By Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk
When current US Rep. Claudia Tenney began her campaign for national office there was hope among many Native people that she would become an advocate for those concerned about the lack of human rights on tribal territory.
Most Americans would be appalled to learn that the Bill of Rights, those entrenched freedoms for which many have died to protect, are not applicable to Native peoples residing on lands designated as “Indian Country” by the US federal government.
This means the right to free speech, to peaceably assemble, to a free press, to bear arms, to an impartial jury or to be secure in their homes-none of these are of concern to despotic tribal governments since they are not considered a part of the US justice system.
In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Indian Civil Rights Act which was meant to have the Bill of Rights extended to Native territory but the lack of enforcement procedures largely nullified that statute.
When a group of Oneidas tried to revive and install a governing entity based upon Iroquois traditional law they were severely punished by the current regime which resulted in legal proceedings in the US federal courts. It ultimately ruled that the ICRA was basically toothless and any violations of human rights had to be adjudicated in tribal courts which were then, and are now, controlled by tribal councils.
The case of local significance was Shenandoah v. Halbritter, in which the Oneidas claimed that the self-described “CEO” and “nation-representative” had assumed complete control over the Oneida people and had severed the membership of any Oneida seen talking to the media, in the company of “Canadians,” or otherwise engaged in acts of what the CEO determined to be dissent.
Key to the issue is the status of the Oneidas and whether they may be denied citizenship for advocating for a more democratic government. Their request before the US courts to have their ancient freedoms protected was rejected in part because the Indian Civil Rights Act cannot be enforced. So many Oneidas “lost their voice” and have, since 1995 been denied all “benefits” available to those who were compliant. Once the current Oneida Nation of NY was ruled to have the sovereign rights over who, and who is not, an Oneida the suspensions began and were replicated across the US where thousands of Natives also suffered the same fate at the hands of vindictive administrations.
Perhaps, some reasoned, Claudia Tenney would lead the charge to protect the human rights of the Oneidas; maybe her outspoken defense of the Bill of Rights, including the 2nd amendment, would be translated into legislation which would make the ICRA enforceable. Maybe Ms. Tenney would insist on a forensic audit of the gambling activities at the Turning Stone Casino, to ensure the profits went directly to those areas of greatest need as was the intent of the National Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. A full public accounting for every dime spent using the status of the Oneida people should be published as is the case most other Native nations which have commercial gambling.
Ms. Tenney was a known opponent of the current regime at Oneida. She had made her displeasure widely known with regards for how things were in Oneida. She accepted the job of representing the Marble Hill Oneidas who rejected the current regime as having any control over their territory.
Yet Rep. Tenney has been in office for over 18 months and has done nothing to address the human rights violations right here in central New York. She has shied away from her former stance and remains silent on the restoration of a democratic, traditional council among the Oneidas. This is not how she was elected which was, in part, because of her willingness to address these issues and to take on the Oneida “CEO”.
There are other areas in which Rep. Tenney’s voting records contrasts sharply with the ancestral values of the Oneidas. She is adamantly opposed to a women’s right to control her own body as evidenced by her support for stringent anti-abortion rules. As is true with all Iroquois, a woman has the freedom under traditional customs, to complete self-determination which includes reproduction and pregnancy. No man, and certainly no government mostly composed of men, have any authority to dictate to an Iroquois-Oneida woman what she must do with that body. Ms. Tenney clearly believes otherwise.
There is another issue of divergence and that is the environment. Traditional Iroquois-Oneida laws and beliefs stress the need to respect the rights of other species including the earth itself. No person or entity has the power to destroy the earth. Every legislative, economic or social act must take into consideration the rights of those yet unborn, to ensure our children unto the seventh generation have access to clean water, clean air, and fertile lands. Rep. Tenney’s voting record clearly shows she is no friend of the natural world and that the pursuit of power and wealth by an entrenched elite, regardless of the consequences to her own descendants, is of greater importance.
The consequences of her decisions are now having powerful ramifications across the planet as the climate undergoes radical changes. One would think that any federal representative would take aggressive steps to protect their people but not in this instance.
For one who was once bold and outspoken, unafraid to take on the powerful in defense of those who are vulnerable, Rep. Tenney has proven to be timid and a mere follower, one whose voice is lost in the chorus of screeching partisan politics.