Tribal land rights upheld, a racial slur and mascot retired — these breakthroughs for Indian Country reflect a potential shift toward a more just nation, says Native Business Executive Editor Carmen Davis (Makah/Chippewa-Cree/Yakama). “From the Editor” is our weekly news digest and reflection on what’s happening across Indian Country and why it matters.
McGirt v. Oklahoma, a landmark Supreme Court case, hinged on the question of whether or not much of the eastern portion of the state of Oklahoma is still Native land. The 5-4 decision, authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch, affirms that 19 million acres composing 47 percent of the state of Oklahoma is in fact Tribal land under the 1866 treaty, never disestablished by Congress.
The July 9 determination marks a rare occasion that the U.S. government has upheld the treaty rights of a Tribal Nation. Congress has broken every single one of the hundreds of treaties with Native Nations — treaties regarded by the U.S. Constitution as the “supreme Law of the Land.”
But in a hallmark ruling by the highest court, the land rights of Creek Indians, who walked the harrowing Trail of Tears with guarantees of a reservation, endure. “On the far end of the Trail of Tears was a promise,” wrote Justice Gorsuch in his opening line that will reverberate throughout history.
“Today we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for purposes of federal criminal law,” he continued. “Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word.”
The monumental decision sets a precedent and will shape the future of Indian Country moving forward. As U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjo, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, so eloquently wrote in her opinion piece for The New York Times, reflecting on justice served and the relative nature of time since European settlement: “Justice is sometimes seven generations away, or even more. And it is inevitable.” Harjo concludes with a statement that echoes Gorsuch: “And at last, on the far end of the Trail of Tears, a promise has been kept.”
The same week a Supreme Court ruling came down preserving Tribal land rights, a racist name and mascot for an NFL franchise was finally toppled. The Washington D.C. team officially retired the deplorable word “redskins” — a term that refers to the bloody corpses of our ancestors collected for bounty.
The team’s decision stems from multibillion-dollar corporations, including FedEx, Nike and PepsiCo, threatening to pull their sponsorships if the team did not rescind the racial slur. The sponsors’ newfound insistence for the NFL franchise to relinquish the name was brought on by letters from 87 investment firms worth a collective $620 million, as well as the national reckoning for racial justice.
As I previously noted, resisting racist stereotypes matters. When we demand the takedown of derogatory names, when we refuse to be marginalized by a racial slur or image, we reclaim our narrative. When we reclaim how we’re portrayed, we empower a better future for Indian Country and this entire nation.
In other significant reports this week, Native Business examined how the coronavirus pandemic is leading a new charge to bridge the digital divide that disproportionately impacts Indian Country, and the ways Native entrepreneurs are adapting in the age of COVID-19.
As Rob Capriccioso reports for Native Business, two-thirds of people living on rural Tribal lands lack high-speed Internet, while 18 percent of people living on reservations have no home Internet access at all. That’s disconcerting always — but that reality is exacerbated during a global pandemic that amplifies socioeconomic disparities and deepens the fissure between lands connected to the Internet, and thus educational and economic opportunities, and those disconnected or off the grid.
As Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), vice-chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, put it: “Native students cannot be left stranded on the wrong side of the digital divide during the COVID-19 crisis. The federal government has both trust and treaty responsibilities to work with our Tribes to support Native students. These resource delays and lack of accountability are unacceptable.”
Capriccioso points to the various bills introduced by senators to help fund broadband deployment across the vast rural pockets of Indian Country that have not received the necessary support to increase connectivity. Meanwhile, he highlights the resourcefulness of Tribes such as the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation, which has built power structures and other technological infrastructure — even across challenging, mountainous terrain to lay wire — to bring its population online. Capriccioso additionally shines a light on the innovative ways that Tribal colleges are transitioning to virtual or hybrid online / in-person classes.
As enterprising Native entrepreneurs are demonstrating, with access to the Internet, business possibilities are endless. Take Arizona State University student Taylor Rose, a member of the Santa Clara Pueblo of Northern New Mexico, for example. Native Business recently featured the student founder of Kha Povi Herbals. (Kha Povi in the Tewa language translates to wild rose or wildflower, depending on the Pueblo. “I created this business with the intention to provide the ancestral knowledge that I grew up with,” she shares with Native Business.)
She introduced her startup to the e-commerce market just as the COVID-19 crisis came barreling across the nation. Her herbal, organic and vegan bath products sold out within her first month on Etsy, so she’s since stepped up her inventory and turnaround speed — quite an undertaking for a full-time student with a full-time job in the insurance industry to boot. Her business is her passion, as well as her side hustle, helping to cover the costs of tuition and books. “I hope to see it grow as big as it possibly can,” she says of Kha Povi Herbals.
Meanwhile, in Lawrence, Kansas, the Lakota owner/founder of Leeway Franks and Leeway Butcher has pivoted his business operations to retain his staff while continuing to turn a profit. Most notably, Lee Meisel recruited a local web developer to build out an online ordering system for the restaurant and butcher shop, while maintaining autonomy by not leaning on third-parties, such as Doordash, that collect 30% or more off ticket totals. That “crushes small restaurants like ours, wiping out any potential profit margin,” Meisel told Native Business.
Meisel says of the value of agility as an entrepreneur: “The ability to adapt and change quickly, and being flexible with your model” is pivotal. “These last few months have really taught us that you need to adapt to survive.”
We couldn’t have said it better.