In my capacity as general counsel for the National Indian Cannabis Coalition, I (and the rest of the industry) have been closely tracking the President-Elect’s Cabinet nominations.  Cannabis legalization is perched precariously on the two prongs of (1) states’ rights; and (2) the Department of Justice’s policy position allowing United States district attorneys to decline to enforce cannabis-related violations of the Controlled Substances Act.  Congress doubled down by passing legislation withholding funding for the prosecution of marijuana crimes when the activity is legal under state law.

Those thinking about this issue and trying to gaze into the crystal ball to see past January 19, 2017 generally think that the costs associated with infringing on a state’s right to make its own laws by federal enforcement of federal marijuana laws may be to high to be realistic.  The fact that over half the states have some form of legalized marijuana, the number of potential unhappy constituents, loss of tax revenue from a $7 billion dollar industry and number of jobs lost if the marijuana violations were prosecuted also creates a political reality that would be difficult to overcome.

However, the DOJ’s policy is just that – a policy, not a law.  It can be changed with the stroke of an Attorney General Session’s pen.  And while I believe the states’ rights argument may protect the states from federal enforcement, I am concerned that same argument might not apply to tribes.

The Wilkinson Memo allows a United States District Attorney the discretion to determine whether to expend resources prosecuting marijuana violations in Indian Country located within their district.  Indian Country is federal land.  Given his previous statements on marijuana, I can see how an Attorney General Sessions might leave the states legalization alone while taking a hard line position on enforcement and prosecution of marijuana violations on all federal land, including Indian Country.  After all, “good people do not smoke marijuana”.  

For now, we do not know whether the Senate will even confirm Sen. Sessions or if this will be an issue that the Trump Administration will care anything about.  What is clear, however, is that for there to be stability in the industry and for tribes to be able to participate in this booming economic development opportunity without fear of losing their investment or other federal funding, Congress will need to act.

“trying to see the future”


If you are reading this blog from time to time, then likely you know about the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline that has been happening on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota.  Native America has gathered to support our cousins at Standing Rock and today, when the Court turned its efficient back on Indian Country, the Obama Administration stood with us.

In a Joint Statement from the Department of Interior, Department of Justice and Department of the Army issued mere minutes after the release of the Court’s opinion,  the Obama Administration put a halt to the construction near the reservation and asked the oil company to voluntarily cease construction on the pipeline within 20 miles of Lake Oahe!  Then, they said:

“Furthermore, this case has highlighted the need for a serious discussion on whether there should be nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes’ views on these types of infrastructure projects.  Therefore, this fall, we will invite tribes to formal, government-to-government consultations on two questions:  (1) within the existing statutory framework, what should the federal government do to better ensure meaningful tribal input into infrastructure-related reviews and decisions and the protection of tribal lands, resources, and treaty rights; and (2) should new legislation be proposed to Congress to alter that statutory framework and promote those goals.”

Continuing, the Statement says,

“In recent days, we have seen thousands of demonstrators come together peacefully, with support from scores of sovereign tribal governments, to exercise their First Amendment rights and to voice heartfelt concerns about the environment and historic, sacred sites.  It is now incumbent on all of us to develop a path forward that serves the broadest public interest.”

And all I can say is “Wow”.  Just “Wow”.

I was an employee of the Obama Administration and I cannot over-emphasize what a phenomenal effort this must have been by our friends and family working so hard on our behalf inside the government.  It can take weeks to get an even seemingly “simple” document approved by one Agency, let alone three.  And make no mistake, the POTUS himself had to approve this decision.

We have work to do still, no doubt.  We cannot relax.  We must remain vigilant.  Google’s dictionary defines vigilant as “keeping careful watch for possible danger or difficulties” and offers synonyms such as “watchful”, “observant”, “alert”, and my personal favorite, “hawk-eyed.”  There will be a ton of work to do.  Consultation will move forward as mandated by Executive Order 13, 175 which provides for meaningful consultation with Indian Tribes.  But this requires us, you and I, to be as vocal as we have been while on the front lines of the protest throughout the process.  For my tips on how to effectively “consult” check my blog “The Art of Consultation.”

Indian Country knows that the judicial system is not with us.  Some of you readers may not know that in 2001, the Native American Rights Fund started the Supreme Court Project whose purpose is to strengthen tribal advocacy before the U.S. Supreme Court by developing new litigation strategies and coordinating tribal legal resources, and to ultimately improve the win-loss record of Indian tribes. The Project is staffed by attorneys with the Native American Rights Fund  and the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and consists of a Working Group of over 200 attorneys and academics from around the nation who specialize in Indian law and other areas of law that impact Indian cases.

