Thoughts from an Airport Cafe: International Indigenous Governance, and Home

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A parade of humanity streams by, each passenger more harried than the last. There’s no rhyme or reason to the fracas here in Terminal 4 of the Los Angeles International Airport. Gate 48B to be precise.

No less than four American flags at the arrival gates remind folks that this is #Murcia. But no one seems to pay them any mind. Wrangling young kids who would rather run off, and finding the proper gate capture the attention of most passengers who are either deplaning, making a connection, or hoping to board. 

I’m traveling solo, seated at a table for two. I’ve given up two chairs that surrounded my table to an Australian group consisting of two families and more kids than should ever be brought on an international trip.

Naturally, they were a lovely bunch.

My travels this week take me to New Zealand and the World Indigenous Business Forum. I plan to share the work we are doing at the University of Arizona to develop an International Indigenous Governance Consortium that will deliver access to education on Indigenous governance to Indigenous peoples around the world. It’s a tall order in a world that is constant motion – not unlike Terminal 4 here at LAX. 

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It’s a cliché (but a useful cliché) to say that what makes these jaunts worthwhile is the opportunity to share information with communities, and folks who haven’t been exposed to the ideas of Native Nation Building. It’s true that the foundation of our research began with the Harvard Project on Native American Economic Development some twenty years ago. But for most Indigenous peoples, twenty years is a drop in the bucket of time. And as recent developments across global jurisdictions demonstrate, the lessons are timely, relevant, and important. 

Whenever I take these trips, I set my phone to an image of home, 300-odd acres of Oklahoma plains, and the home place where my Parents, Grandparents, and Great-Grandparents built, lived, and made a life in a world devoid of traditional values. 

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Thinking about Grandpa back in Cotton County helps me keep in context the work that I do. It reminds me that our target audience isn’t really the academics and Indigenous business elite who are attending the conference, but the folks at home who live on the land, and deal with life in all of its complexity. 

And, of course, I think about my son, Clark, and the world that my generation will leave behind for him. Given the political quagmire surrounding our President’s Supreme Court nominee, it makes me question the future as he becomes a man. But I still have hope. For him. For the folks at home. And for the many people who will be attending the World Indigenous Business Forum. 

But such questions are far from the mind here in Terminal 4 at LAX. The irritated faces of travelers, and the frenetic announcements of the PA system all take top billing over such introspections.

Soon, I will join them and contribute to the broad stream of people who pass through LAX everyday. But my true north will always be far from the locales that I visit.

It remains as it always has – on 360 dusty acres in Cotton County, Oklahoma. Where Papa sits in his recliner watching Football, and the crickets chirp outside.

Why Dads Matter

My Post

It has been a long while since I’ve graced the pages of Pax Plena with a new post. Given a quiet Father’s Day Sunday here in the U.S., I couldn’t think of a better time to resurrect our ailing blog once again. Like Lazarus rising from the dead, this disease of blogging silence never quite seems to lead to death. Our blog has merely fallen asleep.

 

What prompted me to write this afternoon was an opinion column by the Washington Post’s Megan McArdle that shared some personal reflections on why fathers matter.

[Link]

Truth be told, I don’t really know of any camps that are ardently claiming that fathers do not matter. Granted, an article in the Atlantic, circa 2010, made the case that “there’s nothing objectively essential” about the contribution of a father to the well-being of a child. The point seems a bit weak. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Indeed, other sources cite a wide body of literature that assess the importance of fathers and their role in fostering the well-being of their kiddos.

Then again, it is the Atlantic, so one would do well to consider the source… 

By contrast, McArdle notes of her own family life that “my mother was usually the one who dressed wounds if you fell off the jungle gym; my father was the one who encouraged you to climb a little higher than felt strictly safe.”

