2020 Campaign Trail: How to Talk about Sovereignty

For the first time in history, United States presidential candidates will hold a forum specifically focused on Native American issues

Here at Native Governance Center, we center all of our work on Tribal sovereignty. On the rare occasion when political figures decide to put Indian Country on the agenda, they apply a deficit lens and propose only surface-level solutions to centuries-old problems. We believe that it is imperative to focus on the root causes behind the issues impacting Indian Country and acknowledge the key role that Tribal sovereignty and governance play in Tribal nations’ ability to thrive.

If we were to provide candidates with a set of recommendations on how to talk about Tribal sovereignty on the campaign trail, here’s what we’d say:

  1. Tribal nations are independent, sovereign nations. The United States Constitution (Indian Commerce and Supremacy clauses) establishes this. See Why Treaties Matter for more.
  2. Native nations are resilient, despite facing widespread invisibility. They’re stronger than you think.
  3. Tribal governments that align with Native culture and values are more likely to succeed. The research proves it.
  4. Strong Tribal governments facilitate positive economic development outcomes, both within Native nations and in surrounding communities. See success stories from Honoring Nations for more.
  5. Native nations are invested in rebuilding their governments and strengthening their communities on their own terms.
  6. Tribes govern themselves with constitutions. Constitutions can be written or oral.
  7. Many Tribal constitutions are not based on Native values and governance systems that have historically worked for Native people. For example, the Indian Reorganization Act imposed non-Native constitutions on many Tribes.
  8. To succeed, Tribal “consultation” must be a truly equal partnership where both entities are heard and respected.
  9. Partnerships work. Tribal-state and Tribal-county collaboration have resulted in positive outcomes for both Native and non-Native governments.
  10. It is a mistake to ignore Native issues on the campaign trail. Candidates should address Indian Country regularly, not just at “Native” political forums. Native people notice when their concerns are tokenized.

Want to learn more? Reach out to us at hello@nativegov.org or (651) 571-0826. We’re also on the web (nativegov.org) and social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram).

You can also download a PDF of our ten points here: How to Talk about Sovereignty.

Native Nation Rebuilder: Teresa Peterson

We sat down for an interview with Cohort 8 Rebuilder Teresa Peterson (Upper Sioux Community) to learn more about her education advocacy work and her new book project, Grasshopper Girl. Teresa is actively involved across Native communities and has a long track record of building bridges between communities.

Native Governance Center (NGC): Tell us a little bit about your background, family, and community.

Teresa Peterson, Cohort 8 Rebuilder

Teresa Peterson (TP): I am Sisitowan Wahpetonwan Dakota, and I am a citizen of the Upper Sioux Community. My family resides on the bluff of the Minnesota River Valley, which is southeast of Granite Falls, or the Upper Sioux Community. I live between Upper and Lower Sioux. I speak about the land because it has significance. Where we’re at is really close to an original Dakota campsite–it’s a beautiful area.

Professionally, most of my work has been in Dakota or Native communities. I served as the Tribal Vice Chairwoman of the Upper Sioux Community back in the early 2000s. I’ve worked in both public and charter schools in service to our Native students. More recently, I served as Tribal Planner: first, at the Lower Sioux Indian Community, and then later, in my home community. Today, I continue to work in all different sectors of the Native community. And then I do quite a bit of work with foundations working in, or in service to, Native communities.

NGC: What linkages do you see, if any, between culturally-focused educational curricula and Native student success?

TP: We know from research and literature that people can learn better—you know, it’s how our brain works—when we build on experiences and who people are. Our individual and personal lens is really how we see the world. So for Native communities, it’s not just that individual, but it’s also that community lens. Our cultural ways have to be part of the learning process. To do otherwise really creates separateness and disconnect.

I’ve done some of the research around that. I had the fortune of working with Dakota Wicohan and the University of Minnesota Morris as part of my research and dissertation. We developed this curriculum, and we piloted it in a school with a high Native population. And we wanted to know, does Indigenous-developed curriculum influence a sense of belonging? That’s an actual thing you can measure—sense of belonging. And when I did the literature review on this, I noticed a lot of correlations between sense of belonging and academic success, socioemotional wellness, and health. People have to feel connected to what they’re learning about or engaged in. They have to make some sense of it. So, absolutely, there are linkages, and we know this through research.

NGC: What challenges do Native students in your community face? What are some of the most valuable assets that Native students bring to the classroom?

