For Indigenous voters in Massachusetts, tribal sovereignty, child welfare, gaming and state iconography are key issues

Photo by Alexius Horatius/Wikimedia Commons

By Niveen Ghoneim
Boston University Statehouse Program

The Indigenous peoples of the Americas are the keepers of the new world’s history — in fact, their annals predate the very construct of the “new world.” And yet, Native Americans have been conspicuously absent from political life in the United States.

With midterm elections approaching, there is renewed hope for higher participation from Native Americans and Alaskan Natives who, like other non-white racial groups in the U.S., have seen substantial population growth rates in recent years.

According to CNN, 9.7 million Americans identified as Native American or Alaskan Native in the 2020 census data, which represents 2.9% of the total population.

Unlike most non-white Americans however, Indigenous communities navigate a different political terrain. The National Congress of Native Americans has identified eight key issues that Indigenous Americans often vote on, including tribal sovereignty, Native American child welfare, gaming, education and the environment.

“We have kitchen table issues that we share with all of America, but then we have another level of responsibility — not only for our issues that are specific to us now but [also to their] impact for the next seven generations, at least,” says Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, Chairwoman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah and former senior advisor to the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs under President Barack Obama’s administration.

These issues are translating through the ballot box to reflect growing political participation from Indigenous peoples in the U.S. According to the Brookings Institute, midterm elections usually see higher participation from voters who identify as Native American and Alaska Native. The organization predicts that the group may “continue to outperform expectations” in 2022.

Massachusetts — estimated to be home to 49,405 Native Americans in 2016, is a state with a fraught history of anti-Indigenous racism, where issues like establishing Indigenous Peoples Day, prohibiting the use of racist Native American iconography and preserving Native American heritage are just some of the conversations dominating sociopolitical and cultural discourse in Indigenous communities.

One policy issue nearing a resolution is Massachusetts’ state flag, which depicts a Native American man standing underneath a sword-brandishing arm believed to belong to Myles Standish, a British soldier known for his brutal treatment of Native communities in the New England colony.

“The Massachusetts flag has some deeply problematic imagery. It is also just aesthetically pretty darn wanting. We actually voted and have established a commission that is reviewing both the state flag and the state seal and [are] trying to really come up with a change and alternatives — something that is more reflective of the values of this commonwealth and does not include racist iconography,” says Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, whose district is home to the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah, the only federally recognized Indigenous tribes in the state.

However, Andrews-Maltais rejects the oversimplification of presenting Native American concerns as single-issue politics. She enumerates a number of key national issues she believes to be of great concern to Indigenous communities in Massachusetts.

“The issues that Indian Country is voting on are just about everything that every other quote-unquote American finds to be troubling,” she says. “Reproductive rights are very important [to us] — the right for any woman to be able to have the choice [over] what takes place in her own body is sacred to us because women are the life-givers. So we have to make sure that not only are we giving life, [but that] we are protecting our life to be able to give more life.”

Andrews-Maltais also names the economy and voting rights as deciding factors that could potentially inform the Indigenous vote.

These issues are compounded by the complex politics and regulations that govern Indigenous Americans — where federal, tribal and state jurisdictions often clash.

Tribal sovereignty expands on the concept that Native American tribes are independent and can therefore govern themselves within the boundaries of federal law without interference from the states in which they reside. This appoints the federal government as the only authority above tribes.

It has been the subject of numerous litigations that often culminated in Supreme Court rulings affirming the Native American right to self-governance. However, this sovereignty has come under renewed attacks in recent years, and this time, with a conservative majority on the Supreme Court.

Andrews-Maltais cites three cases in which SCOTUS undermined tribal sovereignty — which is codified in treaties between the federal government and the tribal nations it has recognized. In the 2009 Carcieri v. Salazar case involving Rhode Island, the court ruled that the U.S. government can only hold lands into trust if they belong to tribes that have been recognized after the passage of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act.

“The Department of the Interior came up with a workaround to be able to have tribes demonstrate that they had a relationship with the United States — but unless the United States Congress terminated you, as a tribe, you still exist. And therefore, it has created all this crazy,” she explains. “It has been a priority for Indian Country, for tribes and for so many legislators, but here we are, in 2022, and it is still not fixed congressionally.”

A more recent ruling, this year’s Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta, undermines the Indian Major Crimes Act, which stipulates that “any crime involving a Native American victim or perpetrator, or occurring within recognized reservation boundaries, is subject to federal jurisdiction, not state jurisdiction,” according to Oyez. The Indian Major Crimes Act had been upheld by SCOTUS in its 2020 ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma.

“Now, they just turned that decision on its head, and the only thing that changed is the composition of the court — because Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been replaced by a far more conservative justice. So now we have to look at Congress to fix this again,” Andrews-Maltais says.

Another concern is Native American child welfare. Owing to a long history of stripping Native Americans of their culture and traditions, Indigenous children have historically been separated from their families and enrolled in boarding schools, where they reportedly suffered corporal punishment for speaking their native language. According to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, almost 83% of Native American children were in boarding schools by 1926.

“Our children have been taken from us for servitude — kill the [Native American], keep the child and put [them] into boarding schools. [Everybody] felt that it was appropriate and OK to take [Native American] children away from their communities — the sentiment was, ‘well, who wouldn’t want to live in suburban America versus living on a dirty reservation?’ … It is just a form of genocide — stripping us from our culture and our traditions,” Andrews-Maltais says.