As I sit here in D.C.,  I am inspired by the work of the Standing Rock people, the protesters, the legal teams, and our friends in the Obama Administration.

Thank you, thank you very much.

Mni Wiconi. Water is Life.

Lael Echo-Hawk

On June 22, 2016, the President signed HR 812 as PL 114-178, the Indian Trust Asset Reform Act (Act). The Act reaffirms the responsibility of the United States to Indian tribes; authorizes a demonstration project for tribes to voluntarily negotiate with the Secretary of the Interior to manage their own trust assets; creates the option for the Secretary to establish an Under Secretary for Indian Affairs; and sets up a process to terminate the Office of the Special Trustee.

In other words, this is a VERY big deal.  There have been numerous lawsuits filed against the federal government for failing to appropriately manage tribal trust assets and, in the spirit of self-determination, this legislation begins to hand some of that management back over to tribes.  In a Congress bogged down by election partisan politics, Indian Country continues to chip away at issues important to us and find some success.

HR 812 was introduced by Representatives Simpson (R-ID); Cole (R-OK); and Heck (D-WA). Companion legislation was introduced by Senator Crapo (R-ID). A copy of HR 812, as presented to the President for signature, is here:

Read more from our General Memorandum here

Happy Tuesday!

Last week, the Bureau of Justice Assistance published the Joint Jurisdiction Courts: A Manual for Developing Tribal, Local, State & Federal Justice Collaborations.  BJA, through the Center for Evidence-based Policy of the Oregon Health and Science University and Project T.E.A.M., a BJA-funded training and technical assistance providers, has published a manual for tribal and community leaders who want to develop joint jurisdiction courts or initiatives in their own communities. 

Joint Jurisdiction Courts: A Manual for Developing Tribal, Local, State & Federal Justice Collaborations, is a guide that describes the process developed in one Minnesota community and adopted by other jurisdictions including communities in California and Alaska. The manual describes the benefits of intergovernmental collaboration, and provides suggested guidelines for developing a new joint jurisdiction justice collaborative based on identified needs, tribal and community culture, evidence-based treatment principals, articulated goals, and defined outcomes and includes best practices and lessons learned from Project T.E.A.M.’s work. The manual and supplementary materials can be found on the Project T.E.A.M. website: Also visit the Project T.E.A.M. website:

This comes at a time when both Congress and Tribes are looking to fill the jurisdictional gaps on reservations.  As recently as May, 2016, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing on S.2785, the Tribal Youth and Community Protection Act of 2016 and S.2920, the Tribal Law and Order Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2016.  S.2785 would expand tribal criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians for certain child abuse and drug-related offenses committed in Indian Country, as well as crimes committed against tribal police officers exercising tribal criminal jurisdiction. S.2920 would explore the feasibility of integrating Federal law enforcement, public safety, substance abuse and mental health programs in Indian Country, provide for improved information sharing with Indian tribes, consult on tribal juvenile justice reform, reauthorize tribal court training, required the appointment of Federal public defenders for each district that includes Indian country, require a GAO report on justice for Indian juveniles, and other related requirements.  (If you are interested in learning more about these bills, contact me for the memos we provided our clients on this issue).  The Committee has scheduled a markup for these bills later this week.

However, the expansion of this jurisdiction requires tribes to “beef” up their tribal court systems.  Exercising tribal jurisdiction is vital to building strong tribal communities and manuals like this provide free assistance information to Tribes and tribal courts seeking to improve on their current tribal judicial system.   The Department of Justice offers Tribal Capacity Building grants to provide funding to strengthen the tribe’s ability to implement and enhance tribal justice systems through training and technical assistance to increase their knowledge of emerging technology, evidence-based practices, and new models of service. The 2016 grant application closed on June 2, 2016 but there will likely be additional opportunities in 2017.

Unfortunately, violence in our communities is a constant reality.  Keeping our communities safe and providing victims with the opportunity to heal is worth expending the time and resources necessary to build vibrant and effective tribal justice systems.

With Hope for Safe and Healthy Tribal Communities,

Seatte_totemA little over a year ago, the Department of Justice released the infamous “Wilkinson Memo” containing DOJ policy guidance to U.S. District Attorneys on Marijuana in Indian Country.

Chaos ensued.

Media and industry began shouting “Marijuana is legal in Indian Country!” from the rooftops. Tribal leaders were swarmed by tribal members demanding that marijuana be immediately legalized. State and local jurisdictions were worried about the impact of legalization on their jurisdictions. Some tribes immediately announced their intent to open large marijuana operations; other tribes issued strong statements against legalization, and lawyers all started scratching our heads.

