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Six Solutions That Support Native Sovereignty — From Tribal Schooling to Bison Herds

Florida’s Miccosukee is the first tribe allowed to run its own school, where students fully participate in family and cultural activities.

This article is part of Yes! Magazine’s state-by-state exploration of local solutions.


In the Alaskan village of Kwigillingok, a group of volunteers has found a way to keep children out of foster care.

When the Child Protection Team first started 20 years ago, cases of child abuse and neglect in the village of around 300 people resulted in the removal of 10 to 15 kids each year. “These kids were being adopted out, and their tribal ties were cut,” says Lillian Kiunya, one of the founding team members. “The tribe wanted to prevent that, so we knew we had to work with the families.”

The team does this through early intervention by educating parents on the effects and prevention of neglect and abuse; hosting annual workshops and conferences for the community; and helping parents find housing or work. They also have argued on behalf of families in parental rights cases to demonstrate village support.

Kiunya believes community is key to the team’s success. Because team members have the same background and speak the same language, families see them as a source of support, not punishment. “It gives families involved a sense of security to know that there are resources [like us] in the community,” she says.Araz Hachadourian


Everglade ecosystems, tribal language, and American history that predates Christopher Columbus are all part of a new curriculum at Miccosukee Indian School.

Last year, the school was granted a waiver allowing more flexibility from No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requirements. The process took five years of appeals to the Department of Education and grew from a strong concern among tribal leaders that the standards of NCLB would not work for their 150-student school.

Principal Manuel Varela says the issue was twofold. On the technical side, NCLB’s focus on statewide tests wouldn’t accurately reflect students’ proficiency or the quality of education, and could undermine the community’s values. Miccosukee Indian School’s noncompulsory attendance — allowing students to fully participate in family and tribal activities — means the student population is constantly shifting and difficult to capture on standardized tests. On the cultural side, abiding by state standards would prevent the school from building curriculum for core subjects around the tribe’s culture, history, and geography. “It came down to an issue of sovereignty,” explains Varela. “We have a different reality as far as where we are and who the Miccosukee are.”

The new curriculum includes subjects specific to the tribe and implements an assessment system tailored to the needs of the students. Project-based portfolios allow students to show proficiency through other means, like art and technology. The school provides tutoring and support for students who miss school for family or cultural reasons. And the community focus helps build relationships between teachers and students, says Varela, which means they are better positioned to close the achievement gap that exists between Native and non-Native students.

Miccosukee Indian School was the first Native American school to receive a waiver from NCLB, and Varela says he has received requests from tribes around the country to help them develop their own curricula.Araz Hachadourian


The uninhabited island of Kaho’olawe sits an hour’s boat ride off the coast of Maui. Each month, groups of volunteers travel there to clear trails, plant new vegetation, and learn about the island’s historic sites — all while sidestepping the unexploded ordnance that lies under 67 percent of the island’s hardened, red surface.

The explosives are remnants of the nearly five decades Kaho’olawe was used for bombing practice by the US Navy after Pearl Harbor. The island was once a sacred site where Native Hawai’ians would go to study ocean navigation, but the Navy’s seizure turned it into a symbol of Hawai’ian pride and identity. It wasn’t until after 1976, when a group of young activists from around the state formed Protect Kaho’olawe ‘Ohana to stage an occupation and sue the military, that Hawai’ians were eventually allowed back on the land. It took until 1994 for the deed of ownership to be handed back to the state.

Now Hawai’ians want to restore the land to what it once was: a place of learning. That means planting native species and rebuilding the ecosystem while incorporating tradition and spiritual practice. Facilitated by the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC), volunteers participate in ceremonies and are taught quintessential Hawai’ian practices, such as assembling fish traps and making poi.

“We’re not restoring the land for the sake of biodiversity or to create a national park,” says Michael Naho’opi’i, executive director of the KIRC. “We are trying to create an ecosystem that is supportive of traditional Hawai’ian practices.”

It’s not a simple process. Much of the island has no topsoil, so erosion is a constant battle. Invasive species flourish, leaving volunteers to create a habitat from scratch. And the presence of explosives means only a small portion of the land can be worked on at a time.