This was remedied by the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, a federal law that gives tribal governments exclusive jurisdiction over child custody proceedings involving Indigenous children. Now, this too has come under attack in Haaland v. Brackeen, a case brought by the state of Texas and set for argument before SCOTUS on Nov. 9.

According to the Native American Rights Fund, the case challenges the constitutionality of the Indian Child Welfare Act, drawing concern from racial justice groups, including the ACLU, which filed an amicus brief “urging the court to uphold the constitutionality” of ICWA.

“If this court, which is pretty hostile to Indian Country and sovereignty and tribal rights, finds against the United States, and for the plaintiff, all the work [we have done] over those last 50 years to protect our children — an entire generation that has not been farmed out will now be subjected to [forced assimilation] moving forward,” she warns. “It will be the most effective genocide they have ever been able to get away with since contact in 1620.”

Locally, efforts to safeguard Native American heritage and history are consolidated as part of the Massachusetts Legislative Agenda, an initiative to raise awareness about Native American issues and organize to support the Indigenous legislative agenda in the Massachusetts Legislature.

The initiative has specified five agenda items as priorities: establishing Indigenous Peoples Day; protecting Native American heritage; prohibiting the use of Native American mascots by the state’s public schools; teaching Native American history and culture and educating Native American youth.

The Native American mascot bill was the farthest along in the legislative process, pending in the Senate Ways and Means Committee, although it is uncertain what if anything, will happen with lawmakers meeting in informal sessions for the rest of the year.

Yet, there is hardly a consensus within Massachusetts’ tribal communities on the use of Native American iconography.

“It kind of represents something for the tribe as well — that is just my opinion. Seeing Mashpee Falcons or something of that nature, that is a tribal bird. That is a piece of the tribe with the school,” says Domingo Tiexeira, who currently serves as a council member in the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. “It all comes down to the teams that are sporting these logos, and how they reach out, extend their hand to tribal communities. It is how they work with the tribes to try to help tribal folks out.”

While maintaining that offensive and racist iconography should be strictly prohibited, Andrews-Maltais argues that erasing all mascots is tantamount to erasing Massachusetts’ Indigenous history.

“You cannot remove ignorance and racism by simply removing an image. It is not going to happen, but what you can do is remove the most offensive images — like Chief Wahoo, [for example],” she says. “Have you ever heard the phrase ‘out of sight out of mind?’ That is exactly what is [going to happen] when you start erasing everything. And that is what we said [when discussing] this legislation. I don’t want to bar them all, but I am sure we can have universal agreement on what is offensive.”

Expanding on her criticism, she said that her tribal council rejected the legislation, slamming it for having “no teeth, no enforcement, no consequence” for violating the law and dismissing it as “lip service.”

Andrews-Maltais points out that there is a generational divide among Indigenous communities in Massachusetts, where younger generations of Native Americans often diverge from the views of their respective tribes’ elders.

Where she views an appreciation of Indigenous peoples’ “prowess, expertise and physical dominance,” younger activists, like Shawna Newcomb of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, decry it as a dehumanizing, racist tradition.

“A mascot is an object. We are not, as Native people, just objects. We have a whole culture. We have stories, we have traditions. We are just as special as any other race or culture that exists. We don’t want to be made [into] fictitious character[s] — because when you take the human[ity] away from a person, you are just left with a fictitious character,” Newcomb said during a panel discussion of the mascot bill.

For the matriarch of the Wampanoag of Gay Head Aquinnah, however, it is a matter of keeping Indigenous peoples and heritage visible.

“The people that were guiding the legislation weren’t [part of] tribal governments. They don’t know what the impacts [would be] and they did not live our lives. So we said we would support it if they incorporate [our] amendments,” she says.

And while these cultural debates occupy Native American public discourse in Massachusetts, equally concerning is homelessness among members of the Mashpee Wampanoag. According to a report by the Homelessness Research Institute, Native Americans are “overrepresented among people experiencing homelessness at the national level and in various locations throughout the country.”

According to Tiexeira, this is partly due to housing discrimination against Indigenous peoples.

“We had a meeting recently with the town HUD — members from the Mashpee Housing Authority. And the problem that we were having with them was that a lot of our tribal members were getting overlooked in the application process for a lot of the housing developments,” he says. “We just can’t keep seeing all these nice little affordable housing developments going up and all our applications getting kicked back or denied.”

And with that comes added pressure on tribal governments to alleviate the burden of economic hardship for their respective communities, but even that has proven to be a challenge. Native American gambling, which was once seen as an opportunity for tribal economic development, has become a challenging prospect as both tribes see their gaming projects stall.

The Massachusetts gambling ecosystem is quickly evolving — from the recent legalization of sports betting to the fierce competition from existing major casinos. This has left the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe reconsidering their long-awaited First Light Resort and the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe’s gaming project “mired in legal uncertainty,” according to WBUR.

There are fateful questions facing all Americans and the outcome of this upcoming midterm election could tip the scales. For Indigenous Americans, however, the stakes are far higher. According to Andrews-Maltais, who will be running for reelection herself, it all boils down to a few questions.

“When you go to the polls, look at the backgrounds and the voting records of these legislators that are asking for your vote — do they side have they come out and vocally said they want to support the Indian Child Welfare Act? Are they willing to write new legislation to protect the rights of tribes?” Andrews-Maltais says.

This story originally appeared in The Berkshire Eagle.

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