Murders of Indigenous Peoples and Environmentalists Rising

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Navajo activist Leroy Jackson had been fighting against the mining and logging corporations who had wanted to exploit the resources from America’s largest Indian reservation. On October 9, 1993, Jackson was found dead under suspicious circumstances.

Today, the shocking number of environmentalists who are murdered, indigenous and non-indigenous alike, continues to rise.

Global Witness, the human rights group, reported that at least 908 environmental activists worldwide were murdered between 2002 and 2013 in retaliation for their work. According to the London-based NGO, only 10 of the killers were convicted.

In 2014, 116 environmental activists worldwide were killed, 20% more than the previous year.

40% of these 116 murdered activists belonged to indigenous communities.

The reason why so many of these environmental activists are indigenous is because corporations have been fighting to gain control of tribal lands and their rich natural resources.

However, as The Guardian reported, “indigenous peoples have an intuitive relationship with nature, a wealth of traditional knowledge, and have used natural resource management practices for centuries to preserve their lands.” Because of this, many tribe members have protested corporate activity on their lands.

“We aren’t going to give up the struggle to keep our natural resources clean and in the hands of the community,” a member of the indigenous Tolupán group from Locomapa told Global Witness. “There are those who want easy money by tearing up the land, contaminating the water. We have been here respecting the earth that gives us our food and we intend to stay here fighting for our right to feed ourselves.”

Unfortunately, numerous environmentalists and protesters have been and continue to be met with violence. According to the BBC, fourteen people died in the past year defending their land and rivers by protesting against dam projects. Four Peruvian tribal leaders were also murdered while on their way to a meeting to discuss ways to cease illegal logging. And, as Global Witness reported, 15 activists were killed in the Philippines last year, 9 of which were indigenous peoples.

These are only some examples of the violent acts against activists around the world.

Although activists have been met with violent opposition, the fight to protect the environment continues. Berta Caceres, the General Coordinator of the Indigenous Lenca organization COPINH, has been a major figure in the defense of human rights and environmentalism in Honduras. She too has faced danger because of her work. The BBC reported, “Berta Caceres, an indigenous Lenca woman… had received numerous death threats because of her opposition to a dam that would force her community off their ancestral land.”

Nonetheless, Caceres continues to raise awareness about both the environment and the horrendous violence that activists face worldwide. After winning the Goldman Environmentalist Prize, Caceres told The Guardian that she hoped her achievement would “give higher visibility to the violence of plunder, to the conflict, and also to the denunciations and resistance.”

It is urgent that this issue of violence against environmentalists be addressed. People should be able to peacefully protest without fear of being attacked or killed. These protesters have every right to fight to protect their land, and the governments need to take a stand against their attackers.

To read the Global Witness’ full report of the murders of activists worldwide, please visit globalwitness.org.

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Report: Courts sentence Indians to longer jail terms

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The U.S. Sentencing Commission is currently investigating the disproportionate incarceration of Native Americans in the U.S., particularly on reservations.

The Tribal Issues Advisory Group–made up of 22 judges and law-enforcement officials, 11 of which are Natives–will be spearheading this extensive federal review.

“No matter how long I have been sentencing in Indian Country, I find it gut-wrenching when I am asked by a family member of a person I have sentenced why Indians are sentenced to longer sentences than white people who commit the same crime,” wrote Ralph Erickson, head of the committee and chief federal district court judge for North Dakota, in a 2014 letter.

Over the past 5 years, the number of Native Americans incarcerated within the federal prison system has increased by 27%. In South Dakota, Native Americans make up nearly 60% of federal cases, yet they account for a mere 9% of the state population.

All punishment on reservations is tried in federal court, as opposed to local or state governments. In many cases, this skews what might otherwise be a routine proceeding.

“Every American, except Native Americans, has a direct democratic voice in their local and state laws. For Native Americans, this is all governed federally,” stated Heather Dawn Thompson, a former South Dakota federal prosecutor, to the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission’s 2003 “Report of the Native American Advisory Group” noted that “The average sentence received by an Indian person convicted of assault in New Mexico state court is six months. The average for an Indian convicted of assault in federal court in New Mexico is 54 months.”

