I was looking over the posts at Native America this morning, and thought about the vast amounts of time and money expended by Indian tribes in the last half-century to hold federal agencies like the Indian Health Service accountable. Almost without exception, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Land Management and Mineral Management Service have been proven in court to be in breach of their trust obligations, but within the U.S. bureaucracy, little seems to change.
So why, one might ask, continue to pour tribal funds into a system of justice that yields so little? The short answer is that something is better than nothing, but even that fails to take into account the matter of perspective acquired over longer time frames than isolated disputes argued in court can provide. Rather, it is as a whole that the preponderance of evidence and patterns of injustice — established through a body of law over time — that point to a need for broader, more systemic remedies. And, indeed, this has been achieved. Self-determination, environmental restoration, indigenous rights—these are happening.
But there is another facet to indigenous litigation in federal and international courts of law that is often overlooked. And that is communication. Communication changes culture, ways of thinking and acting, our customs and morality. With luck, our consciousness. Bridging the gap between indigenous and colonial cultures and consciousness is accomplished in part by making the differences clearly visible, and few venues portray them more dramatically than the courts.
So while American Indian nations may not get the attention they deserve from Congress, the White House, or the Supreme Court, their grievances made manifest as plaintiffs serve a long-term purpose. That purpose is to eclipse the culture of dominion and supplant it with a culture of mutual respect, that with good will might lead to a meaningful reconciliation. But first, we need to know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
For some, that requires being under oath.
(Jay Taber — recipient of the Defender of Democracy award — is an author, columnist, and research analyst at Public Good Project.)