As the debris settles, we look back at a year with several tribes attempting to enter into the industry. The federal government either closed down their operations or the tribes shut down their operations themselves. Two tribes successfully opened two retail shops.

The truth is that there is just too much uncertainty in the law for most tribes to confidently enter into the industry. But there does seem to be economic opportunity available and some tribes will be able to take advantage of that.

Here are my highlights from 2015:

  1. Development of the National Indian Cannabis Coalition. In February 2015, Jeff Doctor (Seneca) announced the establishment of NICC. NICC’s mission is to educate tribal leaders and elected officials on the emerging regulated cannabis industry while advocating for parity on behalf of Indian Country. NICC has been on the forefront of cannabis policy development in Indian Country, speaking at conferences around the country and weighing in on policy development at the Congressional and Administrative level.
  2. Development of a draft tribal marijuana bill. Congress has been paying attention to the concern in Indian Country that dabbling in the cannabis industry could lead to the termination of federal grants or other funding. House representatives drafted a bill that would clarify that tribes would not lose federal funding if they were engaged in economic development in the cannabis industry.
  3. HHS Secretary Burwell promised that tribes engaged in the cannabis industry will not lose their federal funding so long as they do not use HHS funds in those endeavors. (Now we need more such statement from other Agencies).
  4. Suquamish and Squaxin Island open and operate (successfully) two retail marijuana stores on their reservations. While other tribes were being raided, these tribes in Washington were quietly negotiating with the State and preparing to open their retail stores. Now I hear that several other tribes are in negotiations with Washington State to do the same.

What should we look for in 2016?

  1. Ruling in Menominee v. DEA and DOJ determining whether a tribal college is an “institute of higher learning” for the purposes of growing hemp under the Farm Bill.
  2. Congressional legislation protecting federal funding for tribes engaged in the cannabis industry.
  3. Development of a single federal policy regarding legalization of cannabis in Indian Country.
  4. Development of tribal cannabis businesses in states with some form of legalization.

There have been a couple tribes who have tried unsuccessfully to open marijuana operations within states that have no form of legalized marijuana. The logistics of ‘legalization on an island’ are at this point, in my opinion, too difficult to overcome. Instead, the focus should be on developments within states with some form of marijuana legalization. I understand that this means that tribes in restrictive states without other forms of economic development will lag behind others – but cannabis remains a schedule 1 Controlled Substance carrying severe penalties for those convicted of possession, intent to manufacture or distribute. It is just not worth the risk unless you KNOW your intergovernmental agreements are strong and protect tribal people and tribal investments.

We are still in the infancy of this industry, both in Indian Country and the “outside” world. Growing pains are inevitable. What is both encouraging and frightening is that for the first time since gaming, non-Native businesses are coming to Indian Country. A word of caution – be careful who you work with – the sharks are circling and while they can leave and change their name, we are tribal people and members of our tribal nations from the beginning of time to the end of time and these businesses will remain part of our tribal history forever. Make sure that history tells a good story of developing cutting edge industries in a good way.

With Respect and Hope for a Successful Year,

On October 15, Senator John McCoy (Tulalip), Washington State Legislature, will be a featured speaker at the “Taking Smoke Signals Digital” Conference at the Tulalip Resort Casino, Tulalip, WA.

John McCoy represents the Everett, Marysville, and Tulalip communities, and neighborhoods of Snohomish County in the Washington State Senate. John was elected to the House of Representatives in 2003, and appointed to the Senate in November 2013.

John served in the United States Air Force for 20 years, retiring in 1981 and went to work as a computer technician in the White House, where he stayed from 1982 to 1985, continuing his career in computer programming and operations and management in the private sector.

He returned to his home state almost two decades back to help bring the Tulalip community into the digital world. John was instrumental in the development of the Quil Ceda Village Business Park. John and his wife, Jeannie McCoy, make their home in Tulalip. Bringing the tribe and other underserved areas of Snohomish County fully into the 21st century with high speed broadband access to the Internet has been one of the driving goals for John since coming home.

“There are still many areas of Washington State where being underserved or not served by broadband is still a prevalent problem,” said McCoy recently. “We still have neighborhoods in Seattle that do not have broadband. For example in there are pockets in the 11th legislative district in South Lake Union, close to where Amazon is located, that do not get broadband. The problem is how to get broadband in there.