Neil Fulton, a member of the committee and and chief federal public defender for North and South Dakota, cites a number of cases he’s encountered as clear examples of this disparity.

In 2011, Fulton represented a Native American man who had punched a man in a casino fight on a North Dakota reservation. He was sentenced to 45 months in prison for assault. Fulton suspects the charge for such a crime would be significantly less severe in any other context.

The case of Dana Deegan shows that these sentencing issues can go both ways. Deegan pleaded guilty to second-degree murder after abandoning her newborn son to die in 1998. She left court with a 10 year sentence, referred to by Judge Myron Bright as “the most clear sentencing error” he’d witnessed.

The issue of inequality within the court system is immensely complex. It’s difficult to pin down cut and dry causes and solutions, but the Tribal Issues Advisory Group strives to create some momentum for a better future.

The committee began meeting last month and plans to release their report in May 2016. Formal recommendations will be issued to the overarching Sentencing Committee to establish a plan to eliminating clear injustice in the court system.

The Lakota People’s Law Project issued a report in February about the disproportionate incarceration rates for Native Americans. We are committed to help fixing a broken criminal justice system that continues to harm Indians and their families at disproportionate rates.

Indian editor in chief asserts Native role in fashion industry

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24 year-old Lakota woman Kelly Holmes grew up reading fashion magazines and dreaming of a day when she would see her people represented in their pages.

“At 16 I started wondering if a magazine could exist that had Native American stories and models, makeup tutorials that matched our skin tone,” she recalled in an interview with Buzzfeed.

In 2012, Holmes took matters into her own hands, founding Native Max Magazine–a fashion publication by and for Native Americans.

The mission of Native Max is to highlight the work of indigenous artists, entertainers, and activists. Writers, graphic designers, artisans, models, and photographers from across the country come together to produce a vibrant, celebratory publication.

The magazine’s staff represents a variety of unique visions, hailing from tribes such as the Navajo, Arapaho, Cherokee, Taos Pueblo, and Apache.

Holmes hopes to see a day when a respectful, transparent relationship exists between Natives and the fashion industry. Native Max makes a point of reporting on instances of cultural appropriation in the fashion world and commenting on the line between thoughtful influence and ignorant desecration.

An article on the publication’s website brought up the misguided association of “tribal design” with in-trend music festival garb, as demonstrated through Coach’s forthcoming “A Tribe Called Coach” collection.

“It’s great if they want to honor our culture… but it would be better if they brought on a Native designer who knows the real design and can guide them,” Holmes said in regards to high-profile fashion giants who profit off of these stereotypical motifs.

Read our posts pertaining to Native exploitation in the fashion industry here and here.

In the future, Holmes would like to bring the Native Max template to other indigenous populations, such as those in Australia.

The Lakota People’s Law Project commends Kelly Holmes for pioneering such a necessary creative project. Native Max acts as a positive niche for Natives to stake their claim in the industry that tends to exploit them. Holmes’ work creates healthy dialogue and promotes the work of innovative Native artists. We look forward to watching as the publication continues to grow and evolve.

Be sure to check out the Native Max website and follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

Indian actors walk off set of Adam Sandler movie

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About a dozen Indian actors walked off the set of the Ridiculous Six the latest Adam Sandler movie claiming the script is insulting to Native culture and features unnecessary and degrading stereotypes.

Indian Country Today Media Network reported that the actors, primarily of the Navajo Nation, objected to insulting names for some of the characters such as “Beaver’s Breath” and “No Bra”, along with depictions of an Apache woman urinating while smoking a peace pipe and other sundry examples of general insensitivity.

An unnamed spokesperson for Netflix, which is producing the comedy told Deadline that such depictions are in alignment with the tone of the film, which plays upon absurdity in order to spoof tropes seen in American Westerns.

“The movie has ridiculous in the title for a reason: because it is ridiculous,” the spokesperson told Deadline on Thursday. “It is a broad satire of Western movies and the stereotypes they popularized, featuring a diverse cast that is not only part of — but in on — the joke.”

However, the actors said that despite the film’s comedic intentions, the script is still overly reliant on Indian stereotypes and degrades Native culture.