Naho’opi’i and those involved recognize restoration will take generations, but they believe that Kaho’olawe has something to teach the rest of the world. “It’s a model for taking war-torn properties and reutilizing [them] for modern purposes,” says Naho’opi’i. “If we can restore the most damaged place, we can restore anything.”Araz Hachadourian

South Dakota

The Oglala Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation might seem a surprising spot for an economic renaissance: It sprawls nearly 3 million acres between the Black Hills and the Badlands. There, the unemployment rate is more than 50 percent, and the average annual income is a little more than $4,000. But a growing movement of locals is looking to traditional Lakota values to build an economic future.

In 2007, local residents formed the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation to address the community’s poverty, lack of infrastructure, and health crises — starting with housing. Pine Ridge has few vacant units, and those looking to rent or buy must often take their money off-reservation: More than half of the 2,000 people employed on Pine Ridge live elsewhere.

“There’s actually a lot of dollars that come through the reservation, but it’s a question of how to make sure those dollars turn over more than once,” said Cecily Engelhart, communications director of TVCDC. “We’re trying to create that system here so that all the things people need are local.”

Supported in part by federal funding, one of Thunder Valley’s main projects is a “regenerative community” — a planned, net-zero neighborhood of green, affordable housing designed through a community feedback process. Because interested residents wanted a neighborhood layout that reflected Lakota values, for example, circular streets were designed to mimic traditional Lakota settlements. Construction on the first houses is set to begin in the next year, with four future homeowners signed on to help build them together. By contributing their labor, they’ll gain equity in their houses. Also underway is a training program for sustainable construction that teaches young, mostly Native workers sustainable construction skills.

The project, though in its early stages, has received attention for its promise, including from President Obama, who praised its approach to boosting affordable housing, clean energy, and small businesses.

“No one’s going to care about our community as much as we do,” Engelhart said. “So we are the ones who have to take ownership.”Christa Hillstrom


Growing up in San Juan County, Utah, Tommy Rock often felt the county was divided. Police were too far away and took hours to respond to emergency calls in Navajo communities; the nearest high school was 80 miles away; and when people in his community stood up for change, they got nowhere. “It’s unfair,” says Rock. “We need to be heard.”

San Juan County, located in southeastern Utah, is more than 50 percent Navajo, but its elected officials don’t reflect the population. That’s because San Juan County is divided into three county commission districts, each with one representative. The population of District 3 is more than 90 percent Navajo, while the population of the other two districts hovers just below 30 percent Navajo. This makes it highly unlikely that there would ever be more than one council member who had received a majority of the Navajo vote.

In 2012, Rock, five other Navajo, and the Navajo Nation filed a lawsuit alleging racial gerrymandering — that is, manipulation of voting district boundaries so as to pack a single ethnic group into one district. When the boundaries of districts 1 and 2 were redrawn in 2011, District 3 maintained its 25-year-old boundaries encompassing 60 percent of the county’s Native American population. The lawsuit argued that the redistricting violated the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, which addresses citizenship and equal protection.

In his February ruling, Judge Robert J. Shelby agreed, calling the boundaries unconstitutional and a violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Shelby ordered that the county redraw its districts, though the new boundaries won’t go into effect until after the 2016 election. Leonard Gorman, executive director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, says that while new districts don’t necessarily mean more representation, they at least make it possible. Araz Hachadourian


The Wind River Indian Reservation will soon be home to a herd of bison for the first time since its creation in 1868.

The Eastern Shoshone tribe has been working to bring back bison for 45 years in an effort to restore indigenous species, says Jason Baldes, director of the Wind River Native Advocacy Center. An estimated 30 million to 60 million bison once roamed the Plains, but their population now hovers at 15,000. Most live in national parks under the custody of the US government, and some carry a bacterial disease called brucellosis, which can infect cattle. Finding land where the animals would be welcome has taken time, but the tribe has arranged to receive a small herd of healthy animals from Yellowstone National Park.

For the Eastern Shoshone, the return of the bison is about restoring the Great Plains ecosystem and reviving an important part of the tribe’s culture and spiritual practices. “Being able to manage that species again allows for not only ecological restoration, but cultural revival. The two go hand in hand,” says Baldes.—Araz Hachadourian

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