, and being able to serve in the military is a way to honor that heritage,” Platte said.

But that doesn’t mean the cultural transition from “Indian Country” to military base is always easy.

Army Lt. Col. Tracey Clyde, 47, a member of the Navajo tribe, spent most of his childhood with his grandparents herding sheep near the Sweetwater Chapter on the Navajo Nation reservation in New Mexico.

In high school, Clyde decided to set his sights on attending the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.

But once there, he soon realized that adapting to the social norms might be a challenge — even in simple things like the slang cadets might use to greet each other.

“One of the things that I had to keep from getting mad at was when they talk to each other and sometimes say, ‘Hey chief,’ ” Clyde said. “That’s one thing I got mad at my roommate for, but then I noticed other cadets my age were saying the same thing to each other.”

Clyde quickly figured out the greeting wasn’t meant to be derogatory and found his footing as an Army officer. Then while he was stationed in Seoul, South Korea, his Native American culture found him again.

A fellow officer who was also Navajo told him that her baby had just laughed for the first time. Navajos traditionally celebrate a baby’s first laugh, so Clyde and other Native Americans on their base held a ceremony, asking for the baby to be blessed by generosity and kindness.

“All Native Americans — whether they were Navajo or not — met in her apartment and we had our ‘first laugh’ party,” said Clyde, now assigned to the Army Human Resources Command at Fort Knox, Kentucky. “Even though we were far away from our homelands, we still took the opportunity to continue our culture regardless of where we were stationed.”

Throughout his 25 years in uniform, Clyde has taken every opportunity to help other Native Americans adjust to life in the military, so “they’re not so culturally shocked with all the stuff they’re thrown into.”

An honorable life

Ellis-Ulmer, who has deployed 15 times to the Middle East, said that for her, and for most Native Americans, serving in the military is considered an honorable life.

A survivor of childhood sex abuse and domestic violence as an adult, Ellis-Ulmer does her part to help other Native American women who have lived that life.

As a member of the Native American Women Warriors, an all-women color guard that supports Native American female veterans dealing with homelessness, sexual assault trauma and the transition back to civilian life, Ellis-Ulmer regularly speaks at powwows and community events to raise awareness of veteran issues.

“I don’t think I’ve come across one Native woman who has said that they were not abused, whether it was by their husbands, their partners or their family members,” Ellis-Ulmer said. “Dealing with all these violent acts against Native women is my motivation because I don’t want this mentality of abuse to perpetuate.”

As a way to show her appreciation for what the Air Force has done for her, Ellis-Ulmer speaks about military life as part of the We Are All Recruiters program, which allows active-duty members to recruit for the Air Force in their own communities.

Recently the Santee Sioux tribe honored her for her military service with a golden eagle tail feather.

“They told me to wear it turned down,” she explained, “Because now I’m a warrior to them.”

Tribal leaders welcome Holder’s plan to increase voting access for Indians, Alaska Natives

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder delivers his keynote address at a tribal conference on the campus of United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, N.D., on Thursday. Holder announced Monday he is recommending ways to increase voting access for Native Americans and Alaska Natives. (Photo: AP Photo/Kevin Cederstrom )
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder delivers his keynote address at a tribal conference on the campus of United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, N.D., on Thursday. Holder announced Monday he is recommending ways to increase voting access for Native Americans and Alaska Natives.
(Photo: AP Photo/Kevin Cederstrom )



By RACHEL D’ORO, Associated Press

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday his office will consult with tribes across the country to develop ways to increase voting access for American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Holder said the goal is to require state and local election officials to place at least one polling site in a location chosen by tribal governments in parts of the nation that include tribal lands. Barriers to voting, he said, include English-only ballots and inaccessible polling places.

In Alaska, for example, the village of Kasigluk is separated into two parts by a river with no bridge. On election day, people on one side have just a few hours to vote before a ballot machine is taken by boat to the other side.

In Montana, a voting rights lawsuit is pending from tribal members on the Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Fort Belknap reservations. They want county officials to set up satellite voting offices to make up for the long distances they must travel to reach courthouses for early voting or late registration.

“These conditions are not only unacceptable, they’re outrageous,” Holder said. “As a nation, we cannot — and we will not — simply stand by as the voices of Native Americans are shut out of the democratic process.”

After consulting with tribal leaders, his office will seek to work with Congress on a potential legislative proposal, Holder said.

Associate Attorney General Tony West discussed the announcement later Monday in Anchorage, during a speech to the National Congress of American Indians.

Despite reforms to strengthen voting rights, there also have been setbacks, West told the crowd. He cited last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of Shelby County, Alabama.

