Honoring Nations: Brian Cladoosby: Sovereignty Today

Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development

Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby offers his perspective on what tribal sovereignty means today. He argues that the long-term sustainability of Native nations hinges on their right and ability to decide their own affairs and determine their own futures, and stresses the importance of educating federal, state and other non-Native decision-makers that tribal sovereignty is the only proven policy.

Resource Type

Cladoosby, Brian. "Sovereignty Today." Honoring Nations symposium. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 27-28, 2007. Presentation.

Megan Hill:

"We're going to move ahead to Chairman Brian Cladoosby. He is Chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community. The Swinomish Cooperative Land Use Program is a 2000 honoree, and Swinomish has also been a partner for several honorees."

Brian Cladoosby:

"Good afternoon. I'm that tribal leader that needs to rush to catch a plane at six o'clock tonight so pray that traffic is good and I get there on time. My Indian name is Spee-pots. Spee-pots. It means, in our language, 'little bear' or 'cub.' My non-Indian name is Brian Cladoosby. I'm the Chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community. I've been on the Tribal Senate for 23 years now, and I've been the Chairman for 11 years. And I've been married to the most beautiful woman in the world -- it'll be thirty years coming in March. I truly believe in commitment. People say, ‘What were you, 13, when you got married?' Yeah, it was prearranged between the Lummi Tribe and the Swinomish Tribe.

I just want to thank the [John F.] Kennedy School [of Government] for all the work they do in Indian Country, the staff that put this all together, just all the hard work getting us here -- it's just awesome. And I especially want to thank the Kennedy School for educating two of my directors that work at Swinomish, two graduates of the Kennedy School: Charlie O'Hara who's here, he runs my Planning Department; and John Petrich, he runs my Housing and Utility Department. And I will not hold the current quality of their work product against the Kennedy School. And I pray that they both paid all their tuitions in full before they left.

My tribe is small. I consider it a small tribe -- 800 members, 10,000 acres of land. We live on an island about 60 miles north of Seattle. Our people have harvested salmon and shellfish in our tidelands for as long as we've existed. That is our staple. Anything that crawls in that ocean, we probably are going to bring it home, throw it in a pot, and eat it. And many of you have probably enjoyed some of the delicacies that we have up there in the Pacific Northwest.

Now I've been asked here to talk about what sovereignty means today. I'm intrigued by the title because it seems to ask whether sovereignty today is different than sovereignty was at some other point in time. I'll come back to that question later. I almost wonder whether it is a trick question. Later, I'll describe how this question has tripped up some other leaders. Based on what others had to say about the meaning of tribal sovereignty today, I have to conclude that it probably can't be understood by those in our society who have never experienced it.

Before I prove how tricky the question of what tribal sovereignty means, I want to make an observation in the form of a short story about how inventive we Indians can be. In a roundabout way, the story speaks to our topic at hand. The story reinforces the reality that if you give Indians the resources, the time, and the opportunity to solve any problem we face, there is nothing we as tribes cannot do. Time might be a big challenge. We tend to work on a different time schedule than some of the rest of you in case you haven't noticed. But we -- our educational institutions, our children, our governments, our elders, our communities -- will find the right answer for us if given the opportunity. We'll find creative solutions to problems that have stumped others. We'll do it with less money, with fewer staff, and with less fanfare. So I want to share with you a little story about how ingenious we Indians can be.

