Native Americans understand through very personal experience that this country’s history is one of conflict and compromise. At our finest moments, Indian and American political leaders have worked together to promote a positive vision and a sense of responsibility toward future generations. In many cases that partnership has resulted in achieving a common ground where mutually beneficial compromise is possible.
As the U.S. Congress finds itself in gridlock, it would be wise to step back and study the history and resolve of American Indians to see that there is another path — one that leads to cooperation and creativity and a better future for all, which is different from the path it finds itself on now.
For tribal governments, an approach to difficult issues is nothing new. Long before European explorers and settlers arrived on these shores, tribes negotiated trade agreements, territory boundaries and countless other issues with each other to ensure each party’s long-term security and stability.
When the Oneidas had to decide whether to support the British or the Americans during the Revolutionary War, the Oneida people weighed the issue carefully and deliberately to determine the course that would best serve future generations; in the end, despite the risks to themselves, we chose to fight for liberty and independence on the grounds that, without these things, we could not preserve the security of the faces yet unborn.
The Oneidas’ role in the Revolutionary War was recognized by the 2nd Continental Congress in 1777, and in 1794 the Oneidas signed the Treaty of Canandaigua that stated the Oneida Indian Nation “shall be secure in their lands forever.” Tragically, in the 200 years that followed the signing of that important historical treaty, the Oneida Indian Nation, like so many other Indian Nations, had our lands taken and our families displaced, and for generations we were treated as less than human.
The horrific injustices perpetrated against Indian people — and to be clear, that have and in some cases continue to be validated by the courts in violation of the sacred promises made but not kept by this country — have not made us lose sight of our larger goal: providing a better future for our people and our community. It is against this backdrop that we understand how some people may view the current situation in Washington as hopeless. But today, the White House is hosting a Tribal Nations Conference.
Students of history know that relations between the federal government and this country’s First Americans have been anything but close over the past 250 years. The wants and needs of the federal government too often are diametrically opposed to the best interests of tribal governments. Likewise, tribal needs and wants often are counter to federal government policies and philosophies.
Yet, since 2009, President Obama has brought together representatives of all 565 federally recognized tribal governments at an annual summit, where these representatives can interact directly with the president and senior staff.
Rather than focus on the issues that drive us apart, the administration has shown that it understands people can work together to bring about positive change. Indian Nations and President Obama have made honest efforts to work together in good faith on behalf of the seventh generation yet to come. Members of Congress should see this as a different path if they want to move in a more productive direction.
Ray Halbritter is Oneida Nation Representative and CEO of Nation Enterprises, including Turning Stone Resort Casino.