TP: I really think that we need to think about education differently. To me, what we really need to do is ask young people. We need to ask Native students: what is it that they need? Our education systems are antiquated. I think, innately, our Native students have understood that for a long time. How do you make it relatable? When we know what our gift, talent, or strength is, and when we have people to help support and nurture that—to me, this is what schools could be doing. Not everyone is the same, but everyone has a gift they can share, which creates interdependence. And we have to quit thinking about independence—and I know we have a lot of dependency that’s tied to our paternalistic, history with the government. That still has remnants in our community. But how do we get to that place that really nurtures interdependence, so we all work together really well? When we strengthen that gift that the creator has bestowed upon each one of us, that’s when our community will live well and be more in balance.

NGC: What advice do you have for someone who is just starting out in the field of education and hoping to make an impact?

TP: I think one thing that has helped me is to really listen to young people. Spend some time listening to them. [During my research], we found out that our system of teacher training models is a setup. Because people then think that they have to be the expert. And then, we have a lot of teachers that go through the training and still don’t feel confident teaching the material. And so then they just choose not to do it. So, I feel like, coming into the field and knowing that your role is not to be the expert. And not to dump all of this knowledge into young people. But rather, how can we light a passion for learning in young people? How can we light that fire for them?

NGC: Would you like to add any additional information to this interview?

TP: Tom and Betsy Peacock started Black Bears and Blueberries publishing company. They wanted to create a space for emerging Dakota and Anishinaabe writers and illustrators. [My book] Grasshopper Girl is one of the first books they published. I mean, literally, it just got published maybe two months ago. So, the book is a story within a story. The story has a Dakota trickster in there. And it’s a story my mother heard growing up. And my grandpa heard growing up. My dissertation is all about storytelling, right? And sense of belonging. And so, to me, when we know who we are and where we come from, no matter where we go, we belong. That’s kind of the path I’ve been on is learning more about my ancestral stories because they impact who you are.

Youth Perspective: Colten Birkland

Colten Birkland is the Vice Chair of the Turtle Mountain Youth Council. He participated in the pilot year of our Youth Rebuilders program during summer 2018.

Having Native youth in media is more important than you may know. There are many Native youth across Native nations who feel like their voices will never be heard, or their ideas don’t matter. Through social media, I have found a way to share my voice, and I could not be more grateful.

Colten Birkland (l)

As a Native youth leader in my community, media has given me an outlet to share my experiences and accomplishments with my Tribe. It has allowed me to shed light on the amazing things that do happen on my reservation. There are countless times where youth have asked questions that I have been able to answer through media, giving them a voice to be heard. I am forever grateful for the opportunity and voice I have been given through media.

This article was originally published in our Spring 2019 print newsletter. Sign up to receive the print newsletter in your mailbox twice a year! 

2018 Community Report

Celebrating Warrior Women

Warrior Women, a film directed by Christina King (Seminole) and Elizabeth Castle (Pekowi Band of Shawnee), provides an intimate look into the struggle for Native rights during the American Indian Movement and beyond. Weaving together narratives provided by the powerful mother-daughter duo Madonna Thunderhawk and Marcella Gilbert, Warrior Women documents the key role that Native women have played—and continue to play—in Indigenous-led activist movements.

On March 1, 2019, Warrior Women premiered in Minneapolis as part of INDIgenesis: GEN2, a four-week Native film series, which was held by The Walker Art Center in partnership with director/producer Missy Whiteman (Northern Arapaho and Kickapoo). Missy curated the series with the goal of supporting Native directors and reshaping Native representations in film. She explains, “We specifically want to support Native directors. And tell stories that really show what our successes are in Indian Country. Because film can also tell this story, this narrative, of, you know, you’re desolate, you’re drunk, you’re all of these negative things. And there’s a savior that at some point comes in. Instead of us saving ourselves. That’s really the narrative we need to start telling.”

As part of her curation, Missy worked to make INDIgenesis accessible to the Minneapolis American Indian community. To illustrate, she arranged free childcare and shuttle busses from the American Indian corridor during the Warrior Women screening. Native Governance Center first developed a partnership with Missy Whiteman back in fall 2018: we collaborated with her to produce a series of shorts for broadcast on TPT – Twin Cities PBS. This partnership led us to host a reception prior to the Warrior Women screening to honor Marcella Gilbert, Madonna Thunderhawk, and other Native women activists featured in the film. The reception held special significance to us because Marcella is a Cohort 5 Native Nation Rebuilder.

Missy said the following about the Warrior Women reception and screening: “That night to me was so powerful—it was so successful. I look back, and that’s really where I thought people felt included. It felt like, this is for Native women. And for women. And families. Everyone walked away feeling like they learned something, and now they belonged to something.”

The women of Warrior Women have made incredible contributions to the nation building movement, and we are honored to help celebrate them.