Sure, the point is anecdotal, but I think it’s about right. In our family, Mother was always the one who set the rules, bedtimes, and made sure that we went to church. My Father seldom went to church, and had zero inhibitions about letting me ride in the open bed of a pickup truck while we drove around dusty county roads picking up cans to take to the recycling center. Note: This wasn’t something we did for the sheer virtue of a good deed, or environmentalism. There were no such bourgeois luxuries in the Fodder family of the 1980s. We just needed the money.

Such parenting today would immediately draw the ire of the nearly every child advocacy group in America, and quite possibly one’s local Department of Child Welfare. Suffice it to say, times were different in the 80s. And, to be fair, if Dad had insisted that I sit next to him inside the cab of the truck, I probably would have pitched a royal fit, and left him wishing that I had just rode in the back of the damn truck to begin with. We poor kids could be a precocious lot. 

But there was something that was actually quite important that I learned from those dusty drives with dear old Dad. I gained a sense of independence, and self-sufficiency that I never would have gotten had either of my parents been the “helicopter parent” that’s en vogue today. From Dad, I learned to search within myself, and try to solve problems instead of complaining about them. I learned that you can’t always have what you want, but that you can obtain what you want if you’re willing to work for it. And I learned that there are literally millions of ways one can perish by eating a Twinkie.

(Family Joke: Whenever someone passes away, and one is foolish enough to inquire as to their cause of death within earshot of my Father, Dad’s glib response is always that they “choked on a Twinkie.” We usually groan and laugh, but I suppose normal folks might think this is morbid. Tomāto/Tomăto.) 

And really, that’s why Dad’s are important: they show love to kids in a fundamentally different way from that of a Mom. And the difference is accounted for in that each parent brings their own lived experiences to the child rearing table, and kids are better for it. After all, what kid doesn’t need more love in their life?

So, to all of the Dads out there, take heart: you matter. And don’t let the Atlantic tell you otherwise.

The Art of Making Strategic Decisions

In class this week, we walked through a few of the main arguments that set the theoretical framework for building effective tribal governments (See Rebuilding Native Nations).

According to the authors’, one of the key elements for building effective tribal governments is for tribal leaders to engage in strategic decision making. The whole section reminded me a bit of the biblical adjuration, Where there is no vision, the people perish. I think that passage is actually talking about prophetic visions, but divorcing a quote from context has never stopped me before.  
Regardless, the point is the same. In order to run an effective government, organization, institute, non-profit, etc., there has to be some vision toward which the entity aspires. For tribes, some of the questions include, What kind of society do we want to create? What’s our primary objective? What values guide our decision making? Where do we want to be in ten years? How do we get there from here? How do our values inform our policies? And, fundamentally, What do we want? 
While the text applies these considerations, quite correctly, to tribes, the potential applications ofsuch analyses are actually much broader.  In fact, they even lie at the heart of the U.S. Presidential Election:
  • What kind of country do we want? 
  • Would we shut the borders of the United States to Muslims seeking entry? 
  • Would we seriously consider deporting 11+ million illegal immigrants? 
  • Why are we afraid to categorize people who are here illegally as illegals?
  • But, is deportation the best use of our rather finite National resources? 
  • Are we content with a criminal justice systems that disproportionately affects blacks? 
  • Are we content with a nation where top officials can flaunt their violation of our strictest national security laws? 
  • What kind of person would we like to see on the Supreme Court? 
  • How can we provide health care in such a way that we maximize the Liberty interests of citizens, while delivering the best possible service?? etc…

The point is simply that the questions besetting tribes are no different than the kinds of questions that we face as a Nation. The only difference is that tribes must ask such questions not as free peoples exercising their right to self-government, but as wards under the guardianship of an external government that has assumed the authority to nullify their decisions with the stroke of a pen (See Congressional Plenary Power). 