Three Indians and three white guys are traveling by train for a big meeting at Harvard. At the station the three white guys each bought their tickets and watched as the three Indians only bought a single ticket. ‘How are you three people only going to travel on only one ticket?' asked one of the white guys. ‘Watch and you'll see,' answered an Indian. They all boarded the train. The white guys take their respective seats, but all three Indians cram into a restroom and close the door behind them. Shortly [after] the train has departed, the conductor comes around collecting tickets. He knocks on the restroom door and says, ‘Ticket please!' The door opens, just a crack, and a single arm emerges with a ticket in hand. The conductor takes it and moves on. The white guys saw this transaction and agreed that it was quite a clever idea. So after the big meeting at Harvard, the white guys decide to copy the Indians on the return trip and save some money, and they know their accounting department will be very proud of them -- being clever with money and all. When they get to the station, the three white guys buy a single ticket for the return trip. To their astonishment, the Indians buy no ticket at all. They're scratching their heads. ‘Now how are you Indians going to travel without a ticket?' says a perplexed white guy. ‘Watch, and you'll see,' answers an Indian. When they board the train the three white guys cram into a restroom, and the three Indians cram into another restroom on the other side. The train departs. Shortly afterwards, one of the Indians leaves his restroom, walks over to the restroom where the white guys are hiding, he knocks on the door and says, ‘Ticket please!'

I'll repeat my observation from earlier. If you give Indians the resources, time, and opportunities to solve any problems we face, there is nothing we can't do. That's sovereignty. We need our non-Indian friends and institutions, but the best solutions to problems in Indian Country always come from Indian Country. That's sovereignty. We've been solving problems in Indian Country for thousands of years. That's sovereignty. We'll keep solving them if our friends live up to their promises and let us take care of our own future.

As part of my reflecting on the meaning of sovereignty, I thought I would take a look at some of our partners in the federal government and see what they had to say on the topic of sovereignty. It's either concerning to us or comical, depending on your perspective. For example, in 2004, President Bush had an exchange with Seattle's own award-winning Native American journalist Mark Trahant. Mark asked President Bush, ‘Most school kids learn about government in the context of city, county, state, and federal. And of course, tribal governments are not part of that at all. Mr. President, you have been a governor and a president, so you have unique experience looking at it from two directions. What do you think tribal sovereignty means in the 21st century? And how do we resolve conflicts between tribes and the federal and state governments?' Sounds like a very intelligent Indian with a very good question to ask the President of the United States. And I'm very proud of Mark. I know him, and I'm glad we have Indians working in major newspapers. His question sounds reasonable, and the leader of the free world should be able to hit a home run on this one. And here's what the President said: ‘Tribal sovereignty. That, uh, means...it's sovereign. You're a...You're a...You have been given sovereignty. And you're viewed as a sovereign entity.' Uh, okay? This guy is clearly lost and has no idea what tribal sovereignty means. Isn't there some kind of rule against using the word you're trying to define in the definition? He's just stalling for time until he can come up with an answer. Sadly he keeps digging. He continues, ‘...And therefore the relationship between the federal government and the tribes is one between sovereign entities. Now the federal government has got a responsibility on matters like education and security to help -- and health care. And it's a solemn duty from this perspective. We must continue to uphold that duty. I think that one of the most promising areas of all is to help with economic development. And that means helping people understand what it means to start a business. That's why the Small Business Administration has increased loans. It means obviously encouraging capital flows. But none of that will happen unless the education systems flourish and are strong. That's why I told you we spent $1.1 billion in reconstruction of Native American schools.' Any benefits here, beneficiaries? So he goes on to say that SBA loans are the key to the relationship between the federal and the tribal governments. And I think, ‘Now, he can't be serious?' But maybe I'm not being fair. Mr. Bush is known for being quick on his feet, but surely, the ‘great communicator,' President Reagan, has something worthwhile to say about tribal-federal relations.

