Op-Ed

Tribal sovereignty finally getting the attention it deserves

Members of the Native American performance group, Ngen'tse Ste'ky'e (pack of wolves) perform at the first Coast Salish Day in Bellingham at the Bellingham City Council Chambers Monday, Oct. 12, 2015. The Bellingham City Council voted to rename Columbus Day to Coast Salish Day to honor local tribes.
Members of the Native American performance group, Ngen'tse Ste'ky'e (pack of wolves) perform at the first Coast Salish Day in Bellingham at the Bellingham City Council Chambers Monday, Oct. 12, 2015. The Bellingham City Council voted to rename Columbus Day to Coast Salish Day to honor local tribes. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

Growing up, most of us celebrated Columbus Day – a day that for many native people brings anger and sadness. Today though, a new generation of Lummi children will grow up celebrating Lhaqtemish Day or Coast Salish Day thanks to the support and thoughtfulness of our local governments. The Lummi Indian Business Council recently renamed the holiday after our people. And last year, the Bellingham City Council honored our local history by renaming this painful reminder of the harm done to our people and our lands.

It seems that more and more, the rights of indigenous people are getting the attention they have always deserved. Thanks to recent events in North Dakota, people across the United States are getting an education in sovereignty that our school system never delivered.

Sovereign tribal nations, like Lummi and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, have rights guaranteed by agreements they made with the federal government.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is fighting to protect its people, the Lakota and Dakota, from a nearly 1,200-mile oil pipeline. The tribe opposes the pipeline because its construction threatens their lands and sacred sites, and an oil spill could poison the Missouri River, the water source upon which millions of people depend. Already, construction has destroyed many of the tribe’s sacred, cultural places.

As a sovereign nation, the tribe has the legal right to make decisions about projects that affect its land, people and sacred sites. But the construction company and the federal government did not follow the law to ensure the tribe’s voice was heard. Because of this, 17 million people are at risk of an oil spill from the Dakota Access Pipeline.

In August, Lummi Nation tribal members traveled to Cannon Ball, North Dakota, to join our brothers and sisters. Lummi tribal members, and thousands of people from tribes across the country and First Nations in Canada, continue to gather in solidarity with the people of Standing Rock to pray and to send a message to the federal government to honor the treaties. The issue has made headlines but, more than that, it’s gotten the attention of the Obama administration.

On Sept. 2, the Department of Justice announced a call for national reform on the way the federal government seeks tribal input on infrastructure projects. All 567 federally recognized tribes in the United States are invited to have their voices heard and to weigh in on just what is needed in true government-to-government consultation. As trustees, the agencies have a responsibility to consult with tribes on infrastructure projects to ensure that the treaties are upheld. In effect, President Obama is now saying “come to the table and tell me what a good process of consultation looks like.”

Coming just months after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied permits for what would have been North America’s largest coal terminal at Cherry Point, it is a welcome invitation. The importance of this conversation to tribal sovereignty cannot be understated. Lummi’s own interactions with the Corps were characterized by some push, some pull, and a lot of educating our federal trustee on the fundamentals of tribal sovereignty.

Sovereign tribal nations, like Lummi and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, have rights guaranteed by agreements they made with the federal government. These rights are not gifts from the government, they are a recognition of the rights that native people have always had. For Lummi, the right to fish was so critical to who we are as Lummi people that our leaders fought to include it in the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott. The Corps’ decision to uphold this treaty and prevent the construction of the coal terminal in the middle of our fishing grounds showed the power of tribal treaties to protect the landscapes that everyone in our community holds sacred.

Recently, the Bellingham City Council passed a resolution supporting the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s fight against the pipeline. We are grateful to the people of our community who stand with us and to the legislators and elected officials who stand in honor of sovereignty.

It is powerful to have allies at all levels of government take a strong stance to protect the rights of a sovereign nation. Standing together in support of the treaties is an important way for everyone, tribal members and allies, to protect the resources we all value.

Lummi community members Josh Phair, Waylon Ballew and hereditary chief Bill James talk about efforts to help the Standing Rock Sioux tribe during their fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline on Wednesday, Sept. 28, in Lummi Nation.

Tim Ballew II is chairman of the Lummi Indian Business Council.

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