Native Americans have a unique experience as the indigenous people of North America, retaining a devoted connection to land, generation after generation. Michael Johnson, Assistant Director of Development for the Native American Rights Fund joins Robert Traynham for a discussion on preserving tribal existence, protecting natural resources and promoting human rights for indigenous peoples. Click here for part 1 of Tribal Existence and Land.
Interview recorded October 11, 2017. Hosted by Robert Traynham.
Read a partial transcript of this interview below:
Robert Traynham: Walk me through specifically some of the other programs that you work on on behalf of the Fund.
Michael Johnson: Well, thank you. The Native American Rights Fund, as I mentioned, is the oldest legal service organization for Indian Country. We were incorporated in 1970 by our founding and current Executive Director, John EchoHawk, and some amazing investors from private philanthropy [00:03:00] helped us get started. We have a five-priority mission that starts with preserving tribal existence, helping secure land bases and the resources necessary for our tribal nations to live in ways that are congruent with their attitudes. The second is to help protect natural resources in tribal land, so this has to do with leasing or extractive industries and helping mitigate those impacts in our home communities. Our third priority is to help advocate and promote human rights for indigenous peoples, both domestically and [00:03:30] across the world, so we’re very active with the United Nations, the Indigenous Peoples Cohort on climate change, and working through those international mechanisms.
Our fourth priority area is to help hold governments accountable to Indians, and basically this is working through the federal government, and sometimes state governments, to make sure that our treaty rights are honored, and in those treaties that we signed in the past, and all of our ancestors agreed to, that they’re being maintained and a level of service is being provided for contemporary Indians today. Our [00:04:00] fifth priority is to help promote the knowledge of Indian law to the general public and have conversations like we’re doing today.
Robert Traynham: Well, and I want to focus on the fifth thing, because I think that’s … Well, it’s all very important, but the one thing that I, and correct me if I’m wrong here, I’m not sure we, as an American culture, have the right perspective and understanding of the unique history of the Native American experience. Is that fair? Let me pause there for a moment.
Michael Johnson: Yeah, I think it is. I think for a long time, a lot of the mainstream messaging in this country has been [00:04:30] that of a melting pot, and the immigrants coming to this culture, and celebrating what this new thing of America is. Unfortunately, that has come at the cost of invisibilizing the first peoples of this country and putting us in-
Robert Traynham: Who did not immigrate. They were here, you were here before anyone else, technically.
Michael Johnson: We all have things that we kind of [inaudible 00:04:50] call origin stories, and most of our origin stories have our ancestors coming from dream worlds into this place that we call Turtle Island, which is North America.
Robert Traynham: How do we raise the awareness about what you just [00:05:00] said, Michael? Is it through the organization that you represent? What else can we be doing as a society to raise the awareness?
Michael Johnson: It’s an amazing thing. Native Americans are regular people, just like other Americans, and we’re your neighbors. We’re your coworkers. We’re your bus drivers. We’re your management team. And so in a lot of ways, we exist in this country just like everybody else, but we have a certain culture and history that is unique and on to our own. Some of those opportunities to experience that culture [00:05:30] may be through some of our celebratory powwows or working with other national non-profits in the country to help change the landscape of things that are happening around the Indian world.
Robert Traynham: Michael, for those who are watching at home, or perhaps maybe on their smart device, if they would like to get more information about the Native American Rights Fund, where can they go?
Michael Johnson: You can visit us on our website at www.narf.org, N-A-R-F dot org, or find us on social media. We’re pretty active on Facebook.
Robert Traynham: Michael Johnson, thank you very much for joining us. Really appreciate it.
Michael Johnson: Thank you.
Robert Traynham: And thank you for [00:06:00] joining us as well, and for more great conversations with leaders in your community and across the nation, visit ComcastNewsmakers.com. I’m Robert Traynham. Michael Johnson, last question for you. As a community, as a people, as a culture, here we are in 2017. Do you feel as though, is that your people and your culture are better off than, let’s say, 50 years ago?
Michael Johnson: I would have to say absolutely. One of the amazing quotes that we have from our founding Executive Director, John EchoHawk, is that we want nothing more, [00:06:30] and we expect nothing less, than the federal government to honor their treaties with Native Americans, and sitting with you here today is an example of how far we’ve come over the last 50 years, so thank you.
Robert Traynham: Very well said. Thank you very much for joining us. And thank you for joining us, as well. For more great conversations with leaders in your community and across the nation, visit ComcastNewsmakers.com. I’m Robert Traynham.