School board member Henden questions tribal sovereignty

POULSBO – America’s indigenous nations or tribes have a special relationship with the United States.

Earlier indigenous leaders signed treaties with the United States, making available land for non-Native settlement and reserving for their descendants land and certain rights. Article IV of the U.S. Constitution states “all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby …”

Those early indigenous leaders never gave up their peoples’ right of self-government and self-determination, or sovereignty, and today’s indigenous nations or tribes are recognized by the U.S. as sovereign, though domestic dependent, nations.

But North Kitsap School Board member Scott Henden said he can't accept the Suquamish Tribe’s sovereignty. And his views contributed to the postponement Nov. 8 of an interagency agreement regarding the Suquamish Tribe’s Chief Kitsap Academy, a school that offers the district’s Native students culturally based classes for which they can earn college credit.

The agreement is between the Tribe, which operates the school; the school district, which shares students and resources with the academy; and Olympic College, which awards credit for classes taken.

Henden expressed concern about language in the agreement referring to Suquamish as a “sovereign nation.” He also expressed concern about a reference to Suquamish’s “sovereign immunity,” which relates to a tribal government’s immunity against many lawsuits unless immunity is waived by the Tribe or Congress abrogates it.

Henden first asked for a definition of sovereignty. “I know that’s something important to them. I’d like to know what that means in more detail … I’m not sure I understand the words they’re using. When they talk about sovereignty, what do they mean there? I really want to know, and what are we teaching our kids?” After some discussion, he stated, “I need to do some reading of my own. I guess I want to understand the issue better.” But then he went on to detail his views of sovereignty.

“I understand they are federally recognized. I understand the, at least in part, the issue of Native abuse over the years. I won’t say I understand it totally by any means, but at least in part I understand some of their issues,” Henden said. “I have a problem understanding [in] any kind of English where those words go together and it means what we have. I don’t see them as a sovereign nation. Norway is a sovereign nation. And I don’t see why we need to agree to that so that we can have a contract with them.

“If they are a sovereign nation, they’re self-sufficient, they’re self-funded, they’re self-protected and there are some things that go with it, at least in my mind. If somebody can give me something other than that in the dictionary that shows that putting those two words together means what we have, I’d be glad to see it.

“They’re federally recognized, they have some immunity to govern themselves and those kind of things, I agree with that, but I can’t agree that they’re a sovereign nation. I’m not willing to do that.” He added, “If we want to say, ‘We recognize you’re [a] federally registered tribe,’ or something like that, I don’t have a problem. But I wouldn’t approve this contract with that language in there the way it reads.”

Superintendent Patty Page advised Henden, “They are recognized as a sovereign nation,” to which Henden replied, “I cannot put those two words together by any kind of reasonable definition and say this fits. I mean, it doesn’t work for me. So, if a part of this thing is we have to include that, can we just include anything we want about their abilities or past? This isn’t part of this agreement. This is politics. Let’s leave the politics out of it. If we want to provide a program for Native kids to learn, that’s great. I’m totally in favor of that. I’m not in the politics side.”

The board asked Page to revisit the contract. Board members wanted a change to a severability clause to allow either party to end the contract with 60 days’ notice; removal of some boilerplate language that states the contract was negotiated and signed on the Port Madison Indian Reservation; and to ask the Suquamish Tribe if the sovereign immunity clause was necessary. The school board is scheduled to vote again on the contract Thursday.

School board President Dan Weedin said the issue of sovereignty and sovereign immunity should not be “a deal breaker,” noting that the contract does not cost the district money and is “something that is good for kids.”

Henden responded, “Here’s why it’s important to me. They have these things where they’ll put one student in a classroom, and they’ll change some data and one student will not know that everybody else has agreed to agree to something that is not true. And in my mind, this statement is not true. And it would be against my morals to say something is true and agree to it in a contract, and know very well it’s not, for me.”

Weedin defended Suquamish’s sovereignty, saying, “It is true, based on what the federal government has said. The federal government has acknowledged that the Suquamish Tribe is a sovereign nation. If you want to disagree with what their definition is, that’s fine, but the federal government has stated this, so I guess I’m thinking it’s true.”

Henden: “The federal government spends 16 billion dollars — trillion dollars – that they don’t have, so -- .”

Weedin: “That has nothing to do with them defining something. You can go off on a whole lot of tangents on the government, but what they’ve done is they’ve defined it and said it’s a sovereign nation, so whether they spend money that they don’t have has nothing to do with this.”

Henden: “It might have something to do with their judgment.”

Weedin: “We’re not making judgments on their judgment. We’re talking about what is law.”

Suquamish Chairman Leonard Forsman said Washington’s tribal governments have long been committed to curriculum that educates students about indigenous history, the treaties and the Constitution. In 2005, the state Legislature approved HB 1495, which strongly encourages school districts to adopt and teach tribal history and sovereignty in public schools.

“I think what is disconcerting to the Tribe is that a simplistic approach to describing tribal sovereignty was demonstrated,” Forsman said of the Nov. 8 board meeting. “It’s a complex issue. Trying to simplify it doesn’t do the subject much justice. That’s why the Tribes have been so committed to curriculum about our trust relationship, the Constitution and our treaties.”

Forsman said he wants to “try to move on with the business of providing good education and maintaining the good relationship we’ve had in the past” with the school district.

Page said the Tribe has had sovereignty training with the school district in the past, and both have had a good relationship. The school board and the Tribe have a joint meeting annually. The board has a liaison to the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe and the Suquamish Tribe, and the district has a Native American education program that includes education specialists, tribal liaisons and an education committee of parents.

The Port Gamble S’Klallam reservation and Port Madison, or Suquamish, reservation are located within the North Kitsap School District. Some 6.7 percent of students in the district are Native American, according to the district's website.

Page said Henden is entitled to exercise his right of free speech as a board member, but added that his comments “are not necessarily a board opinion.”

The board's discussion can be viewed at Click on November 8 video. The discussion starts at 57:43.


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