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20 November, 2016

Your Local National Leaders

Brian Cladoosby*

America has elected its Drumpf, just as Weimar elected its Schicklgruber,** leaving many of us in a bind: Do we abide by the process? Do we accept a haranguer who hastens our  descent from international beacon of freedom to a dumb mob? Or, do we break the laws and smash the pipelines by whatever means necessary, risking another kind of dumb mob?

Maybe the answer, or at least an answer, to escaping the mobs is to look to the tribes.

Most Americans are unaware that they live on ground ceded or sold (or just stolen) from tribes that still exist. More than 550 tribes are sovereign nations, many with treaties that just happen to be supreme law of the land in the US. They are not subject to other states or even some kinds of interference from the federal government. Their own councils decide their own laws.

It's not that tribes offer some sort of arcane legal end run, or that they are some sort of haven where we could seek asylum. It's not that tribes have so much casino money that they've got political power over the rest of us, and I have no pretexts that tribes bludgeoned by our nation for centuries are all in peak condition, utterly unaffected by generations of enforced poverty and assimilation. It's not that tribal governments are always wise and never corrupt any more than tribal people are noble savages.

But it is that tribes, at least where I live and in many places I read about, are emerging as nations with talented leaders and strong visions for the future. Fawn Sharp (below), chair of the Quinault Nation on the Olympic Coast, is a national leader in addressing climate change. Beginning at home, she has worked hard to save the environment and look at how humanity as a whole can deal with climate change.

Billy Frank Jr. with Fawn Sharp
Where I live, the Squaxin, Nisqually, and Chehalis Tribes are my closest neighbors; the first two ceded the land where I live in the Treaty of Medicine Creek. All three tribes and dozens of others in what is now Washington State are active in funding projects that keep the salmon viable for all fishermen, environmental restoration projects that benefit the entire public, and public health programs that reach beyond the rez.

More fundamentally, tribes are places where the leadership has ties to the land and people that have never existed in US politics. When you serve on a council responsible for governing the small remnant of land where 500 generations of your ancestors lived, you may not feel so free to shift with the latest political winds. When your constituents include an extended family made not just of cousins and aunties, but salmon and eagles, you tend to look at the health of the whole instead of the profit of an individual. When you serve a nation that measures in the hundreds or thousands, accountability is much more immediate--it's hard to have elites who never touch the earth, who can escape the angry auntie forever.

Brian Cladoosby, pictured at the sop of this post, has risen as a leader of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, of Puget Sound tribes, and for a few years now as President of the National Congress of American Indians. But he still participates in his community. He fought the dentists lobby to bring free dental care to his tribe. He's opposing petro-trains that pollute Swinomish lands and waters and cut the community off from the rescue squad. And he's working with a broad coalition of tribes to address pollution and climate change on national and global scales.

At Standing Rock, a less formally governed tribal super-nation has emerged. Hundreds of tribes have converged to join with the Great Sioux Nation to try and stop an oil pipeline, a great black snake that many of them have known for generations would get out of control and poison the water. Maybe because it's rooted in a particular piece of land, this encampment is more focused and ultimately more powerful than the Occupy camps of a few years ago. Maybe it's because the environmental struggle, and specifically the fight to keep oil and coal in the ground, is at once globally imperative and locally relevant. The Water Protectors are leading a non-violent and deeply revolutionary movement, and this time it's not the white career environmentalists calling the shots.

Meanwhile, back on what's left of the Reservation, Councils are mulling over what the Trump Presidency could mean. He fought dirty with certain tribes when trying to protect his Atlantic City casino interests, and he may well have animosity toward Native Americans in general for their apparent congeniality with Obama, Bernie, and Hillary. The GOP congress is inclined to cut spending, so the already watered-down federal gravy train will likely deliver even less in the future.

But then again, the Republican hatred of big government and desire for local control could result in tribes having a greater say on federal lands, especially where they neighbor reservations. Sure, the Right would prefer to just privatize everything, but tribes have long histories and deep experience with land disputes and federal courts, where they are sometimes astoundingly successful (even if it takes decades to translate into real life benefits). Many tribes have already been working with federal land managers on cooperative management of everything from huckleberry patches to wildfire response. So even if President Trump wishes to dismantle the US, tribal precedents and politicking and organization may just cut him off at the pass.

Wherever you are, find your local tribe. Learn whose land you're on, and whose descendants are protecting it. Get to know them, and what they do in your community. Visit their community, and support it. Work together to protect your part of the earth as they always have, with an eye toward generations yet unborn. Join your local sovereign nation in spirit, and our American Nation will benefit.

* My apologies to Swinomish Tribal Chairman for placing his photo next to my rant, but as a public figure this kind of thing will happen from time to time, and he's not the kind of guy to unleash a 3AM tweet-war against me, so here goes.

** Adolf Hitler's dad changed the family surname from Schicklgruber. The Donald's grand-dad anglicized Drumpf to Trump.


  1. Gorgeous rant, Mo... thank you

  2. Mo, glad to see this. Before I got this crazy principal job I did a lot of race and equity work around the country, and in Canada. I made some very close friends with First Nations folks in Nova Scotia. They're Mi'kmaq. They taught me so much. "When your constituents include an extended family made not just of cousins and aunties, but salmon and eagles, you tend to look at the health of the whole instead of the profit of an individual." Love. Thanks for sharing.