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Tribal Civics



I am reading through a transcript of an interview with Daniel F. Decker. He is a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, an attorney, a rancher, my brother-cousin, and an expert in federal Indian law. I would venture to say he has spent more time in court with our 1855 Treaty of Hell Gate than anyone else who has come or gone through our tribes’ legal department.


I requested an interview from him for a Tribal Civics project I am working on for my tribes’ education department. With his deep knowledge of our tribes’ legal history with our treaty, I thought it would be both informative and inspiring for young people. This history demonstrates our people's tenacious and remarkable ability to take action that ensures our survival into the future as Salish, Pend d’Oreille, and Kootenai people.



He began his interview with these words, “The story that I am telling you is a story of sovereignty.” For the next hour and a half, he provided specific stories depicting our exercise of sovereignty in litigation and court cases at both a state and federal level. It was inspiring. From the treaty negotiation in 1855 when our ancestors persisted to retain a slice of our aboriginal territory for a permanent tribal homeland for our people to holding the state and federal government’s feet to the fire to honor the promises given in those negotiations. He quoted Justice Hugo Black, “Great nations like great men, should keep their word.” He repeated Article VI of the U.S. Constitution that declares treaty law “the supreme law of the land.”




As I got to the end and reviewed several other interviews for the project, I realized that this story is also a love story. It is a story of a people’s fierce love for each other and for their land.



My hope is that the young people in my community listen to the interviews and talk with their families about all that is good about our people, all that is brilliant, and all that is remarkable. Too often we hear the other stories. Another of the interviewees for this project was Jennifer Finley, an award-winning poet and tribal council member. Jennifer said, “If I inherit historical trauma, I also inherit the magic of my ancestors. I also inherit their medicine, and their goodness and their beauty and their intelligence—all those things that allowed them to endure—I inherit that too.”


"If I inherit historical trauma, I also inherit the magic of my ancestors. I also inherit their medicine, and their goodness and their beauty and their intelligence—all those things that allowed them to endure—I inherit that too."

That is the love story that I hope young people keep in their hearts. Gwich’in author Velma Wallis told me, “Our stories will help us survive.”




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