Harjo: Cherokee Nation's Teehee attempting to silence VAWA task force

The following is a second Open Letter from American Indian rights activist Suzan Shown Harjo regarding Cherokee Nation Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr.'s announcement of an agreement-in-principle delegating shared sovereignty to the state of Oklahoma.

Only 23 days have passed since the U.S. Supreme Court’s affirmation of the treaty reservation borders of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in McGirt v. Oklahoma. During this short time since the July 9th decision, the losing party, the State of Oklahoma, has managed to employ a non-party, Cherokee Nation, as an active participant in its scheme to undo the decision through a rider that Senators Inhofe and Lankford (both, R-OK) will try to attach to the pending pandemic relief bill, perhaps as early as Thursday.

This scheme turns on the fiction that there is a “Five Tribes agreement” to the legislation, which is not the case. Of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee and Seminole Nations in eastern Oklahoma, both Muscogee and Seminole Nations have repudiated the “agreement.” There is no “Five Tribes agreement.” The decision involves only the Muscogee Nation-U.S. Treaty and the Muscogee Nation reservation borders and jurisdiction. Neither Oklahoma nor any Native Nation has the right to make a binding agreement regarding Muscogee Nation’s sovereignty, treaties, laws, jurisdiction or ways.

This anti-sovereignty legislative “agreement” is Jacksonian in its intent and duplicity. The legislative scheme would undo the Supreme Court’s ruling and the Muscogee Nation’s tremendous victory by declaring Oklahoma a state with jurisdiction over Indian Country under P.L.-280, a 1953 law that has proven disastrous for Native Nations and Tribes in the six states it covered.

What was Cherokee Nation’s role this week? To silence Muscogee Nation and the Task Force on Violence Against Women within the National Congress of American Indians. Why silence them inside NCAI? I submit that it is to silence the NCAI itself as Muscogee and Seminole Nations attempt to stop the legislative rider. On Monday, Cherokee Chief Hoskin acknowledged his responsibility to listen to "others across Indian Country who are….offering their thoughtful help, suggestions, and even criticism" to the legislative proposal he and Cherokee Nation are pushing for Oklahoma, in exchange for what is the $64 million question. Even as he made this statement, he wasn't listening to others in Indian Country. He was silencing them.

Cherokee Nation operatives—behaving as if the treaty, case and victory were theirs (which they are not!), and as if they were somehow victims (which is enough to make a giraffe laugh)—stopped an NCAI VAWA Task Force statement on the purported “agreement.” Hoskin’s pick for Cherokee Delegate to Congress, Kim Teehee, who spent a career in D.C. failing sideways, was dispatched to silence critical voices at NCAI.

On Monday, Teehee intervened with NCAI leadership to demand that they silence the NCAI VAWA Task Force, which is composed of advocates and tribal leaders working to eradicate violence against Native women across Indian Country. This Task Force had been working on a statement explaining how the “agreement,” if enacted into law, would negatively impact the ability of Native Nations to protect Native women from domestic violence and sexual abuse.

This happens to be important information that Native women fighting to end domestic violence against Native women have the right to share. Their voices should be heard. This is something that all tribal leaders and sovereignty advocates in Indian Country must and should consider. Fortunately, NCAI friends who love the organization as much as I do, provided drafts of the letter Teehee thought she erased.

One excerpt rightly asserts that the state of Oklahoma is pressing Congress to pass a law limiting tribal civil jurisdiction over non-Indians to only those situations where the non-Indian has a "consensual relationship, such as contracts" with the Nation. This mirrors language from the Supreme Court's 1981 decision in Montana v. United States, which has proven harmful for Native Nations, given that non-Indian violent perpetrators have repeatedly used the Montana decision to argue that tribal courts do not have jurisdiction to issue civil protective orders against non-Indian perpetrators because they did not "consent" in a contract to tribal civil jurisdiction. The NCAI VAWA Task Force strongly opposes any legislation that would codify the harmful language of Montana.

According to Teehee, this VAWA Task Force statement is "anti-Cherokee Nation" and must be silenced. And, reportedly, some bought her anti-sovereignty nonsense hook, line, and sinker. As of Tuesday night, based on the arguments Teehee raised, the Task Force was prohibited from sharing its letter. But, advocates who care about tribal sovereignty and safety for Native women, can and will share it. Teehee and Cherokee Nation cannot silence everyone.

Shame on Chief Hoskin for publicly stating he is willing to listen to critical voices in Indian Country while simultaneously sending Teehee to NCAI to do his dirty work. Shame on Hoskin and Teehee for using NCAI's constitutional prohibition on taking positions on inter-tribal disputes as grounds for silencing Native women who have critical points to share with all of Indian Country about proposed legislation that will harm Native women, who currently suffer the highest rates of domestic violence and sexual assault in the United States.

This is not a "tribe-versus-tribe" issue. This is a Supreme Court case that the Muscogee Nation won, based on its own Treaty with the U.S. This was not the Cherokee Nation's treaty, case or victory. Shame on any NCAI leader for allowing the Cherokee Nation to silence the voices of Native women survivors and domestic violence advocates on the basis that letting them speak could impede Cherokee Nation's ability to impose its anti-sovereignty legislation on Muscogee Nation, women and children and everyone else.

This is not the first time Teehee has tried to turn NCAI's advocacy on an issue of critical importance into a false "tribe-versus-tribe" issue. She did this before, when she worked in the White House and undermined Muscogee Nation’s efforts to protect its cultural and religious freedom rights and undercut President Obama’s promises to protect sacred places. She went directly from being the desecrators’ sub rosa representative to its public lobbyist. Teehee worked to silence Muscogee Nation and to prevent NCAI from making a public statement against the desecration of ancestors and a ceremonial ground because a statement along those lines would have impeded Poarch Band's ability to dig up and destroy the human remains of our Muscogee ancestors in order to build a casino on top of holy ground.

NCAI, please do better. NCAI does not exist to protect Hoskin and Teehee or any offending Nation that plays at being a victim. By buying the tribe-versus-tribe claptrap they’re peddling, you set up NCAI for being prevented from doing the right thing and opposing the anti-sovereignty legislation and the perpetuation of the putrid 280 law. Being against this really bad legislation is not being against Cherokee Nation. Cherokee Nation is trying its best to undermine Muscogee Nation’s rights and the hard work by Native Nations’ who are trying to hold off or throw off state jurisdiction.

NCAI’s mandate is to protect and preserve tribal sovereignty against all comers, even Red Queens talking backward. Please do right and allow these critical voices in Indian Country to speak the truth within NCAI and free NCAI to speak truth to any power.

Mvto. Aho.

Suzan Shown Harjo

Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee) is an advocate for American Indian rights. She is a poet, writer, lecturer, curator, and policy advocate, who has helped Native peoples recover more than one million acres of tribal lands. After co-producing the first Indian news show in the nation for WBAI radio while living in New York City, and producing other shows and theater, in 1974 she moved to Washington, DC, to work on national policy issues. She served as Congressional liaison for Indian affairs in the President Jimmy Carter administration and later as president of the National Council of American Indians. In 2014, Harjo received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian honor.

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