“We were supposed to be Apache, but it was really stereotypical and we did not look Apache at all. We looked more like Comanche,” Loren Anthony, a member of the Navajo Nation, told ICTMN.

The Lakota People’s Law Project believes this offensive production should be shut down immediately. Satire is an effective tool in any society, to show irreverence for official institutions that deserve to be lampooned as a means of questioning the high esteem that general society holds a given institution or person.

However, satire is not and should not be used to degrade a culture and way of life that has already been marginalized through centuries of abuse, neglect and genocidal tendencies.

American cultural elites such as Adam Sandler should use their considerable celebrity to further the conversation about how Indian people are treated in the United States.

They should not attempt to further enrich themselves while simultaneously degrading a culture and a people for which they apparently have little understanding or empathy.

How do these crude depictions of Indians help move forward the conversation about the stain on the American soul that continues to persist to the present day?

To make light of this ugly aspect of American life is reprehensible.

Furthermore, stereotypical depictions of Natives, including the use of them as mascots, is disrespectful to the Indigenous population of this nation. We must as a people learn to treat the Indian nation with the dignity they deserve.

If people or institutions are behaving in a sanctimonious or self-important manner, than satire is a valuable tool to bring a modicum of self-awareness to those entities.

But making fun of the marginalized, the trodden-upon, the degraded and the victims of widespread systemic injustice isn’t funny. It’s sad.

Lakota People’s Law Project calls upon Netflix to either ensure their production encompasses an appropriate degree of cultural sensitivity or end production immediately.

Obama will visit South Dakota … Finally.

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President Barack Obama has visited 49 of the 50 states as sitting president.

He is slated to visit his last state on May 8, becoming just the fourth sitting president to visit all 50 states.

Which state is last? South Dakota.

“I can’t let my South Dakota friends feel neglected,” Obama told KSFY-TV, a local television station in Sioux Falls.

While Obama was joking the fact that South Dakota is the last state to be visited by the president is symbolic of how the rest of the United States considers the state, it it considers it all.

South Dakota is famous for hosting the Badlands, Mt Rushmore and the Black Hills. Situated on the Great Plains with scores of rolling prairie, the state is aesthetically beautiful if remote from the economic hubs of the United States.

It is this isolation that has allowed such egregious systemic racism to fester. South Dakota rarely figures largely in news stories. It’s not a swing state, it’s politics are largely unfamiliar to the general public.

However, the American Indian Movement that erupted in the 1970s and that continues in various iterations to the present day is headquartered in South Dakota Indian Country.

Thus, the history of the racial animus directed toward members of the nine Lakota Sioux tribes in South Dakota has begun to garner attention. The recent ACLU case Oglala Sioux Tribe v. Van Hunnik marked the first time the federal government ever interceded in South Dakota’s federal court.

The case, which was a landmark for Lakota People’s Law Project effort to force South Dakota officials to recognize the Indian Child Welfare Act, shows the federal government is paying more attention to political affairs in the state.

While South Dakota is the President’s last state to check off his itinerary that is not to suggest his administration has been deaf to the concerns of Indian Country, particularly, the Lakota tribes.

The President and the First Lady became one of the handful of American Presidents to visit an Indian reservation while in office when he visited the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, which straddles North and South Dakota. The Obamas visited Cannon Ball, North Dakota, so technically they haven’t been to South Dakota but it is clear they are aware of the history of discrimination against Indian people.

“My administration is determined to partner with tribes,” Obama said. “It takes place every day on just about every issue that touches your lives.”

But what really impacted the Obamas is their meeting with Indian children, who shared stories of their harrowing upbringing and the difficulties of maturing in adverse circumstances on the reservations.

Since that day, the Obama Administration has released updated ICWA guidelines specifically designed to curtail the flagrant violations in South Dakota. Attorney General Eric Holder gave a lengthy speech where he promised greater enforcement of federal provisions aimed at preventing state abuse of Natives.

The Government Accountability Office released a report saying the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services needs to respond to the needs of tribes in a more comprehensive and timely manner.

Finally, Michelle Obama released a lengthy statement that described the need for the United States of America to develop more and fuller tools to help uplift the tribes that are struggling directly as a result of white oppression.

