Time for another 'Dances with Wolves'
By Duane A. Beyal
Special to the Times
February 14, 2013
At the time, Congress was debating bills to settle the dispute and the Navajo and Hopi tribes were battling at a decisive point in the age-old issue. The result was a loss for the Navajos when Congress approved the 1974 Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act.
Before the law was passed, my mother described a U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing in Washington, D.C. She said the audience, staff and senators were surprised and confused by a spectacle not usually seen in those chambers and marble halls.
On one side of the room a line of elderly Hopis stood up in the gallery and each held a cane and pointed it forward. On the other side of the room, a line of Navajo medicine men also stood, each holding an arrowhead with an outstretched arm.
There they stood, not speaking or moving, evoking the power of their cultures.
In between, the people that filled the room looked from one side to the other. My mother did not say how the incident ended, whether a sergeant at arms ordered them to stop, guards gathered both groups and escorted them out or the hearing was recessed. As she recalled the scene she chuckled, amused at the reaction of the mostly bilagáana audience, staff and senators.
The significance of the event was that both tribes, at a pivotal and vital point in the controversy, chose to employ cultural powers that had served them throughout their histories.
The tribes' lawyers and lobbyists were not enough. They had to use everything they had. Many of our leaders have employed cultural methods for strength, guidance and for a positive outcome when dealing with important issues in Washington. Whether the methods worked may be beside the point because the acts themselves emphasized and reaffirmed who we are as a people.
On the other hand, any bad person could have placed an item or two in the U.S. Capitol to ensure the political gridlock continues, the parties keep fighting, the rhetoric strains and breaks the bounds of common sense, and nothing gets done.
Dances with bureaucrats
During Peterson Zah's second term in office as the first president of the Navajo Nation, beginning in 1991, I served on his staff.
On a trip to Washington, we had a schedule of appointments with members of Congress and their staffs and several offices within the federal bureaucracy. We had been to those buildings, halls and meeting rooms before when Zah served as chairman of the Navajo Tribal Council from 1983 to 1987 so we knew what to expect. While tribes carry an important legal standing in this country, we are rarely a priority.
A constant barrier is that most of Washington is ignorant of our long history of legal relations with the United States. Or perhaps some know only too well and choose to ignore or disagree with the laws, court decisions and policies that recognize the sovereign status of tribes.
In today's toxic politics in issues such as gun control, the warring sides cite the U.S. Constitution as the basis for their beliefs. Opponents will use this same document to battle one another - if it is convenient to them, that is.
For example, those who oppose tribes and our people's rights to services from the federal government should reflect on the Supremacy Clause in the Constitution at Article VI, Clause 2, which states that the Constitution, federal statutes and treaties are "the supreme law of the land."
This would appear to say clearly that the United States will abide with the many treaties it has signed with tribes. We all know the reality.
In any case, in 1991 Zah and the rest of us proceeded with our schedule one day in Washington. Expecting the usual attitudes and platitudes, we were surprised at the warm reception we received in nearly every office. Our first meeting showed why.
"Come in! Come in!" said the bilagáana who greeted us, steering us to a table full of doughnuts, fruit and coffee.
"Your people are so beautiful!" he gushed. "We saw 'Dances With Wolves.'"
"Those were Oglala, we are Navajo," I said.
But the point blew right by him.
We received similar greetings from staff at other offices, a few who also cited the movie. But of course, at offices with staff that were familiar with Indian Country and the Navajo Nation, we were met with the usual bored and jaded - but polite - handshakes.
As important issues await action in Washington such as the threat of the sequester, with its mandatory budget cuts and layoffs, as well as the Violence Against Women Act and water rights settlement proposals, maybe we need another "Dances With Wolves" to help protect our interests.
Or perhaps Navajo and Hopi spiritual leaders can unite and bring their arrowheads and canes to Washington to cure the lawmakers and prod them into the right path.