“There are wide expanses of rural areas that are going without broadband. For example on the Makah reservation the connectivity issue has been moving forward and making progress and yet, on the day the students have to take tests online, the tribal government has to shut down so the kids have bandwidth to take their tests. Another example is when high school seniors from Davenport had to drive 35 miles to Spokane to find Wi-Fi hotspots, and stop in parking lots so they could do their homework and get their senior projects done.”

McCoy said he can point to other areas of the state where the situation is the same. In the 1980s and 1990s, he points out, the term “Digital Divide” was being used to refer to individuals – who had broadband and who did not. These days, however, it means whole areas that are underserved or not served at all.

“When I served in the United States Air Force,” he recalled, “I learned technology from the ground floor. When I came home to the Tulalip Reservation, Stan Jones [Chairman of the Tulalip Reservation Board of Directors] recruited me to build an economy. I grew-up in technology but all I had on the reservation was dial-up. I had to figure out how to get the latest technology on the reservation.”

“When it comes to being wired,’ he said, “people claim 90 percent of Washington State had broadband connectivity, but the majority live in Seattle, Tacoma, Bellingham, Everett, and in the small cities and towns between Seattle and Olympia.” Places outside of these areas, he said, have pretty sparse connectivity. “In the Tri-cities, they have holes in their network too,” McCoy said. “This is a statewide problem and we need to fix it.” In some places, city and county codes are keeping broadband out for aesthetic reasons. Cities and the counties both need to address this problem and fix it, he said.

“My frustration is that so many schools are doing without broadband connectivity, especially when the Washington state Board of Education is pushing for wide scale electronic testing. How can they implement that requirement when there are so many areas without broadband?

As the ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee, Sen. McCoy is in a better situation than many to try to address this problem.

“The problem with the lack of broadband has been identified,” he said. “Now, there will be a lot of conversation on what kind of funding the government will provide. How do we get funding? How do we get the big telecoms to play? The telecom companies will not go to an area unless it’s financially feasible. At what point should they do something because it’s the right thing to do?”

Wherever broadband goes, business follows, he points out. “Broadband is an economic engine. Let’s take a look at the Quil Ceda Village Business Park that was developed in 2000. The Quil Ceda Village business park has become vital to building and sustaining the Tulalip culture and regional economy. Today the Quil Ceda Village is a popular destination for thousands of shoppers and provides a highly visible opportunity for a variety of businesses.

Today, thanks in large part to the efforts of John McCoy, the entire area in and around the Tulalip Reservation is double ringed in fiber. Tulalip owns its own phone and broadband Internet providers, an HDTV company and a fiber optic company.

“Once the latest technology was adopted, many businesses came knocking on our door and said they wanted to be there because the infrastructure was there,” said McCoy. “We think our success can be shared and serve as an example to many other areas on the state of Washington.”

Sen. McCoy also serves on the Senate Government Operations Committee and the Senate Rules Committee. He is an active member of four National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) panels. John is a co-chair of the NCSL committee on the Environment, and he’s also a member of the NCSL Labor & Economic Development Committee; the NCSL Communications, Financial Services & Interstate Commerce Standing Committee, and the NCSL Environmental Management Legislative Roundtable.

John and Jeannie McCoy have three daughters, nine grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

Below is a great article analyzing the important role that Indian Country can play on impacting Congressional and local elections.  While our population may appear small in the aggregate, we have majority populations in many states that will matter in the upcoming elections.  The opportunity is enormous.

I’ve spent a ton of time chatting with Dick Trudell of the American Indian Resources Institute about the need for Indian Country to cultivate friends and advocates in Congress.  One way to do this is to participate in key elections – even if those elections are not in your state or even your region.  Seems strange, but consider this: the late, great Senator Daniel Inouye did not have any tribal constituents in his state and there was no greater advocate for tribes in the recent past than him.  We need to find our next “Inouye’s” (we need more than one) and participation in election campaigns and strategic political contributions are key to developing those friends and allies. 

Check out the article below. I want to hear your comments!

Remember to “Get out the Native Vote!”  

– Lael


Could American Indians Decide the Senate Majority? 

Henry Gass, E&E reporter, published on Wednesday, April 9, 2014 

Shortly after Rep. Steve Daines (R) took office as Montana’s lone member of the House in January 2013, one of his first meetings was with Darrin Old Coyote, chairman of the Crow Tribe, one of the state’s largest American Indian tribes. Daines said he asked Old Coyote what his top three priorities were for the tribe.

“He said No. 1 is jobs, No. 2 is jobs, and No. 3 is jobs,” Daines recalled.