And so the question remains for tribal governments, When will the moment in time be right to challenge the legal presumption that Congress has absolute authority over American Indian tribal nations
Granted, the time isn’t now. But when the time comes, what is the strategy for throwing off the yoke of Washington in order to truly allow tribes to engage in their own exeperiment in government by the consent of the governed?  And make no mistake, consent is key here. Any exercise of tribal self-determination must begin with the will and consent of Indian peoples. 
Even so, what’s the plan? What would that form of sovereignty look like? 
Lots of questions to explore and it’s only week one. Onward…

Blog Reboot, and Today’s Tribal Governments

Today marks an interesting shift for Pax Plena. After years of personal blogging and sharing my thoughts on everything from political questions to parenting, I’ve decided to use this platform as a way to share more of my thoughts on my research and teaching interests. Naturally, I reserve the right to share whatever I like, but I hope to use the site as a way to test new ideas, and hopefully bring a bit of what I do in American Indian Studies to those interested. 


So, consider this an effort to reboot the blog, and take things in a new direction. 

Toward that end, I’m teaching a course on Tribal Governments this semester (AIST 4100). The enrollment is relatively small with only seven intrepid students eager to take on the complexities of America’s fourth form of government. 

This is my third year to teach this course, and it has long puzzled me why a class with obvious relevance to a rural state like Wyoming would generate such little student interest. It could be that students are busy and have to prioritize their course load – an understandable outcome given the reality of the semester schedule and the respective demands of various majors across campus. But I suspect the lack of interest has more to do with the subject matter than it does with any scheduling conflicts.


Part of the problem is that the notion of tribes as governments is something relatively foreign to many students. For starters, the governmental authority of tribal governments finds its genesis in a source of law that falls outside the bounds of the U.S. Constitution. The phrase we use in Indian law is that the governing authority of tribes is ‘extra-Constitutional,’ or one derived not from the efforts of our Founding Fathers, lo so many years ago. Such is the case because tribes pre-dated the U.S. Constitution by centuries, and in their drafting, the Founding Fathers simply did not incorporate tribes into the Constitutional framework.   

So right away, from the very first day of the class, there is a disconnect to overcome. It’s certainly not an insurmountable barrier. But there’s a degree of difficulty in introducing a new form of government within the U.S. after years of civics courses have engrained in a student’s mind that federalism consists of federal, state, and local governments to the exclusion of all others. 

And yet, it’s fascinating course to teach as an instructor. If there’s an area of governance where there is still ample room for innovation, development, and creative problem solving, then the work being done among American Indian tribal governments has to be among the most interesting around. My experience has been that students tend to appreciate this point toward the end of the semester – but at the beginning it’s still a distant concept.

By the end of the semester we will have explored four theme areas: 
  • Tribes as Governments. Here, we explore the nuts and bolts of what tribes can do. Some things will be obvious – tribes can levy taxes, create their own codes and bodies of law, etc. Other things might be surprising to students, like the idea that tribes can issue license plates, or own businesses.
  • Tribes and Other Governments. This theme evaluates the contours of the relationships between tribal governments and the other governmental entities within the American federalist system. Primarily, it addresses questions of jurisdiction. For example, students might be interested to know that in most states, the state government has no jurisdiction over Indian reservations/lands. This may sound find, until students realize the problems this can create in terms of criminal law, given sparse federal law enforcement resources across much of the American west. 
  • Tribes and Development. For many students, this is the most interesting aspect of the course. Unlike mainstream, American governance, where a strong political current actually perceives government as an obstacle to economic progress (a view I’m not unsympathetic toward), when it comes to tribal governance, tribal nations uniformly play a large role in promoting economic progress and development. Often times, a tribal government will find itself in the role of a business owner. Such an action by government in the mainstream context would be rare, and mostly anathema to significant segments of the population. 
  • Critical Analysis. The final theme that I true to imbue in the minds of students is the notion of critical analysis – and the particular challenge of maintaining critical thought when it comes to our overview of tribal governments. While I consider myself an advocate of tribal sovereignty, I believe that it’s equally important for students to understand that tribes are fallible entities indeed. Not every tribe governs well. Not every tribe abides by the rule of law. And not every tribe ensures that its citizens are entitled to equal protection under the laws of the tribal nation. So, while the students will be learning about what tribes can and can’t do, what their relationships are like with over governmental entities, and the impressive innovations that can result from tribal/state/corporate/federal partnership, I also want them to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism throughout the semester, and to consider tough questions that, honestly, may not have an answer.
Functionally, the course has always gone well. It certainly isn’t a required course by any means, so the students who sign up tend to have some interest in the class, which in turn makes my job a lot easier. Suppose we will know more on this score in a few weeks time, but I’m happy to have the students I met on Monday on board. 