The decision effectively stripped the federal government of its most potent tool to stop voting bias — a requirement in the landmark Voting Rights Act that all or parts of 15 states with a history of discrimination in voting, mainly in the South but also Alaska, get Washington’s approval before changing the way they hold elections. Now, changes do not have to be submitted, and it is up to the U.S. Justice Department or others who sue to prove changes are discriminatory.

West also pointed to a Justice Department court filing last week that sided with plaintiffs in a voting rights lawsuit filed by several Alaska villages. The lawsuit alleges the state has failed to provide accurate, complete translations of voting materials into Alaska Native languages.

The Justice Department also intervened earlier this year in response to a plan by Cibola County, New Mexico, to eliminate voting-rights coordinators.

Remote geography and the inability to speak English do not free Americans from the obligations and responsibilities of citizenship, West said. Neither should they “impede the rights to which we are all entitled,” he said.

American Indian and Alaska Native leaders attending the conference welcomed the announcement.

“I think anything that involves tribes and tribal authority is extremely important,” said Dr. Ted Mala, director of traditional healing at the Alaska Native Medical Center and director of tribal relations for an Anchorage-based tribal health services organization.

He said tribes have had more opportunities for such consultations with the federal government under the Obama administration.

“We even meet with the president once a year, and it’s a wonderful thing,” Mala said.

Carol Schurz is a councilwoman for the Gila River Indian Community in Sacaton, Arizona. She said the community organizes its own elections and consults with state officials on state and federal elections.

Schurz encourages voter registration and said the Justice Department proposal would be well-received. She said it could empower indigenous voters “if we have the opportunity to get all our people engaged.”

Racism claim dooms bid to honor Mark Twain in Nevada

By Martin Griffith, The Associated Press

Photo File/ Associated Press
Photo File/ Associated Press

RENO, Nev. (AP) — A state panel has effectively killed a bid to name a Lake Tahoe cove for Mark Twain, citing opposition from a tribe that says he held racist views on Native Americans.

The Nevada State Board on Geographic Names this week voted to indefinitely table the request after hearing opposition from the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, whose ancestral homeland includes Lake Tahoe.

Supporters had sought to name a scenic cove on the lake’s northeast shore for Samuel Clemens, Twain’s real name.

But Darrel Cruz, head of the tribe’s cultural resource department, said Twain was undeserving of the honor because of derogatory comments about the Washoe and other tribes in his writings.

Among other things, he cited Twain’s opposition to the naming of the lake as Tahoe, which is derived from the Washoe word “da ow” for lake.

Cruz also objected to a Twain quote about Lake Tahoe: “People say that Tahoe means ‘Silver Lake’ — ‘Limpid Water’ — ‘Falling Leaf.’ Bosh! It means grasshopper soup, the favorite dish of the digger tribe — and of the Pi-utes as well.”

Cruz said Washoes dislike being referred to as the “digger tribe,” a derogatory term applied to some tribes in the West who dug roots for food. Other tribes ate grasshoppers.

“Samuel Clemens had racist views on the native people of this country and has captured those views in his literature,” Cruz wrote in a letter to the board. “Therefore, we cannot support the notion of giving a place name in Lake Tahoe to Samuel Clemens.”

But James Hulse, history professor emeritus at the University of Nevada, Reno, said it’s irrelevant whether Twain’s writings were insulting to Native Americans.

The cove should be named for Twain because he praised Tahoe’s beauty while visiting the lake in 1861-1862, and he became one of America’s most beloved authors after assuming his pen name as a Nevada newspaper reporter around the same time, Hulse said.

“In his early days, (Twain’s) ironic-comic mode was insulting to everyone, including governors, legislators, mine bosses and journalistic colleagues,” he told the board. “He learned and overcame his prejudices far better than most of his contemporaries and successors.”

Thomas Quirk, an English professor emeritus at the University of Missouri and leading Twain scholar, said the author eventually overcame his racism against blacks. But Quirk said he has found no evidence that he significantly changed his views on American Indians.

Twain did not embrace the idea of idolizing what he called the “noble red man,” Quirk said, and poked fun at writer James Fenimore Cooper for doing so.

“When it comes to African Americans, he was ahead of his time substantially,” he said. “When it comes to Native Americans, his record is not very good. If he were alive today, he would sing a different tune.”

Board member Robert Stewart, who initiated the plan to name the cove for Clemens, said it’s unlikely it would resurface.

He said he dropped his support of it, even though he learned about a later letter Twain wrote objecting to the treatment of tribes in Arizona and New Mexico.

“I have a great deal of respect for the Washoe Tribe. And if their cultural committee is unhappy with naming the cove for Mark Twain, I’m not going to fight them,” Stewart said. “We need to show sensitivity to the tribe.”