Daines has since emerged as a leading candidate for Senate in this year’s election, vying to win one of the critical Democratic-held seats in Republican-leaning states and re-establish a GOP majority in the upper chamber. Montana is lining up to be one of a handful of Senate races that could determine which party will control the chamber for the next two years. Many of those states, including Montana, South Dakota and Alaska, are home to a large number of American Indians.

In these large, sparsely populated states, American Indian votes have often proved the difference in elections. Despite ongoing issues with voter access in tribal communities, senators like Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) have benefited from strong, decisive Native support to win their seats. Daines said the influence of the Native vote in these states could help explain why Democrats are enjoying the slim majority in the Senate they have now.

“I think Republicans have done overall a poor job of working with our tribes,” Daines said. “We need to be much more proactive in reaching out and listening to what their issues are.”

Politically, it makes sense. In Montana, American Indians are 6.3 percent of the population — still a minority, but enough to carry elections often decided by a few thousand votes, especially when they vote in a block. That helps explain why Tester was eager to take over the gavel of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee earlier this year, though he isn’t up for re-election until 2018.

The Native share of the population is even higher in other states — almost 9 percent in South Dakota and almost 15 percent in Alaska, the highest proportion in the country.

Tom Rodgers, a lobbyist on American Indian issues and a member of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana, said American Indians have played a key role in recent Senate wins for Democrats like Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.). He expects the Native vote to be crucial in some races this November.

“If Democrats want to succeed in some of these races, they have to get [American Indians] to the polls,” Rodgers said.

Historically, he added, Natives have leaned toward voting for Democrats at the national level. But as American Indians seek to alleviate the crushing poverty that exists on many reservations, how candidates align on energy and environmental issues — especially on fossil fuel development — could help carry key Western Senate races and determine the chamber’s majority in 2015.

‘Divisions’ over energy development

The issue facing many American Indian communities across the fossil-rich West is how to reconcile their culture of environmental stewardship with their need for revenue. On the Blackfoot Reservation, for example, where unemployment is 69 percent, Rodgers said the debate over oil and gas development has been “very tension-filled.”

“Native Americans are wonderful stewards of the land. The problem is once again our people also need to eat; they need health care; they need education,” he said.

Daines said Darrin Old Coyote, chairman of the Crow tribe, once told him that “a war on coal is a war on the Crow people of Montana.” In most of Indian Country, energy issues are not that black and white. A quarter of American Indians and Alaska Natives live in poverty, a third don’t have health care, and a resident of an Indian reservation has less than half the U.S. average income.

And despite the economic woes, there is strong Native opposition to controversial energy extraction methods like fracking for natural gas and to construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Reached by phone in late March, Kathy Little Leaf, an activist with Indian Peoples Action, had just been organizing the blockade of megaload trucks carrying equipment through tribal areas in Montana to oil sands operations in Alberta, Canada.

Incumbent Sen. John Walsh (D-Mont.) took office Feb. 11. Photo courtesy of the John Walsh Senate campaign.

Little Leaf said she doesn’t think the potential long-term impacts of fossil fuel development are being conveyed to American Indians on reservations in Montana.

“There’s just so many other things happening on reservations,” she said. “I understand that they are looking to get economic prosperity within the reservation, but, at same time, we need to acknowledge: Are they understanding the consequences of oil extraction? Are they understanding the long-term effects, especially with our water source?”Sen. John Walsh (D-Mont.), appointed this year to take the seat vacated by former Sen. Max Baucus (D), said in a statement emailed to E&E Daily that natural resources development “must be done safely and fairly.” In speaking with tribal leaders in Montana this year, he said they’d voiced concern over red tape and other obstacles to investment in resource development.

“Any resource development we undertake must be done responsibly and with protections for property owners, as well as for our clean air and water,” said Walsh, who is expected to square off against Daines as he seeks a full term in November. “Coal development on the Crow Reservation specifically has been a long-standing source of good-paying jobs and non-federal revenue to the tribe.”

Issues with access

Despite the significant American Indian population in many Western states, their voting power could be hampered by how many are physically able to get to the polls this year. Lawsuits in both Montana and Alaska are currently being heard over this issue, and both rulings could have a major impact on how many Natives get to vote later this year.

In October 2012, 19 members of the Northern Cheyenne, Crow and Fort Belknap tribes sued Montana’s secretary of State, arguing that the lack of satellite late registration and absentee voting offices on reservations, combined with the immense distances many of those on reservations had to travel in order to vote, constituted a violation of the Voting Rights Act.

Without the voting stations, voters on many of the state’s reservations have to travel almost 100 miles round-trip to cast their ballot at the county seat. In communities where only one of every three homes has a vehicle and poverty can make gas money unaffordable, such a trip becomes even more difficult. For a Washington, D.C. resident, it would be like having to drive to Gettysburg, Pa., to vote, Rodgers said.

