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A New Beginning

Native American Commission resumes work this month

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Like this heritage display at the Indiana State Museum, the Native American Commission seeks to enhance social, cultural, community, and economic development in Indiana.
  • Like this heritage display at the Indiana State Museum, the Native American Commission seeks to enhance social, cultural, community, and economic development in Indiana.

On October 15, 2014, a new Native American Indian Affairs Commission will meet for the first time since a mass walkout by five Native American members in 2008 deactivated the previous commission.

When the members resigned en masse, they cited a litany of complaints against Gov. Daniels and his administration, focusing on seven areas. Foremost on the list was a complaint that Daniels never fully seated the Commission, preventing the Native Americans from ever achieving a majority vote. The 15-member commission was to have seven representatives of state agencies and eight Native American members appointed by the governor. Daniels never filled the eighth seat; the Indian members never received a majority vote.

Other grievances listed in the five-page resignation letter included unfulfilled promises and assurances offered by both the Department of Workforce Development, which is charged with offering administrative support, and the governor’s staff.

The final insult was what they termed a series of "disparaging, disrespectful and hateful messages" from the administration containing the terms "those crazy Indians," "on the warpath" and "tomahawks" discovered in the computer records of Aleeah Livengood, appointed by the governor as the group's executive director. In response to NUVO's open records request seeking to review these emails, state workers processing the request initially said they found one correspondence string containing any of the terms identified by the resigning commission members. The state promised to process a more expansive open records request, but no further information or contact was provided.

In the email they uncovered, replying to a colleague's observation that she was still alive, Livengood wrote, “Yes, barely, these Indians are crazy ...” Livengood did not return several calls for comment.

The Commission members considered the incident a continuation of offensive treatment. As explained in their letter, “From the beginning, the chairman, a good, decent and honorable Cherokee gentleman and attorney named Brent Gill, was subjected to withering, relentless attacks from the most extreme and irresponsible voices in Indian country. Governor Daniels gave him no support. He resigned.” The letter concluded: “We cannot be a part of an administration that not only refuses to help native people, but also actively interferes with our efforts to help them. Above all, Governor Daniels' word is not to be trusted. We've had enough. We resign.”

The commissioners’ walkout marked the second time the commission dissolved due to commissioners' frustrations over claims of a lack of support from the Daniels administration.

A fresh start

Designated the new chairperson, John P. Warren said, “I’m honored to be able to serve Native people in Indiana in this capacity.”

He doesn’t anticipate any of the internal discord or animosity between the Commission and the governor’s office that plagued commissions in the past and led to the Commission’s disbanding on two occasions. “We have been provided administrative support from the Indiana Civil Rights Commission,” Warren said. “We feel this support will allow us to meet the mission and objectives of the Commission.”

Warren, a St. Joseph County resident who represents the Pokagan Band of Potawatomi Indians, applied for a position on the Commission last fall when applications were being accepted. “As a Native, life-long resident of Indiana, I wanted to provide a voice on the Commission from Northern Indiana.”

His voice will be joined by those of seven others appointed by Republican Governor Mike Pence last month:

  • Chief John Boyd, Wea Tribe of Lafayette, Hamilton County
  • Kenny L. Eagle “Lone Eagle”, Osage and Iroquois, Starke County
  • Erin N. Oliver, Miami Nation of Indians of Indiana, Tippecanoe County
  • Shannon-Marie Ann Turner, Navajo Nation tribe in Arizona, Morgan County
  • Nathan Underwood, Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, Floyd County
  • Tracy A. Locke, Citizen Band of Potawatomi, Tippecanoe County
  • Catherine M. “Katie” Morris, East of the River Shawnee, Dearborn County

The Commission

Founded as a result of an executive order in 2003 by the late Democratic Gov. Frank O'Bannon, the Commission’s purpose is to advise government officials on American Indian issues in the areas of employment, education, civil rights, health and housing.

It consists of 15 voting members and two non-voting members, each of whom will serve a four-year term. The voting members of the commission include six Native American Indians, each from a different geographic region of the state, and two Native American Indians who have knowledge of Native American traditions and spiritual issues.

The Governor is responsible for making eight of the appointments to the 15-member board, but this marks the first time a governor has made appointments to this Commission since 2006. “Extensive time, consideration and care went into the selection of the newly appointed members of the Native American Indian Affairs Commission,” said Christy Denault, communications director for Gov. Pence.

Only 18 applications were received, according to Denault. Sidestepping direct questions about the matter, she instead offered a statement: “The individuals named to the Indiana Native American/Indian Affairs Commission are passionate about and wholly committed to building cooperation and understanding between Native American Indian communities and other communities throughout Indiana, and we are grateful for their willingness to serve.”

Serving the community

“It took long enough,” said Sally Tuttle, Kokomo resident and member of the federally recognized Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma co-founder of the lobbyist group Native Voices of Indiana who helped create the Commission to serve all Indian people in the state as an advisory group by raising awareness of issues of the Native community.

According to the 2000 Census, about 20,000 American Indians live in the state, including members of the Miami, Wea, Potawatomi and Shawnee tribes. However, community leaders claim the census did not account for a large number of Indians in the state. They estimate the actual number between 40,000 and 100,000 people of Native American descent in the Hoosier state.

Tuttle considers Warren a good choice. Some of the issues she hopes he and the Commission will address include health care – establishing an in-state clinic or creating a tribal billing system for health services; education – educating all K-12 students about Native history and current events and supporting Native students seeking higher education through funding; housing; economic development and Child Welfare Act violations that put children abducted on reservations into the foster care system, eventually to be “dumped” in Indiana.

Warren is in accord with Tuttle’s concerns. “Common issues among tribes will be identified and discussed during Commission meetings,” he said, citing suggested issues in IC 4-4-31.4-8 as employment, education, civil rights, health and housing. “Bringing together representatives from various Native American Indian tribes, along with support of various state agency representatives, will allow us to both identify and address both current and historic issues our people have faced,” Warren said.

Once the Commission has had an opportunity to study these issues, it will make recommendations to appropriate federal, state and local governmental agencies in the form of a report. Warren said his hope is that “this Commission’s recommendations, when they are made, will make a positive impact on Native American Indian residents throughout the state of Indiana.”

Action

The Commission will be able to do more than merely make recommendations. Since 2008, one of the Commission’s responsibilities is distribution of money in the Indiana Native American Trust, the holding account for the money collected on behalf of the state’s Native American community through the sale of “Land of the Indians” specialty license plates.

Each sale adds $25 to the fund. Dan Bastin, settlement director with the Indiana State Auditor, reports that the fund totaled $314,025.00 as of August 22, 2014.

According to state law, funds from the trust can be used for any lawful purpose the Commission chooses.

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