Stewart said he still believes the cove near Incline Village is where Twain camped and accidentally started a wildfire while preparing to cook dinner in September 1861. But David Antonucci, a civil engineer from Homewood, California, maintains Twain camped on the California side of the lake.

It’s the second time the bid to name the cove for Twain failed. In 2011, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names rejected the request after the U.S. Forest Service said Twain’s influence on the Sierra Nevada lake was minimal and other historical figures were more deserving of the honor.

Supporters sought to honor him because there is no geographic feature in the state named for Twain, whose book “Roughing It” put Nevada on the map.

Frustration grows among Native Americans due their share of $3.4B land-royalty settlement

By MATT VOLZ,  Associated Press

HELENA, Montana — Laura Juarez is supposed to receive close to $1,200 as her share of a $3.4 billion settlement among hundreds of thousands of Native Americans whose land-trust royalties were mismanaged by the government for more than a century.

The Bakersfield, California, notary public was going to pool that money with her husband’s share, along with a portion of what was coming to her father’s estate, to send her 17-year-old daughter to a student-ambassador program in Australia.

But the money, which she expected in December, still hasn’t come and her daughter isn’t going on next month’s trip.

The payments have been held up by more than 2,400 appeals by people who were ruled ineligible to participate in the settlement. As the special master appointed to the case goes through those appeals, Juarez and other American Indians are growing increasingly frustrated over what they see as justice delayed.

“It seems as if the Native Americans are being screwed again,” said Juarez, a 39-year-old member of the Comanche nation. “I know several others who have given up on it. It’s created a sour taste in their mouths. We get our hopes up just to have it knocked down.”

The 493,724 beneficiaries identified as of the beginning of May already know how much they are supposed to receive from the settlement — the individual payments range from $850 to nearly $10 million — and many had earmarked those amounts to splurge on big purchases or simply pay their bills.

The delays have resulted in complaints to the claims administrator, an online petition and even a letter from Montana Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh about a lack of transparency and misinformation regarding the payments.

“This delay is placing a financial burden on Montana families, and forcing many who are expecting payments to take out loans that they are now unable to repay,” the April 3 letter to the settlement’s claims administrator, Garden City Group, said.

Jennifer Keough, Garden City Group’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, did not return a call for comment.

The attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit, recognizing the frustration, plan to ask a federal judge this week to allow the distribution to take place before the appeals are finalized.

“The agreement says that no trust administration class payments can be made until all the members are identified,” said David Smith, an attorney for Kilpatrick, Townsend and Stockton LLP. “There are a lot of appeals, and many are extremely lengthy. We want to make sure everybody has a chance to participate in the settlement and it’s not a rush job.”

At issue is the second of two distributions in one of the largest U.S. government settlements in history, prompted by a lawsuit filed in 1996 by Blackfeet elder Elouise Cobell of Montana. Cobell sued the government after realizing that many Indians who owned land held in trust for them by the government lived in poverty with no accounting of the royalties they were due when the Interior Department leased their land for development, exploration or grazing.

The lawsuit claimed the Interior Department mismanaged and squandered billions of dollars that were supposed to go to the landowners since the 1880s, but incomplete and missing records prevented them from determining how much was lost.

It took about 14 years to reach a settlement with the government, then another year for Congress to approve the deal in December 2010. It wasn’t until December 2012 that all the appeals over the settlement were dismissed and the first monetary distributions were mailed.

Those 339,106 beneficiaries, called the historical accounting class, received a flat payment of $1,000 apiece. That was the easy part.

The second round of distributions go to what is called the trust administration class in varying amounts based on a formula that looks at 10 years of the highest earnings in the royalty accounts held by the government, which are called Individual Indian Money trust accounts.

Identifying the people in that second class — which also contains members of the first class — has proven to be a challenge due in part to the Interior Department’s incomplete record-keeping, Smith said. For example, the Interior Department had no records for thousands of people in Oklahoma who had made claims, leading to an extension of the appeals period while they tried to prove their claims by going to the state courts for documentation.

Plus, there were no known addresses for 65,000 people identified as beneficiaries, which Garden City Group has been able to whittle down to about 14,000, Smith said.

The search for those still on the list continues, though it won’t hold up the payments, he said.

That’s little consolation to the beneficiaries who are waiting. Not only are their payments delayed, but their checks are diluted when more class members are added.

In Juarez’s case, she was told last summer she would receive $1,260. As of February, that had been reduced to $1,197 with the addition of more beneficiaries.

“If they’re entitled to that money, that’s great — awesome — but the timing is taking way too long,” Juarez said. “A deadline is a deadline. They are holding up so many people.”