“Extreme poverty plus geographical distance is by definition unequal access,” said Rodgers, who is volunteering to help with the case.

The decision in the case, which Rodgers expects to come in June, could have extra significance this election. Indian Country voter turnout — as in many other parts of the country — “falls off a cliff” in midterm elections, dropping by roughly 50 percent, he added.

And adding satellite voting stations works, according to similar work carried about by Four Directions Inc., an American Indian voting rights group that is also helping the plaintiffs in the Montana case.

Beginning with a South Dakota special election in June 2004 for a vacant seat in the House, a months-long voter registration effort from the group resulted in an American Indian turnout of 3,374. The special election was decided by just over 3,000 votes, with Democrat Stephanie Herseth winning. When Herseth defended her seat that November, Four Directions worked with local county governments to set up early voting offices on Pine Ridge, Rosebud and Crow Creek reservations in South Dakota — the same offices Four Directions hope to establish in Montana — and delivered the highest Indian voter turnout in the state’s history. Herseth won again by almost 30,000 votes. In the Senate race that year, Republican John Thune was able to beat incumbent Democrat Tom Daschle, then the Senate majority leader, by a few thousand votes — again thanks to Native influence, according to OJ Semans, executive director of Four Directions.

Thune had learned his lesson well: Two years earlier, he lost to Sen. Tim Johnson (D) by just 524 votes — with Johnson’s showing on the Pine Ridge Reservation thought to have made the difference.

In 2004, “Senator Thune opened campaign offices in Pine Ridge and Rosebud [reservations]. Although he did not carry the Native vote his efforts increased his votes on the reservation. By increasing his votes on reservations he was able to win,” Semans said.

The disposition of the American Indian vote in South Dakota may not matter as much in this year’s Senate election as it once did: former Gov. Mike Rounds (R) is the strong favorite in the race to replace Johnson — and South Dakota is considered one of the Senate GOP’s top pickup opportunities this election cycle.

‘Very basic things are missing’

In Alaska, another lawsuit could have implications for the seat held by Sen. Mark Begich (D).

A group of Alaska Natives have sued state Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell — who is one of three Republicans seeking Begich’s seat — accusing him of violating the Voting Rights Act. A motion for summary judgment in the case submitted to the U.S. District Court in Alaska last Friday argues that Treadwell’s office failed to disseminate the required written ballot materials in minority languages Yup’ik and Gwich’in and that the few materials that were translated were done poorly and non-uniformly.

Sen. Mark Begich (center) meets with community members in Wainwright, Alaska. Natives make up almost 20 percent of the state’s voting population. Photo courtesy of the Mark Begich Senate campaign.

Natalie Landreth, the lead lawyer representing the plaintiffs in the case and a staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund, said basic ballot materials like information about the candidates and voting deadlines aren’t translated. Various ballot measures are also translated poorly, she said.

“Very basic things are missing, and that’s a huge problem,” she added.

Issues with the translation of ballots — which is the substance of the lawsuit — are exacerbated by a lack of early voting in many Alaska Native villages. Landreth said as many as 100,000 Natives are only able to vote on Election Day or by absentee ballot. Voting on Election Day can be further constrained by polling machines that are shared between villages separated by rivers, and absentee balloting can be confusing for voters who don’t speak English. Twenty-four Alaska villages didn’t have a polling place in the 2004 election. Native Alaskans also have the highest unemployment, lowest education and most people living in poverty of any Alaskan ethnic group.

“It’s very rare to see this [nationally]. Differential access to early voting, differential access to materials,” Landreth said. “It’s very, very rare, but it’s widespread up here.”

The summary motion filed last week is the first substantive action in the case, which has been ongoing since last July. Landreth said their team intended to ask the court for a release on the case this year, but she doubts that all their demands will be met in time for this year’s election.

The consequences of the case could be significant in the race for Begich’s seat. With no early voting for some villages and poorly translated ballot materials during the 2012 presidential election, voter turnout across Native villages ranged from 7 to 30 percent below the statewide average.

“I think the race is so close that the Native vote decides who wins,” Landreth said. “Even with a lower turnout they decide who wins the Senate.”

Alaska Natives have helped swing recent federal elections in the state. In 2010, incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) became the first Senate candidate in more than 50 years to win an election with a write-in campaign after losing the August GOP primary to tea party favorite Joe Miller.

