Towns, cities and counties, as tribal communities' closest neighbors, have historically played a major role in the "deadliest enemies"-dynamic of tribal-state relations. At the municipal level Indians have been murdered, imprisoned, excluded, discriminated, and taxed over the last few hundred years. Those human rights violations have persisted in modern times, especially in rural America. So naturally Natives have wanted little to nothing to do with local government.
That reality is now changing, dramatically. In the staunch spirit of Indian self-determination and with the fervency of the Idle No More movement, Natives are aggressively grabbing, and leveraging, local government platforms to affect social change for Indian people.
Take the City of Seattle for example, where Natives have ascended to elected or appointed local office. The City's Human Rights Commission has recently been chaired by two Natives: first, Christopher Stearns, and then Ethel Branch, both of whom are Navajo and lawyers. Now, Debora Juarez, Blackfeet, aspires to become the first tribal citizen ever elected by Seattle voters to serve on the Seattle City Council.
In 2012, Stearns helped Seattle join the likes of Boston and Washington, DC by declaring itself a "Civil Rights City," in order to "incorporate human rights standards into policy decisions, budget planning, services, and just about every other function of city government." Stearns commented that the City's proclamation allowed citizens, including Seattle's large Native population, "leverage to seek legislation, budget priorities, and other policy actions that protect or advance human rights."
Two years later, Branch and local urban Indian leaders like Matt Remle used that leverage to catalyze a Seattle City Council effort to designate “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” on the second Monday of October, the same day as the federally recognized Columbus Day. The city of Minneapolis was the first do so; after Seattle followed suit, Fargo, North Dakota and Olympia, Washington did the same.
In all instances, Natives got organized, advanced "human rights" resolutions, lobbied local politicians, and testified before municipal bodies. Their calculated requests were granted---change was affected.
And with each local political success, ever-restless Natives are audaciously asking for more change by and through local government. Next week, the City Council will consider another resolution advanced by urban Indian leaders: one that would rather powerfully acknowledge the trauma of American Indian boarding schools and support a federal reconciliation process for that human rights atrocity.
Meanwhile, the national Indian "Change the Name" movement has taken hold municipally. ESPN reports that "high schools in double-digit numbers" have, through local school boards, changed the names or image of Native sports mascots in the past two years.
In that same vein, the Bellingham, Washington City Council---which last year renamed Columbus Day to "Coast Salish Day"---recently renamed the notoriously drunken college party street, Indian Street, as Billy Frank Jr. Street, not only in honor of a indigenous Treaty fishing rights legend, but also in reversal of the "drunk Indian" stereotype.
So, rather than merely allow towns, cities and counties to remain the deadliest enemies of Indian people, local governments are increasingly being deployed as Indian change agencies. Poetic justice, to say the least.
Gabriel “Gabe” Galanda is the Managing Partner at Galanda Broadman. He belongs to the Round Valley Indian Tribes. Gabe can be reached at 206.300.7801 or firstname.lastname@example.org.