This article was originally published in our Spring 2019 print newsletter. Sign up to receive the print newsletter in your mailbox twice a year! 

Empowerment through Social Media

Cohort 8 Rebuilder Jacob Davis (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians) harnesses the power of social media to get things done. As the Tribal Programming Director for Prevent Child Abuse North Dakota (PCAND), he uses digital advocacy tools to build a network of supporters with a shared vision for improving the lives of Indigenous people. Jacob explains, “Social media is essential in the digital world and provides us with an access point to create conversations within a large population of people.”

Photo of Jacob DavisIn 2016, PCAND offered Jacob the chance to create a new position within the organization. He developed a position focused on providing Indigenous families with community-driven resources. As Tribal Programming Director, he works with three of the four Native nations in North Dakota to empower Indigenous children, families, and communities to thrive.

Jacob sees interconnections between his specific focus area and broader issues, including food sovereignty, economic development, and trauma. As such, he appreciates that his work allows him to incorporate several of his passions into his day-to-day responsibilities and online advocacy campaigns.

He also believes strongly in the need for the presence of Native voices in the social media realm; initiatives succeed when Indigenous voices tell Indigenous stories. “To give a story justice, it has to be shared from a personal perspective,” Jacob states. “In order to bring truth to the message, it has to come from the voice of the people that it impacts.”

Jacob is a skilled digital communicator, but his work does not come without challenges. He admits that he oftentimes encounters “crabs in the bucket”-type lateral violence in online spaces. This happens when individuals direct attacks toward fellow community members working toward the same goal, rather than at the actual source of their oppression. Jacob notes, “Creating messages that cannot being taken out of context has been the hardest part of utilizing social media. Being aware of the potential for lateral violence has to be a critical part of the process.”

Despite these challenges, Jacob has hope for the future of the digital world. He encourages young people to use social media to highlight their accomplishments and struggles. This can help them gain experience with best practices for navigating the exciting, yet challenging, social media realm. In addition, he urges young people to seek out support and guidance for when the going gets tough: “Please know that surrounding yourself with people that believe in you is the most important building block of success.”

This article was originally published in our Spring 2019 print newsletter. Sign up to receive the print newsletter in your mailbox twice a year! 

Telling Our Own Stories: Rebuilder Vi Waln

Cohort 7 Rebuilder Vi Waln (Sicangu Lakota) is Editor-In-Chief for the Lakota Times, an award-winning, Native-owned newspaper that operates out of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. We interviewed Vi to learn more about her role with the Lakota Times and her advocacy for more Native voices in the media.

Native Governance Center: Tell us a little bit about your background, family, and community.

Vi Waln: I am a Sicangu Lakota Tribal citizen, otherwise known as the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. I grew up on the Rosebud Reservation here in South Dakota. Today, I live in the He Dog community where I was raised. My community is named after Chief He Dog. I have a bachelor’s degree in Lakota Studies from Sinte Gleska University and a Master’s in Mass Communication from South Dakota State University.

NGC: What makes the Lakota Times stand out from other media outlets?

Photo of Vi WalnVW: The Lakota Times has been in circulation for fifteen years. I think we stand out because the majority of our writers are Lakota. Our main focus with the paper is our young people. And we try to showcase them as much as we can every week. Connie Smith, the paper’s owner, and I have had conversations about how we want this newspaper to be positive. And we’ve taken criticism for it. But we will run the positive stories before the negative stories. Because you could pick up any paper in the country and read all about the negative things happening. You can look on the internet and see all the negative news. Go on social media, look on TV—the majority of it is bad. So we want to focus on positive things.

NGC: Why do you believe it’s important to have Native representation in the media?

VW: Well, I believe we have to tell our own stories as Native people. Most of our Tribes come from an oral tradition ancestry. But we have to be willing to evolve with the times. I see many non-Indian journalists out there attempting to write about the Lakota. And when I call them out on it—sometimes, they’re offended when I tell them that a Native person should be writing those stories. But, I continue to advocate for Native writers to write our stories. We’re the only ones who can offer a true perspective on our communities.

NGC: Do you see a link between your current work and nation building?

VW: My work is definitely linked to nation building. Columns I write every week address issues that our people are facing on our reservations. So, I always come to the computer thinking, if I can affect change through my writing, then all my hard work has paid off. If one person changes their behavior for the good after reading a column I wrote, then I believe that’s nation building.

This article was originally published in our Spring 2019 print newsletter. Sign up to receive the print newsletter in your mailbox twice a year! 

New Team Member at Native Governance Center

We’re excited to announce that the team at Native Governance Center is growing! Please help us welcome Jessa Boyer to the team as our new Executive Office & Events Coordinator.

Watch our new video