Federal authorities start discussion on Indian civil rights

By Susan Montoya Bryan
Albuquerque, New Mexico (AP) August 2010

A number of civil rights violations have gone unreported in Indian Country because community members have not been told where to go with their complaints, a former government official said.

Federal agencies should do more to make themselves known within Indian communities, said John Dulles, the former regional director for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. For government workers, he said, that means traveling – sometimes for hours – to remote reservations to meet with people.

“You cannot sit in a regional office or a bureau office and just sit there at your desk. You have to get out aggressively and not only tell them what their rights are but assist them,” he said.

Dulles was among some 300 people at a two-day conference in Albuquerque that focused on protecting the civil rights of American Indians. The conference, which ended Aug. 11th, was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education and topics spanned from getting more American Indian teachers into public schools to the discrimination Indians face when looking to rent apartments or homes off the reservation.

“American Indians have been the most neglected minority group in this country, and they not only have civil rights but also rights as sovereign nations,” Dulles said.

The Education Department’s general counsel, Charlie Rose, said the conference is a first and an important step in meeting the directives President Barack Obama set last fall when he asked all of the agencies to consult with tribes in the hope of building a better relationship.

“I’m optimistic that when the key players sit down, talk with each other and understand the issues, we can work together to improve the system. But, it starts with a conversation,” Rose told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday.

Stories were shared throughout the conference about recent court cases that uphold the civil rights of Indians, including those of a 5-year-old boy in Texas who was suspended for having long hair, which he wore neatly braided, and a case involving a school district in South Dakota where discrimination was rampant and the graduation rate among Indian students dismal.

“This is the sort of crosscutting collaborative effort we will need in order to fundamentally transform our tribal communities, break the status quo and create pathways to respecting American Indian civil rights,” Maggie George, the executive director of the White House Initiative on Tribal Colleges and Universities at the Education Department, said of the effort by federal agencies to focus on Indian rights.

George told the crowd about growing up in Red Valley, Ariz., in the 1960s and feeling like she was a visitor to another planet when she went to school. She vowed to get involved in Indian education so members of younger generations would not feel alienated.

Strong leadership in Indian Country will also help spread the idea of self-determination among tribes and encourage American Indians to fight for their rights and push for policy changes, said Charlie Soap, the husband of Wilma Mankiller, a former Cherokee Nation chief who died earlier this year after a bout with pancreatic cancer.

Soap, who attended the conference with his two daughters, said he is encouraged that the Obama administration has signaled a willingness to listen to the tribes and wished that his wife, one of the most influential American Indian leaders in recent history, could relish in the progress being made.

“We always say, and Wilma has made this comment several times, even though we’re Cherokees we’re still Oklahomans and we’re still Americans and we all need to work together,” he said. “We’re all faced with the same problems and issues. We just need to work together and solve these problems.”

Dulles said the country has a long way to go and that a whole generation has grown up knowing little about civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize that there’s still so much discrimination and segregation and lack of equal opportunities, and some folks figure that everything that needed to be done has already been done and that civil rights is no longer a priority issue,” he said. “I think it’s time now to renew our commitment to civil rights.”