Democracy in Indian country is topic of symposium Tuesday

Democracy in Indian country is topic of symposium Tuesday by David Lias If only there was more time.

Panelists in Tuesday's symposium addressing the topic of democracy in Indian country only had a little more than an hour to speak.

Madonna Thunder Hawk and Roger Trudell barely had an opportunity to scratch the surface of this complex topic.

Members of the Vermillion Rotary Club and Native student participants in the American Indian Journalism Institute (AIJI) gained a better understanding of the challenges Native American citizens must deal with on a daily basis.

The Rotarians and AIJI students, with the help of the University of South Dakota's Department of Contemporary Media and Journalism, the Native American Journalists Association teamed up, with the assistance of the Freedom Forum and the Al Neuharth Media Center to make Tuesday's unique meeting a reality.

The symposium was designed to point out the differences and the challenges faced by indigenous people as they participate in the local, state, tribal and federal democratic process.

Trudell told the audience that the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934 has had an impact on democracy in Indian country.

The bill, he said, "was probably the most comprehensive piece of Indian legislation of that time. It's the basis of insuring that the tribes' land base didn't diminish any further than it already had."

The IRA also gave tribes the authority to restore or repurchase lands within the boundaries of their reservations, and place them in a trust to build a land base.

"It (the IRA) also laid the foundation for modern-day tribal government," Trudell said. "Not all tribes are organized under the Indian Reorganization Act, but our tribe is."

Trudell is the tribal chairman of the Santee Sioux Nation, located on the Federal Santee Sioux Reservation in Knox County of north central Nebraska.

As tribal chairman, he deals with a variety of issues both within tribal government and the state government of Nebraska.

"We're probably one of the smaller tribes in the area, and our constitution is nearly similar to the Oglalla's. We had recently amended ours to better meet our needs at home," he said.

Members of the Santee Sioux Nation adopted the constitution through an election in 1935. Amendments to the constitution since then also have been approved by tribal members going to the polls.

"You have to be a resident to vote in tribal elections to elect council members and vote on tribal referendums within the boundaries of the reservation," Trudell said.

Thunder Hawk said society both on and off Indian reservations contribute to the barriers that prevent or deter Native Americans from voting in elections.

"It's the history," she said. "We are a colonized people, and our society reflects that colonized way of thinking."

Thunder Hawk believes young people in Indian country can help break down perceptions that have kept many Native citizens from becoming politically active.

"We're learning to survive within the American system," she said. "Democracy isn't foreign to our people. That's part of our tradition and culture; that's why we've survived as a people all these years.

Thunder Hawk, of Wagner, is a veteran of every modern Native American struggle, from the occupation of Alcatraz to the siege of Wounded Knee.

She is a long-time community organizer with a range of experience in Indian rights protection, cultural preservation, economic development and environmental justice.

Thunder Hawk co-founded Women of All Nations and the Black Hills Protection Committee, later the HeSapa Institute.

"How do you live in a system where you are colonized? Not defeated, not conquered, but colonized?" she asked. "And all around us in society, in areas beside voting, we are still learning."

For generations, civic organizations like the Rotary Club have been in existence in the United States, she said, but they are a new experience to many citizens of Indian country.

"It's only been a few years, a few decades, that our people have been on boards that are involved in community issues," she said. "So we are still in the learning process."

For generations, citizens living in Indian country have had little trust in federal, state and tribal government systems.

"Now, because we are assimilated, we understand better," she said. "Our economic system is tied to the federal dollar, but our younger generation is gaining a better understanding of the system.

"Our ancestors fought and died for every inch of this land," Thunder Hawk said. "So, out of respect of them, it's our job � each generation � to pick that up in whatever means necessary. If that means to vote, then so be it."

Trudell said the constitution of the Santee Sioux Nation has been amended to give 18-year-old tribal members the right to vote.

"I think it gives the young people more of a sense of what's taking place in their community," he said. "They can make government more responsive to them."

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