Continental Divides

Diplomacy in a Shared Nation

The Embassy of Tribal Nations hasn’t been around very long, but rest assured it’s a bustling place, advocating on behalf of nearly 7 million Native Americans across the United States

By John McCaslin

Down P Street in Washington from the Embassy of Iraq’s consular section, around the corner from the Embassy of Serbia, one finds a somewhat obscure if not unsung Embassy of Tribal Nations.

In fairness, the embassy hasn’t been around very long, but rest assured it’s a bustling place, advocating on behalf of nearly 7 million Native Americans across the United States. An embassy, I’m now learning, with roots stretching into the Flathead Reservation.

As the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) observed following the embassy’s ribbon cutting in 2009, “Indian Country saw the fulfillment of a dream of tribal leaders past and present …

“For the first time since settlement, tribal nations will have a permanent home in Washington, DC … where they can more effectively assert their sovereign status and facilitate a much-stronger nation-to-nation relationship with the federal government.”

The embassy arguably wouldn’t exist were it not for the arduous achievements of the 80-year-old NCAI, which moved its headquarters into the P street building. Talk about a storied history:

On Nov. 16, 1944, 50 tribes and associations from 27 states banded together in Denver to counter a federal threat of “termination and assimilation,” notwithstanding existing treaty rights and sovereign nation status.

Not only was the NCAI established that day, it elected eight trailblazing councilmen, two of them members of the Flathead Reservation: Stephen DeMers and (William) D’Arcy McNickle.

Wasting little precious time, the council passed 18 resolutions surrounding sovereignty, political recognition, and civil rights for all Indians. One established a claims commission for tribes to litigate old land grabs by the U.S. government; another secured voting rights for tribes in New Mexico and Arizona.

Within a year’s time, NCAI membership totaled more than 300, in those days almost every tribe in the United States.

Today, Jennifer Finley of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes has followed in the footsteps of DeMers and McNickle, serving as NCAI’s vice president (an “ambassador,” if you will) for the Rocky Mountain region.

Born and raised on the Flathead Reservation, Finley is an accomplished author and playwright, publishing several volumes of poetry and a children’s book of Salish names for the calendar months. She also co-wrote “Belief,” a play about Salish women that was performed in Bigfork, Hawaii, Spain and Scotland, among other venues.

In an interview several years ago with Montana Public Radio, Finley said “growing up brown — in Montana and America —was really, really hard, and there was no place or no one or no thing that told me I was beautiful or had anything important to say. And so I really think [given] those circumstances it’s truly miraculous that I became a poet … a writer.”

As is tradition, the annual State of Indian Nations address is delivered the same week as the president’s State of the Union address, accomplished two months ago by NCAI President Fawn Sharp, a Washington state administrative law judge and member of the Quinault Indian Nation.

“Eighty years ago, when NCAI was founded, there was no seat at the proverbial table for Native leaders,” she observed. “Day after day, decade after decade, we forged ahead with an agenda that many considered radical. Today … we don’t just have a seat at the table, we have influence and representation across the federal government, across the United States, and around the world.”

Consider in 2022 the NCAI secured additional appropriations for Indian Health Services, expanded the Violence Against Women Act, and brought high-speed internet access to many of the nation’s 574 recognized tribes. Today’s agenda targets a housing crisis and U.S. Tax Code that “fails to provide our tribal nations the same opportunities as states.”

Meanwhile, Native Americans have “unprecedented access to the highest levels of government,” Sharp said, including the first Native American Cabinet secretary, a senator and four representatives on Capitol Hill, and a new office within the Social Security Administration.

Sharp of late even attended the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, meeting with its influential chairman Klaus Schwab.

Still, “there is no shortage of challenges on the horizon,” she warned, from emerging voting obstacles and continued threats to sovereignty to newly uncovered “atrocities” against native children separated from their families and forced into boarding schools across North America.

“We need to prepare ourselves — mentally, physically, and spiritually — to confront the full pain of that history,” Sharp pointed out.

John McCaslin is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and author.

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