Native Tribes Fight for Equality Ahead of 2016 Election

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Traditional dancers of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska and Iowa.

Vernon Miller knows the challenges facing the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe first hand. He’s the chairman of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska and Iowa, and went out this summer to stand in solidarity with the tribe as it protests the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

“I, as well as two other members of the Omaha Tribe, went out there,” he says. “We went up there and prayed with them and offered what we could. ... We do care about what’s going on. The Missouri River comes through our reservation and what happens there is definitely going to impact us. Water is very sacred and we value water; myself, my clan. I come from the Thunder Clan, so water is something that’s very important to me, not only from a personal level but from a very spiritual level as well.”

Related: Indigenous People Fight Back with #NativeLivesMatter Movement

The Omaha Tribe of Nebraska and Iowa sits in Thurston County, Nebraska — a place identified by the American Communities Project (ACP) as “Native American Lands.” It’s one of 15 different community types the ACP has identified based on different demographics.

About 43 counties across the United States are considered “Native American Lands” by the ACP. These counties have large Native populations — more than half the people who live in these counties are indigenous Americans. According to the US Census Bureau, about 56.1 percent of people in Thurston County are Native.

As the 2016 election nears its end, we have been talking with voters in each community type to get a sense of the issues affecting people where they live. For Miller, 39, the issue of sovereignty is top of mind for Native people around the country, and within the Omaha Tribe, which is headquartered in Macy, in Thurston County.

“Our tribe came under a microscope last year,” he says. “[The town of] Pender, being non-native, they challenged their village being on the reservation because they’re predominantly white. They felt that there is no ‘Indian character’ here and there is no ‘Indian presence’ here, more specifically an Omaha [tribal] presence there, so as a result of that they don’t want to be considered on the reservation.”

After the Omaha Tribe enacted an ordinance to regulate and tax the sale of alcohol within its reservation, Pender residents said the community should not be considered part of tribal lands. They took the issue to tribal court, which ruled that, despite the town’s racial and ethnic makeup, the community is on the reservation and subject to tribal tax and regulation.

“They didn’t like that ruling, so they appealed to the next level — the state district court — which also ruled simultaneously in agreement with the tribe,” Miller says.

The town of Pender appealed again, and the state of Nebraska got involved and took the case to the US Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, which ruled in favor of the tribe. The case was appealed to the US Supreme Court, which heard arguments in January.  

“This case itself was really an important case for Indian Country because there are several reservations that have border towns like Pender that are predominantly white — they sit on the reservation or maybe they sit right on the edge,” Miller says. “If the Supreme Court ruled on the side of the state and the village, that’s really a landmark decision to have and would really set precedent for Indian law.”

This was the last case Justice Antonin Scalia heard before he died in February. A month after his death, the eight remaining justices of the Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling in favor of the tribe. With the ruling, the justices sent a clear message: “Only an act of Congress can diminish the reservation boundaries,” Miller says.

“That was a monumental decision, at that level, on behalf of Indian Country — it really just further vindicated what we’ve been saying,” Miller adds. “That case itself was truly a landmark decision, and is going to be a case that’s often referred to. There’s two other tribes dealing with similar issues.”

Though the question of Native sovereignty is gaining national attention with the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, Miller — the youngest chairman ever elected to the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska and Iowa — says it’s just one issue plaguing indigenous communities.

According to a 2014 White House report on Native youth, “the American Indian/Alaskan Native high school graduation rate is 67 percent, the lowest of any racial/ethnic demographic group across all schools.” Miller was a teacher at Omaha Nation Public Schools for eight years before joining the tribal council, and says that education is a persistent problem.

“The community is getting a lot younger — 50 percent of the Omaha Tribe is 18 years of age or younger,” he says. “I really believe [education is] the foundation of a community.”

While college attendance rates among high school graduates are on the rise for the Omaha Tribe, Miller says that the local educational system continues to see a number of challenges. For starters, the system for funding area schools is lacking.

“You see some funding disparities — for education and schools, [funding is] based off property taxes,” he says. “On reservations, since you can’t assess a property tax, there really is a disparity in how schools are funded.”

Back in 2005 when Miller started as a student-teacher at the Omaha Nation Public Schools, he says he saw how funding disparities played out in the classroom.

“When I came here as a business teacher, one of the courses that you obviously teach is teaching our students computer applications or information technology classes — like teaching our students how to use Microsoft Word, Excel [and] PowerPoint,” he says. “But unfortunately, we didn’t have any computers when I became a student teacher here.”

Miller adds that it was “very commonplace” to have textbooks in the school that were 10, 15, or sometimes 20 years old.

“And it wasn’t uncommon to only have a couple in the classroom,” he adds.

While he was a teacher, Miller reached out to universities and other schools to get computers and textbooks donated. But he says things have improved — the district, which is run by the state of Nebraska, not the tribe — is now able to access its IMPACT aid funding from the federal government, which supplements communities that have issues with property tax funding, like towns with federal military bases.

Previously, under state law, the school district had to put much of this funding into a reserve account.

“Unfortunately, because of that lack of funding, the four native schools [on the reservation] are actually the lowest performing schools in Nebraska,” he says. “Now with these renewed resources and the ability to spend more, hopefully we can see a change.”

Miller hopes the school district can also come to represent its students better — most teachers in the Omaha Nation Public Schools are non-native.

“I always promote the profession of education because I don’t see any reason why our schools and the staff that are there aren’t truly reflective of our student body,” he says.

With elder tribal members growing older, Miller says the community is struggling with the loss of its language. To combat this, public schools located on the reservation offer the Omaha language for students who must fulfill foreign language requirements.

“We really want to emphasize that that is an important language that needs to be maintained and sustained,” he says. “The tribal college on our reservation, they teach the language — four years of it. … That’s something that we want to make sure that we are constantly reinforcing.”

With the tribe growing younger, Miller would also like to see a renewed focus on the next generation, especially as the community deals with issues like juvenile crime, truancy and suicide.

“I really want to start a mentoring program and start a youth council so that we can be addressing some of these youth issues from their perspective and through only the lens that they can bring to that discussion,” he says.