The Year in Indian Country: Sovereignty, sports team name debate heats up

Concerns over tribal rights, the environment and respect dominated 2013, with at least one happy ending in Paris

Outcry about the team name of the Washington Redskins was louder than ever in 2013.
AP Photo/Nick Wass, File

From the custody battle over a little girl in Oklahoma to a fracking protest in New Brunswick, Canada, questions of sovereignty were often attached to the big Indian Country stories of 2013.

The saga of "Baby Veronica,'' the 4-year-old raised first by her adoptive parents in South Carolina and then in Oklahoma by her birth father, a member of the Cherokee nation, transfixed many this summer. The custody battle included rulings from a tribal district court, the U.S. Supreme Court and supreme courts in both South Carolina and Oklahoma. In September, the child was awarded to the South Carolina couple.

While adoption advocates hailed it as a victory, others saw a rollback on the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, passed to stop the painful practice of taking Native American children from their families and placing them in foster homes.

The question of sovereignty came up again in the Supreme Court in early December with a case about an off-reservation casino, Michigan v. Bay Mills, when during arguments Chief Justice John Roberts referred to tribes as being "quasi-sovereigns,'' stoking fear for many that this court might advocate limits on tribal sovereignty.

Further north, the First Nations of Canada began the year with Idle No More, a social movement that grew from a hashtag to nearly daily demonstrations across the country and a hunger strike by an aboriginal leader, protesting what they saw as government intrusion on their rights and land.

While activity quieted over the summer, the movement resurrected in the fall, with some giving credit to the indigenous Mi'kmaq of the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick. Their fiery refusal to back down in their protests against shale oil exploration on land they said had never been ceded sparked solidarity demonstrations from Vancouver to Ottawa.

In the U.S., Native Americans continued their traditional environmental concerns, with the Nez Perce in Idaho hoping to keep a historic riverway safe, the Navajo Nation fighting to clean up old uranium mines and stop new ones from being built, and a national conference this summer on how Indian Country could prepare for climate change.

But it's safe to say the national issue that probably got the most attention from all communities this year was the ongoing controversy over the name of the NFL's Washington Redskins. The Oneida Nation in New York state called for the team to drop the title (while team owner Dan Synder called it "a badge of honor"), crowds protested in Minneapolis, more and more media banned it from their pages and screens, and even President Obama weighed in.

In Houston, at least, they appeared to settle the issue, where one of the nation's largest school districts gave preliminary approval to change the name of the Lamar High School Redskins.

A partial victory in the effort to quell violence against women came when Obama signed the Violence Against Women Act in March, giving tribal courts the ability to prosecute non-Native American men who assault or rape Native American women on tribal lands. That action buoyed some of the members of the Indian Law and Order Commission, which released its report a few weeks ago, with the key finding that "the federal government is largely responsible for the decades-long public safety gap in Native America.''

Congress, not the federal government, was largely responsible for the government shutdown of 2013, which affected most reservations and nations adversely, from Alaska Native villages not reachable by roads and gearing up for winter to basic nutrition programs for the elderly and children.

A new Department of Justice commission to look at the levels of violence and abuse experienced by Native American children had its first hearing this month in Bismarck, N.D. and will continue in 2014 with three more hearings in different locations.

Culturally, 2013 was vibrant, with the rodeo nationals; the Schimmel sisters, Jude and Shoni, leading their Louisville team to the women’s college basketball national championship finals; and the new wave of aboriginal hip-hop, called Powwow step. Language revivals are going strong, as well as reconstructions of a Native American diet that harken back to the ancestors, with heirloom seed programs and academic and community programs that feature research and recipes.

And let's not talk about that "Lone Ranger" movie.

There was at least one surprise for Native Americans in 2013, and the year ended on a high note. Advocacy groups and even the U.S. Embassy all tried to stop a controversial auction in Paris of Hopi and Apache masks, but the auction went on and the masks were sold to the Annenberg Foundation, which returned them to the tribes.

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