After Murkowski’s primary loss, Alaska Native communities launched a statewide effort to mobilize Native voters to write in Murkowski’s name on their ballot. Some villages gave 90 percent of their vote to her.

Alaska Natives are almost 15 percent of the total state population and almost 20 percent of its voting population, according to Liz Medicine Crow, president of the First Alaskans Institute. But access issues can limit the power of the population, she said.

“When we vote and when we show up to vote we can basically call any election based on our numbers,” she said. “But again it goes back to the access issue.”

Environmentalism in an oil-dependent state

In Alaska, more than three-quarters of state revenue comes from oil development; Alaskans pay no state income tax and even receive a check every year with a dividend from the Alaska Permanent Fund — a fund established in 1976 and sustained by the state’s slice of hydrocarbon development. Last year, each eligible Alaskan received $900 from the fund.

“You can’t get elected to any office here — you can’t get elected to the school board — if you oppose oil and gas development,” said Ethan Schutt, senior vice president of land and energy development for Cook Inlet Region Inc., a tribal corporation based in Anchorage.

The energy reality for the various Native corporations differs dramatically across the state.

Cook Inlet is trying to diversify its energy supply with wind power and coal gasification projects. Communities in southeast Alaska, along the Canadian border, are concerned about the effect of hydropower projects on vital salmon runs. In Alaska’s North Slope, ongoing oil development in Prudhoe Bay and proposed development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has divided Native communities much like it has in Montana.

The Gwich’in Steering Committee — representing residents of the northernmost Indian nation in the country — has opposed drilling in ANWR since it was first proposed in the late 1980s, claiming it would impact caribou populations and other resources the tribe depends on to survive.

Begich and most elected Alaska officials support development in ANWR, which is federal land, to compensate for declining production from Prudhoe Bay. Instead of voting based on a candidate’s position on oil development, Alaska Natives are likely to be scrutinizing how all the candidates compare when it comes to protecting Native hunting and fishing rights, self-governance and overall environmental justice in the midst of expanded oil development.

Ben Nageak, a Democrat in Alaska’s House of Representatives who was born in ANWR, has attracted headlines by taking to the House floor, wearing a polar bear claw necklace, to make fiery speeches in favor of opening the refuge for development.

Nageak, who is also a former mayor of North Slope Borough, said the region has been balancing oil development with wildlife conservation for decades.

“We’ve learned to live with oil development because we have worked with [industry] and they have worked with us for the past 40 years, and it has been wonderful,” he said.

At the end of the day, many American Indians, and those vying to represent them in Washington, will struggle to balance the welfare of the natural environment with the welfare of their own impoverished communities.

“People talk about [protecting] animals and stuff,” Nageak continued. “What about the people?”

Twitter: @henrygass | Email:

Copyright 2014  Environment & Energy Publishing, all rights reserved
Reprinted with permission

There is a simple answer for the conundrum facing Indian Country of how to participate in internet gaming – federal legislation. 

Did I say “simple?”

Ok, so federal legislation in this Congress is never a simple thing but the “simple” fact is that Indian Country does have an influential voice on the Hill when it comes to gaming in the United States when we are unified.

Three states have successfully entered into the legal internet gaming market and appear to be successfully regulating their licenses.  A recent poll by the Coalition for Consumer and Online Protections, a gaming advocacy group backed by the American Gaming Association, MGM, and Poker Players Alliance, found that 57% of Americans oppose a federal ban on online gaming.

On the other hand, Sheldon Adelson and 16 state Attorney Generals have sent a letter to Congress asking for a federal ban on internet gaming.

Given the conflicting positions, Tribes have an opportunity to take the lead on lobbying Congress for the only action that will solve this problem and allow Tribes to participate in this new gaming market – federal legislation.

If you read my post yesterday on the upcoming NIGC consultations, you know that there has been a problem with getting banks, credit card companies and other payment providers to agree to transfer the wager.  If New Jersey has had this problem, then you can bet (no pun intended) that a Tribe attempting to game off-rez with a server located on-rez, will have a very similar problem.

If you can’t get the money, what’s the point?

The answer is a federal bill.  Indian Country should unify behind this course of action, draft a federal bill, present it to our friends in Congress and aggressively push it forward – or be relegated to “online gaming” within our reservation boundaries.  The choice is ours.

Place your bet!

Thanksgiving isn’t all about turkey and pumpkin pie…

Thanksgiving week is always hectic!  Americans everywhere stalking the Black Friday advertisements and designating the right cousin to hold our place in line outside of Best Buy while shopping for canned cranberry sauce and the perfect “brined” turkey.  (I don’t cook, but according to my mom and baby sister, the “brined” turkey is the way to go.)  Everyone has their perfect dinner planned, football or old movies to watch, and the holiday season has kicked into full gear.