“Folks in Indian Country didn’t just wake up one day with addiction problems,” she said. Poverty and violence didn’t just randomly happen to this community. These issues are the result of a long history of systematic discrimination and abuse.”

The importance of the speech cannot be overstated. It mirrors what LPLP has been asserting for the past decade and it shows that while Obama’s itinerary may have overlooked South Dakota, the policies of his administration will not.

Native Ivy League students dedicated to uplifting Indian Country

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The 10th annual Ivy Native Conference was held last weekend at Harvard University. This event brings together Native American students from the United States’ eight elite Ivy League universities to network and consider issues pertinent to Native communities.

This year’s three-day “Economic Vibrancy in 21st Century Native Communities” themed conference, hosted by the student group Native Americans at Harvard College (NAHC), attracted over 110 students to Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Attendees represented the full scope of Ivy League universities along with prestigious schools such as McGill, University of Notre Dame, MIT, and George Washington University.

NAHC President Valentina S. Rodriguez says that her group works to do much more than simply bring Native students together. On top of that valuable aspect, they strive to educate the broader student bodies of schools such as Harvard about the realities faced by Native Americans.

“There’s often a little bit of mystery about what it means to be Native today and what it means to be Native at an Ivy League school,” says Rodriguez, “It’s really important to have places where these things can be discussed.”

Students at the conference attended networking events and discussion panels, and keynote addresses revolved around Native economics. This year’s focus took a turn from those of the past, which tended to cater towards music and the arts.

Jack Martin of Brown University was inspired by the discussion panel he attended, which featured speakers from the consulting industry as well as Jessica R. Metcalfe, owner of a Native-operated online gallery specializing in the sale of Native-made fashions.

“We can use our traditional values to empower not just ourselves but the ways we can make money and…get funding and resources that will help our communities,” Martin remarked in regards to what he took away from the panel.

The enlightenment and dedication to progress exhibited by young Natives such as those at the Ivy Native Conference continues to impress. This wave of youth–from those working to support their families on reservations to those earning top tier educations–seem to be a force to be reckoned with. These young adults are aware of the problems that need to be addressed and are ready to take action in order to create positive change for their communities.

The Lakota People’s Law Project applauds the work being done by groups such as NAHC and looks forward to watching them take their positive momentum out into the world.

We remain committed to assisting in the development of Native-run Child and Family Service Programs in the state of South Dakota in order to ensure the upbringing of Native children on Native soil, where values and traditions can be passed along to new generations. It is our hope that the numbers of Native Ivy League students will only continue to rise as conditions are improved in Indian Country.

Basketball star Jude Schimmel advocates for Native communities

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Jude Schimmel of Eastern Oregon’s Umatilla reservation is making headlines as a proud Native American woman.

Schimmel had a highly successful run as a University of Louisville basketball player. She earned the NCAA Elite 89 award for having the highest grade point average in the 2013 NCAA basketball championships and was named one of Glamour Magazine‘s top 10 college women in 2014. She played as point guard in Final Four and National Championship games.

Schimmel hasn’t slowed down since graduation.

While pursuing a master’s degree in sport’s administration, she’s spoken at the White House, signed on as a Nike N7 spokesperson, and stayed committed to basketball training. Now, she’s an author.

Schimmel’s debut novel Dreamcatcher comes out on April 15. The novel illustrates her life as a Native American and the journey that brought her to where she is today. She hopes to inspire Natives, basketball fans, and anyone else who picks up the book. Additionally, she would like to educate outsiders about the issues Natives face today and the determination they have to overcome.

Jude plans to continue her outreach to Native communities along with her basketball career.

“I think that growing up on the reservation and then traveling across the country to talk to over 40 tribes and reservations, that opened my eyes to understand that a lot of Native Americans really go through a hard time,” she said, “I want to change that. I want to help them get the opportunity that they deserve.”

The Lakota People’s Law Project is happy to see yet another young Native standing up for a better future. The dedication exhibited by people such as Jude Schimmel inspires a great deal of hope.

You can purchase Dreamcatcher at JudeSchimmel.com.