For now, I’ll leave it here, but don’t be surprised if additional comments and questions from the class make their way into this space. Truth is, I’ve missed blogging – so, it’s nice to have a way to incorporate my academic interests into our now 11 year old conversation here at Pax Plena. 

More to come…

Country and Culture

I’m writing today from steamy Carnegie Park, home of the Kiowa Gourd Clan’s annual celebration. While an American flag is prominently displayed in the middle of the arena and scores of veterans line the rows of chairs behind it, the event is decidedly not a celebration of America’s Independence from Great Britain. 

Somewhere around the time that the Kiowa Indians came to call this part of Oklahoma home, the early days of July coincided with the ripening of the skunkberry, indicating that the time for holding the sun dance was near. As Kiowa warriors came to defend their territories in the infamous “Indian Wars” against the U.S. Cavalry in the late 1800s, trophies of battle were proudly displayed in the literal center of the annual ceremony. Given its origins, the event became more a celebration of tribal insurgency than a celebration of American Independence from European powers.

Yet, it is impossible to discount the appreciation for our country here marked by a plethora of red, white, and blue, along with the deep admiration expressed repeatedly for the young men from Kiowa Country who have fought with honor on distant shores. It’s also noteworthy that Native Americans have the highest record of military service per capita of any ethnic group in the United States. It is fair to say that American Indians are a rather patriotic lot all things considered.  

But if there’s a conclusion to be drawn from the Kiowa Gourd Clan celebration and its implications for the nexus of culture and country, it is that America’s relationship with its tribal nations is rife with complexity. And though it may be surprising, it is exactly this complexity that makes the annual celebration here in Carnegie a quintessentially American affair.

A couple of years ago I wrote that America is like a large dysfunctional family. I think this is still mostly true. Consider the hullabaloo surrounding the Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby opinion. Proponents of Obamacare and those who generally support the mass availability of contraception have bemoaned the “dangerous implications” of the Supreme Court’s “radical” decision. Meanwhile, faith-based organizations and those opposed to family planning have hailed the ruling as a profound “victory for religious freedom.”

Given our divide, it’s clear that both our internal relationship with other Americans, and America’s relationship with tribes, are complex things. And yet, like a marriage on the rocks, America somehow manages to hold it together year in and year out, providing relative stability for the world and bags of cash when good will isn’t good enough.

It’s true we can do more to cooperate and solve big problems. We can be more united and less inclined to bickering. But as a society we seem to hold our collective paradox rather well.

With our population so divided on so many issues, perhaps celebrating our cultural disconnects really is the best we can do.  

Analyzing Excellence, Part II

Courtesy of the AP / Photo by Ben Liebenberg

When I wrote the piece on excellence yesterday morning, it was well before Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos suffered an epic collapse in one of the most lopsided losses in Super Bowl history. During the 4th Quarter of the game, infamous Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman left the game with an ankle injury and did not return.

What makes this blip on the Super Bowl radar interesting is that in the weeks prior to Super Bowl XLVII, Sherman made it a point to repeatedly criticize Peyton Manning’s passing abilities. At one point, he compared his throws to wobbly ducks languidly flying through the air. To his credit, Manning brushed off the comments during the week and moved on to other things.

Fast-forward to yesterday’s game.

The Broncos had just taken a drubbing and the media circus was already in full swing, documenting the aftermath, and dismissing the Broncos performance as an NFL embarrassment. If anyone could justify going off the grid, after a loss like that, it’d be Peyton Manning.