But around Indian Country, Native people are thinking about Thanksgiving in a different way.  U.S. history has not always told the truth about the Thanksgiving holiday or the first interactions between the European settlers and the First People living here.  Historical drawings of the first Thanksgiving often show the Pilgrims eating at a table while the “savages” sit on the ground.  Our history books do not tell the story of the empty villages the Pilgrims found or the fields waiting to be harvested.  Villages empty because the people had died in huge numbers due to common European illnesses such as the flu or smallpox, and mass graves of the villagers because there were simply not enough people to bury the dead properly.  While history does acknowledge the role the remaining Native people played in showing the Pilgrims what to eat and how to live in the cold New England winters, it often does not acknowledge the extreme efforts made by those same settlers to exterminate the very people who saved their lives.

From a Native perspective, Thanksgiving can be viewed as a day memorializing the American holocaust that was in full bloom at the time of the “First Thanksgiving.”

I’m conflicted, however.  I love turkey and pumpkin pie, I love being with my family and eating too much food then lying comatose on the floor while watching old musicals.  I love the idea of a day set aside simply to “give thanks.”  It is an incredible concept.  But I must also acknowledge the truth of the history surrounding this holiday.  So this Thanksgiving I have decided to give thanks for the survival of my people.  We are still here – and that is a reason for Thanksgiving.  I will give thanks, eat some pie and explain to my nieces and nephews the truth of Thanksgiving and hopefully inspire them to be proud of who we are and the incredible strength of purpose we share with all Native people.

Before I head off into the holiday shopping madness, I want to share two videos with you.  First video is by the Truthseeker that explores the other side of American history that has not often been told.  The second video is a video of two Native men powwow dancing in their “regular” clothes on the streets of NYC – Survivors Rocking their Mocs!

Giving thanks,


The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is holding a FREE workshop for Tribes!  The workshop will provide  “timely and topical information about opportunities in broadband, radio, and telecommunications specifically for Indian Country and discussion on proposed FCC rules impacting Tribal lands.”  Indian Country has a great asset in Geoff Blackwell who is doing great work at the Commission.  It is not always easy being a federal employee, and he is doing fantastic work on our behalf.

Hesci! Chukma! Greetings!

I’m writing this message to provide you with updates to our previous notice about the FCC’s Native Broadband, Telecommunications, and Media Consultation Workshop, to be conducted on September 25-26 at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), 83 Avan Nu Po Road, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87508. We have added registration and hotel information.

Please register for this workshop by providing your name, title, Tribal or company affiliation, phone, and email contact information via email to Please note that we have not received your registration unless you receive a confirmation email from us.

A limited block of discounted rooms has been set aside for workshop participants nearby at the Inn at Santa Fe, 8376 Cerrillos Road, Santa Fe, NM 87507. Attendees should call the hotel directly at (888)-871-7138 or (505)-474-9500 and ask for the “Federal Communications Commission” block of rooms. The group rate is $75 per night plus tax.

The workshop will focus on opportunities for Tribal governments and Native communities to help build communications infrastructure on Tribal lands to improve connectivity and local efforts to enhance cultural and language preservation, economic opportunities, and community institutions. The workshop is free and open to Tribal governmental officials – including Tribal leaders, IT Directors, Economic Development Specialists, Radio and Media Managers, Public Safety officials, and Tribal education, health care, and facilities staff with an interest and work relationship with the subject matter. In addition, entities including advocacy groups, nonprofits, and other entities involved in Native and Tribal telecommunications infrastructure development are invited.

We will be providing timely and topical information about opportunities in broadband, radio, and telecommunications specifically for Indian Country. We will also be presenting and discussing and encouraging dialogue on proposed FCC rules impacting Tribal lands nationwide. In addition to these important policy and dialogue sessions, the workshop will feature our Native Learning Lab. This is an interactive computing and training space, where attendees will be able to work with FCC staff and receive one-on-one personalized help or small group assistance to learn how to access and utilize FCC systems in order to take advantage of these opportunities.

In a few weeks, an agenda will be finalized and we will send it to you at that time. If you have any questions before then, please send us a note at

We hope you will be able to join us at the workshop and that you will help us maximize participation by forwarding this information to all of your contacts.

Mvto! Thank you and best regards,


Geoffrey C. Blackwell
Office of Native Affairs and Policy
Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau
Federal Communications Commission
445 12th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20554
Desk: 202-418-3629
Mobile: 202-253-4846