In 1988, President Reagan spoke at a Moscow state university. Apparently, some Native leaders traveled to Russia because they heard he was going to be there. And here was a question that he faced in Russia. It says, ‘Mr. President, I've heard that a group of American Indians have come here because they couldn't meet you in the United States of America. If you fail to meet with them, will you be able to correct it and meet with them back in the United States?' The question was directly not about sovereignty, but President Reagan took the opportunity to talk about the status of Native Americans generally at that time. Here's what he said after indicating that he would be willing to meet with our tribal leaders. (And I've got five minutes.) President Reagan, he says, ‘Let me tell you a little something about the American Indian in our land. We have provided millions of acres of land for what we call preservations. And others are known by reservations I should say.' I hope it was just a slip of the tongue on Mr. Reagan, but I'm sure he recovered. And he went on to say, ‘They, from the beginning, announced that they wanted to maintain their way of life as they had always lived there in the desert and in the plains and so forth. And we set up these reservations so they could -- and have a Bureau of Indian Affairs to help take care of them. At the same time, we provide education for them -- schools on the reservations -- and they're also free to leave the reservations and be American citizens among the rest of us. And many do. Some still prefer, however, that way of life, the early way of life. And we've done everything we can to meet their demands on how they want to live.' I have no idea what he's talking about here. I don't know, maybe he's seen too many John Wayne movies up to that point or played in too many John Wayne movies -- I don't know. But I'm sure he was a little confused about Americans and Indians being citizens. He goes on to make another stunning admission: ‘Maybe we made a mistake. Maybe we should not have humored them in that wanting to stay in that kind of primitive lifestyle. Maybe we should have said, ‘No, come join us. Be citizens along with the rest of us.' As I say, many have, and many have been very successful.' This statement from President Reagan in '88 was quite interesting because we became citizens of the United States in 1924 after many of our elders served in World War I, like my grandfather who was gassed over there in Europe, and many of your grandfathers, great-grandfathers. So, clearly, we as leaders have a long way to go in educating the leaders of the federal government about who we are as tribal people and tribal governments, and what sovereignty means to us.

Sadly, one has to wonder after more than 500 years of showing these folks that Indian people are fully capable of governing themselves and their territories, whether they will ever get it. In the end, our sovereignty speaks for itself. We are sovereign because we are always and have been and always will be a sovereign. In conclusion, I want to add that, how could someone understand our sovereignty whose family is not buried all around them, whose land is not rich with history and culture with thousands of years of living where we've been for time immemorial, whose fishermen know where the fish go when the tide changes in the sea and push the river back, who haven't had to overcome 500 years of exposure to a culture so blind with greed that they couldn't even see the richness of our shellfish, our salmon, our carvings, and our songs? How can they begin to understand who we are and what our sovereignty means to us? I thank my Creator everyday. I thank the leaders who came before me. They were wise in their ways that the people with whom they negotiated our treaties couldn't begin to understand. Isaac Stevens, who negotiated our treaties for the United States in 1855, and my grandfather's grandfather got on a canoe in the Swinomish Channel in the middle of winter and the river -- it was so cold the upriver tribes couldn't get out to the sound because the rivers were frozen over. They couldn't wait until the spring thaw to get our land, and so hence in 1855 in the middle of winter, my grandfather's grandfather went down to negotiate this treaty with Isaac Stevens. And he didn't understand fully how much the salmon meant to us, how it would give us strength and wisdom we needed to preserve our rights to fish, that our salmon would give us the courage to protect our opportunities for economic development fueled by gaming, that our salmon would provide us the visions to plan for a future for our children free from the scourge of drugs and alcohol. Our ancestors preserved the great blessing of the salmon for us in the Northwest and the buffalo on the plains and the sweat lodges and the pipes and the kivas and the longhouses throughout Indian Country. Our sovereignty means today what it always has meant and always will mean. Indian people know what our people need to survive and thrive. As long as we know who we are, no one can touch our sovereignty. And sadly, very few do understand what it means. If we're lucky a couple will be able to speak to those folks in D.C. in ways they can hear. Maybe one or two will let them know we're just kidding when we take the only train ticket from their outstretched hands.

To our friends at Harvard [University] and the Kennedy School, we need your partnership and collaboration for the solutions we devise to come to fruition. Thanks for standing with us. We'll help make sure that all your education doesn't get in the way of your understanding. Just give us the information we need, and we'll help chart the course. If we succeed, we'll all share in the blessing of knowing that we were part of something larger than ourselves that will reap lasting benefits for generations to come.

After this serious discussion, I'd like to leave you with a final thought: Always remember, you cannot leave footprints in the sands of life by sitting on your butt. And who wants to leave butt prints in the sands of life? God bless each and every one of you. Thank you!"

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