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Lawyer Touts Need for Indian Commission

Reznet, Commentary , Kevin Abourezk Posted: Apr 08, 2009

Once each generation, Americans get an opportunity to redefine themselves and their society.

A chance to recalibrate obsolete government institutions to better meet the people's needs.

A chance to critically re-examine and adjust their national priorities.

A chance to address lingering social problems and injustices.

A lawyer who's spent much of his career fighting for Indian rights sees last fall's political upheaval and this winter's economic crisis as one such generational opportunity.

"I think the cycle is coming around again to revisit tribal injustices," said Daniel Sheehan, president of the Rapid City, S.D.-based Lakota People's Law Project, a nonprofit law office committed to addressing human rights abuses against Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people.

With the November election of a president ostensibly committed to helping Native people, a rare window to affect meaningful and lasting change in Indian Country exists, Sheehan said.

But before real progress on Native can issues can take place, national and tribal leaders must first define their priorities. They must decide which, among the myriad catastrophic problems tribes face, they must first confront.

A critical link between leaders wanting to help Native people and Native leaders themselves likely will be President Barack Obama's yet-to-be-named Native policy advisor, Sheehan said.

With such a strategically located voice, Native people will have direct access to Obama and, through him, to Congress.

Native advocates, meanwhile, are hopeful that the White House-level policy advisor position will soon be filled.

"We're pushing the best candidate possible," said Jackie Johnson Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, who declined to name people who have been interviewed by Obama staff for the job.

Whoever fills the job is likely to quickly feel the weight of Indian Country on his or her shoulders.

So where should the Native policy advisor look first in seeking solutions to Native problems?

Sheehan sees an answer in a long-disbanded commission that once helped recommend legislation that continues to serve as the framework for federal and tribal relations.

In 1973, Sen. James Abourezk of South Dakota (who, as a point of disclosure, is my great uncle) introduced a Senate resolution to establish a commission to review all aspects of policy, law and administration related to the affairs of tribes and the federal government.

The American Indian Policy Review Commission was born Jan. 2, 1975, with President Gerald Ford's signature on Senate Joint Resolution 133.

For nearly three years, the commission held hearings throughout Indian Country as it attempted to diagnose the social, economic and political problems burdening tribes.

Among the commission's recommendations was legislation to prevent the wholesale removal of Indian children from their families and tribes and establishment of a Senate committee granted with full legislative and oversight authority to receive and act upon the commission's recommendations. So it was that the Senate Indian Affairs Committee came into being in February 1977.

The committee eventually took the committee's suggestion to protect Indian children by drafting the Indian Child Welfare Act, among many other definitive acts of Indian legislation. But the committee's birth was followed by the 1980 dissolution of the very commission to which it owed its existence.

But the American Indian Policy Review Commission didn't go away quietly - delivering into the committee's hands nearly 12 volumes of testimony it had collected from tribal people across the country.

Sheehan sees great opportunity in reawakening the commission today in order to once again take the pulse of Indian Country.

The original commission submitted its final report to the Indian Affairs Committee. While he sees value in a similar arrangement today, Sheehan sees even greater promise in having such a commission report directly to the Obama Native policy advisor.

"This would be the smartest thing Obama could ever do," he said.

He sees at least a dozen pressing issues such a commission could address, chief among them:

Resolution of litigation over the alleged mismanagement of tribal and individual Native lands.

The continued removal of Indian children from their families and tribes.

The lingering controversy over the Black Hills Trust Fund, a federal account that contains nearly $150 million meant as payment to the Sioux people for the theft of their sacred Black Hills in South Dakota.

Corruption within Indian Reorganization Act-instituted tribal councils.

Sheehan said the Lakota People's Law Project plans to lobby national leaders for re-creation of the American Indian Policy Review Commission, which he considers Native people's best hope of successfully redefining their relationship to the federal government.

"There needs to be a commission to do this in a comprehensive, thorough way," he said.

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