By AUDREY FISCHER
“Pride in our heritage, honor to our ancestors”—the theme for Native American Heritage Month—is one that resonates with keynote speaker Dawn Sturdevant Baum, a staff attorney for the nonprofit Native American Rights Fund (NARF).
“I’ve been thinking about that theme most of my life,” Baum said at the Library on Nov. 18. “Our heritage is a source of pride for Native Americans in the wake of a struggling economy, rising suicide rates and attacks on tribal self-governance.
“We are actively struggling to strengthen our identities and preserve our heritage,” said Baum of the more than 500 tribal governments recognized by the U.S. federal government.
A member of the Sokaogon Chippewa Tribe of Wisconsin, Baum is a descendant of the Menominee Indian Tribe. An act of Congress “terminated” the tribe in 1954, but its sovereignty was restored by the U.S. government several decades later as a result of a successful lobbying effort by its members.
Baum, whose father was a member of the tribe, grew up hearing about the devastating effects of “termination.” The loss of tax-exempt status meant that land had to be sold to pay the new taxes. Sale of land had a negative ripple effect.
“People back home still talk about the time of termination,” said Baum.
According to Baum, the Menominee Tribe was singled out because it was doing relatively well sustaining its tribal nation. The tribe was actively engaged in the forestry industry, had built a hospital and was able to house people, including the elderly.
She explained that back in the late 1940s and 1950s, the federal government’s response to problems on the reservation was “to have Indians stop being Indians, assimilate and become ‘civilized.’” Said Baum, “This was seen as a positive solution, but it was a total failure.”
“Without collaboration, everything fails,” said Baum. “They said, ‘Here’s an idea,’ without asking the Indians. We’re not stupid. We know what works for us. It’s about having the resources to execute those ideas.”
Baum also underscored the need for the federal government to collaborate with tribal governments and acknowledge that “there couldn’t be an America without our Native American heritage.” She said tribes can impart much wisdom in areas such as agriculture, climate change and military strategy.
“Through our warrior traditions we have had legendary success in the military,” said Baum, noting that Native Americans join the military in higher per capita rates than other groups. The renowned Indian “code talkers” used their native language to secure U.S. communications in the Pacific during World War II. Today Native Americans are fighting in Iraq. Baum thanked the Library for its web presentation on the contributions of Native American veterans (www.loc.gov/vets/) and for preserving the many legal documents going back hundreds of years that have relevance for the Native American community.
“Indian law and policy relies on those historic documents. The Library of Congress has played no small part in their preservation,” said Baum, acknowledging the Law Library, which sponsored her keynote address.
In her work at NARF, Baum uses those documents to help clients support their cases for tribal recognition and a range of other issues. She said she was encouraged by President Obama’s memo to government agency heads directing them to consult with tribal leaders but less impressed by the recent long-overdue apology to the Menominee Nation for the 1954 termination.
“It is what it is,” she said. “It’s a first step but there are other issues to address. More than an apology is needed.”
For her part, Baum would like non-Indians to acknowledge “our shared American heritage.”
“We’re still a young country. We must be honest about our Native American heritage. How long can we live without acknowledging the truth that we built our nation on the suffering of tribal nations? We must acknowledge those traumas and create an honorable future together. I want to honor the work of the Library of Congress to honor our future together.”