So what does he do?

He trudges down the winding corridors of MetLife Stadium, the sting of defeat still burning his eyes. He by-passes the Seattle acolytes celebrating their victory at his expense. And Peyton Manning calls on Richard Sherman, the man who had excoriated him in the media weeks earlier and defeated him on the field moments ago, to inquire as to his health and make sure that he was okay. ‘Ankle injuries are serious things. Just making sure you’re ok.’

You see, when you’re excellent, it doesn’t really matter whether you win or lose.

Analyzing Excellence

It’s Super Bowl Monday here in New Zealand. In an hour or so, I plan to watch the big game with a buddy – a fellow American who appreciates football in a way that Kiwis simply don’t understand. While I know a number of friends will be cheering on the upstart Seattle Seahawks, just for today, count me among the legions of football fans who will be rooting for one player in particular: Peyton Manning.

By most accounts, Peyton Manning is having one of the greatest seasons in NFL history. Despite a nearly career-ending neck surgery two seasons ago, Manning set NFL records for both yards and touchdowns thrown in a season. Just last week he was named the MVP of the league. Naturally, these are remarkable accomplishments, feats that will surely catapult Manning into the hall of fame as soon as he becomes eligible for induction.

But what struck me about Manning’s monster season is the way that he achieved it. True, the man has a remarkable physical talent. But according to the Wall Street Journal, what sets Peyton apart from other quarterbacks in the league, and perhaps makes him arguably the greatest of all-time is the preparation with which he hones his craft. Of Manning’s preparatory habits the Journal notes:

Manning’s devotion to film study and game-plan ideas keeps the rest of the team up at night. He records voice memos with stray thoughts and sends them to coaches late into the night so everything can be sorted out early in the morning. “He’s really taking advantage of modern technology,” said quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp. “You’ll get a message that says, ‘Let’s do this drill tomorrow; I think my left foot needs to open up more.’ I have my own ideas that he wants to do but he’ll give me that and I’ll say ‘Good idea!”‘  

[Link]

The anecdote above is all the more impressive after considering what Manning has already accomplished. His place in the temple of football gods is already secure. His records this season are forever gilded in the annals of NFL history. He has one Super Bowl to his credit. And yet Manning studies, dissects, and analyzes every aspect of his game until he has an abject mastery over the subject. This type of motivation is the epitome of true excellence – a relentless pursuit of perfection for its own sake.

To some extent, we are all limited by our natural condition and physical capacities. But what Peyton Manning demonstrates is that our preparation and work ethic are aspects of life that are nearly limitless. We can prepare. We can study. We can master the task or opportunity in front of us if we are simply willing to put in the effort to be excellent.

The Wall Street Journal article above calls Peyton Manning “annoying” in his preparation and habits. I think this says more about “us” than it does about him. The simple fact is that there are many opportunities in life to hunker down, work hard, and pursue excellence. But excellence is rare because it’s not often that people put in the work to be great. We choose the path of least resistance. We opt for short-term rewards at the expense of more fulfilling long-term gains. We settle. This doesn’t necessarily make us bad. It just makes us not great.

When the Broncos take the field in an hour or so against the Seattle Seahawks, viewers will be watching history in the making one way or another. Should the Broncos win, we will see, arguably, the greatest quarterback of all-time as he pursues the ultimate reward of his sport. If the Broncos lose, we will still be watching the greatest quarterback of all-time as he pursues the ultimate reward of his sport.

That’s the funny thing about excellence. When you’re excellent, it doesn’t really matter whether you win or lose.

Language, Identity and Culture

We had a farewell morning tea for a colleague earlier today. My friend is a lovely woman of British extract who will be moving away to start life anew with her ‘partner’. The use of the term partner as a synonym for all manner of couplings is something I’ve found strange here in New Zealand. I suspect that if I ever called Gwyn my partner rather than my wife, I might see more than a few raised eyebrows back home in the good old U.S. of A.

