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.

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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.