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Native Americans Hopeful about Claiming Rightful Place

Reznetnews.org, News Feature, Victor Merina Posted: Nov 04, 2009

WASHINGTON, D.C. As the sun rose in the nation's capital, more than 70 tribal leaders from around the country stood in the rear parking lot of a Washington townhouse-turned-office building and circled a small fire.

Each held a handful of sage and tobacco to toss into the flames, and the people listened or prayed along as Alma Ransom of the Mohawk Bear Clan stood and voiced aloud her thanks to the Creator in English and in her traditional language.

She pointed to the smoke "piercing the sky" and gave thanks to the four winds and the four directions, and she led the group as it turned in unison, east-north-west-and-south, never minding the backyard views and the waking street noises of an urban neighborhood in the nation's capital.

The people were there on this early morning Tuesday to bless a building, to consecrate a home, to establish the Embassy of Tribal Nations, and to mark what they hope would be a shift in the federal government's policies toward Native people.

"This is an important day," Jefferson Keel of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma told the gathering after the prayer ceremonies had been completed and the songs had been sung. "This is a special day. This is a new day for Indian Country."

As president of the National Congress of American Indians, Keel has an office in the new embassy building in northwest Washington that houses his organization. So it's no surprise that Keel is predicting a new era for the country's more than 4 million American Indians and Alaskan Natives.

But Keel said that optimism is not built merely on a new edifice but on the political promise of the Obama Administration and what promises to be an historic week for Indian Country, climaxed by Thursday's White House Tribal Nations Conference.

'Tribal leaders have renewed hope in restoring their rightful place,' said Keel who added that Obama and his policies have been more welcoming to Native issues than past presidents.

"Native issues haven't been overlooked," he said of the past. "They've been ignored. There's a difference."

Jacqueline Johnson Pata, NCAI executive director and a Tlingit of the Raven Tribe, said there is a palpable excitement among tribal leaders who have arrived in Washington to attend this week's tribal summit.

"This sets a whole different tenor in Indian Country," she said, "and it sets the bar pretty high for future presidents."

NCAI officials are not alone in their optimism.

"We're at a crossroads right now," said Jonathan Windy Boy, a state senator from Montana and Chippewa Cree. "We're beyond the hope stage. What I mean is, I think we're at the stage where things are going to happen in Indian Country."

Donald Arnold, chairman of the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians in Northern California, still clings to the word "hope" and said he is optimistic that the Obama administration will move forward with a health care plan that will help Natives, particularly urban Indians.

"I've been an urban Indian all my life," he said of growing up in the San Francisco Bay area, "and improving health care is our biggest hope."

For Alma Ransom, her trip from upstate New York to Washington and her early-morning duties led her to pre-dawn preparations that left her dressed in sneakers instead of her Native shoes. But everything else ran smoothly, and she underscored the importance of her journey and her participation in the morning blessing.

"I know the pains of getting here, but we had to be here," said Ransom, a former tribal chief.

Citing the painful historical dealings with the federal government, she said the new embassy was needed as a place where tribal leaders can work together on issues and where they can learn about potentially damaging legislation or policies so they could find ways to avert them.

During her prayer, Ransom praised the NCAI staff and said one of the benefits of having a tribal embassy is so staff members can "notify the nations when unfavorable elements are planned in D.C."

Afterward, when asked what she meant, she spoke of budget cuts from past administrations and damaging inserts to bills on Capitol Hill, placed during "midnight meetings," that have harmed Native people.

"When Indian chiefs came a long time ago to the White House, they would be treated tin grand style and be appeased and then just leave town," she said. "Not anymore."

Victor Merina is a senior correspondent and special projects editor with Reznetnews.org, where this story first ran. A former Los Angeles Times investigative reporter and finalist for the Pulitizer Prize, he also is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Institute for Justice and Journalism.

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