Language

While stubbornly drinking my morning coffee (all good Patriots know that tea is for redcoats and commies), I had a chat with an acquaintance who forcefully insisted that New Zealand’s adoption of the Māori language (te reo Māori) as one of the country’s official languages was one of the most ‘liberal’ and forward-thinking moves NZ had made in recent years.

Before I had time to reply, she then took aim at the United States, arguing that America’s refusal to adopt Spanish and the 566 languages of America’s Indian tribes was an especially sordid transgression. By the same token, she ignored the fact that America doesn’t actually have an official language. Perhaps this was an inconvenient truth as Al Gore might say. Nevertheless, in her view, such a lack of linguistic accommodation reduced the American values of equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to nothing more than empty falsehoods.(They [Americans] don’t support those [values]. Not really.)

Identity

As one might imagine, I’ve had several conversations about America with my Kiwi friends. The lone commonality between them is that everyone seems to have an opinion of America. (Do you really own a gun? What’s Walmart like?). Despite the many chats I’ve had, I can’t recall having ever been told, prior to today, that the bedrock values of my Country are a sham. Suffice it to say, this particular conversation did not last long and I excused myself for the comforts of a quiet office.

When my blood pressure reached a plateau, I paused to consider her comments. She was correct in that in so many places, the notion of language is inextricably tied to notions of culture – almost to the point that a language can define one’s national identity. This is true, perhaps, in most places – China, France, the UK, Germany and even Mexico all come to mind. Still, I don’t think my colleague quite appreciates how things work in America.

Unlike New Zealand which has a total population that is roughly the size of Boston, the United States is a massive, free-wheeling, culturally diverse Nation. In previous posts, I’ve likened the US to a big dysfunctional family that stays together for tax purposes. Like it or not, the left is stuck with the right because, let’s face it, the costs associated with revolution and secession would really cramp our style. We’ve already tried a separation, and as the fates would have it, we’re better off together than apart. True love lasts, as the kids say.

As this matter of population diversity relates to identity, perhaps nowhere in the world is identity so loosely linked to language than in the United States. English is spoken by the vast majority of Americans, so this is the de facto language in which we do business. It’s not prescribed by law (although attempts have been made). It’s simply the way things are done. In America, language, then, is not so much a matter of national identity as it is a matter of national convenience in a wildly diverse country.  

Culture

Even so, perhaps my acquaintance’s remarks are more on point as they relate to culture. Perhaps American values are moot points because we do not accommodate a plethora of languages and the cultures they purportedly represent. It’s true that culture is a thorny concept in America. Historically, we don’t do very well with cultures that are not our own. The trail of tears and subsequent expropriation of American Indian lands come to mind. Slavery and Japanese interment camps also ring a bell.

Still, I’d like to think that these are exceptions to the rule of American exceptionalism. Our values aren’t diminished because we fail to meet the standards. Even under our founding documents, the values of equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are objectively self-evident truths. As such, our standards should rather inform our future actions as opposed to being defined by them.

And I think, in general, this is how it works. This is why Edward Snowden’s revelation of the NSA’s domestic surveillance programme prompted such a strong reaction. Same for Obamacare. Same for drones. Same for Benghazi. Same for the IRS harassment of conservative groups. These issues became big deals because they so starkly cut against the core of what America stands for as a Nation. 

As a country, then, America is not a Nation that finds its identity through the mass conformity to or accommodation of a particular language. America finds its identity through the common acceptance of a shared set of values, no matter how imperfect our policies may be.

Sum

And with that thought, my temper cooled. My pulse no longer raced. In fact, I quite nearly felt a twinge of sympathy for my acquaintance. For unless one is an American and rather accustomed to breathing the sweet air of freedom, I suspect that it is very difficult to apprehend how this all works in practice. Easier to find inconsistencies and write off the whole system of universal human rights than to accept the nuance reflected in the universality of the human condition.