A trip to Indian country and the Omak Stampede

So what is “Indian country”?

Drummers gather to perform at the Indian encampment at Omak’s Stampede, in August 2012.

A now-deceased doctor friend of mine who dedicated his life to serving the Native community in the Indian Health Service used the expression a lot describing where he worked in New Mexico and Alaska. It is a legal term, codified in treaty rights, federal regulations, and court decisions. Indian country can be a physical place, associated with customs and cultures of the continent’s first peoples. It is also a state of mind. You literally know you are in Indian country when you go there. There are place names and of course the people. I grew up in St. Louis, Mo., which sits on the mighty Mississippi River (Ojibwe for “great river”), and I felt connected to Indian country there because of the great muddy and the phenomenal Cahokia Mounds just east of the city in Illinois. I knew I was living on historic Indian land even as a kid.

The largest Native mound in the United States is located at the historic Cahokia Mounds, just east of St. Louis.

I have lived the last 16 years of my life in what I definitely consider to be Indian Country, Alaska and Washington State. Alaska felt much more like Indian country to me. Anchorage, my home for six years, is very much a Native city in terms of population (about 16 percent). I rarely feel that connection in modern, congested, urban Seattle.  But I recently took a four-day trip to the hot, upper plateau of central Washington, from the Methow Valley to Omak, and indeed felt I had landed four-square in Indian country again.

According to a section of federal legislation pertaining to Native Americans, “Indian country” refers to three specific criteria:

-All land within the limits of any Indian reservation under the jurisdiction of the United States government, notwithstanding the issuance of any patent, and including rights-of-way running through the reservation;

-All dependent Indian communities within the borders of the United States whether within the original or subsequently acquired territory thereof, and whether within or without the limits of a State; and

-All Indian allotments, the Indian titles to which have not been extinguished, including rights-of-way running through the same.

Indian country also implies U.S. federal recognition of tribal bands as sovereign on their lands and capable of enjoying rights that are government to government. As one source notes, recognized tribes “possess absolute sovereignty [that] are completely independent of any other political power,” but also which is shared with other jurisdictions (local, state, and federal).

In Washington state, federal definitions of “Indian country” apply to state law, in addition to provisions acknowledging tribes non-taxable status in some commerce, such as the sale of tobacco products to tribal members on their reservation. In Seattle, there is still a band, the sparsely populated Duwamish, who have lost their sovereign status  and failed to win legal recognition in the city’s limits, on some of the choicest real-estate on the West Coast. Another nearby tribe, the Snoqualmie, regained their status in 1999 and promptly built a casino and became an economic and political player.

The decades-long fight over treaty-protected fishing and subsistence rights by the tribes culminated in the historic 1974 ruling in the landmark U.S. v. Washington case (the Boldt Decision) that unequivocally affirmed 19 federally-recognized tribes’ fishing rights to salmon and steelhead runs in western Washington. That decision gave the tribes rights to half of the salmon, steelhead, and shellfish harvests in the Puget Sound. It was a major game changer, and its impacts are still felt today–particularly legal squabbles if the decision should still be applied to land-use decisions impacting salmon habitat.

Yet, even as I gaze out on the beautiful Puget Sound, I am hard-pressed to think that I am on historic Indian lands, that I live in Indian country, where there are 29 federally-recognized tribes, in all corners of the state (see tribes and locations here).  But this is very much Indian country in a historic and cultural sense.

In fact, more than half of the state was outright taken by military force, illegal land seizures, and treaties (which also provided fishing and resource rights to tribal members) from the 1850s to the 1890s. Many stories of the exploitation of Native tribes come to mind, notably the hanging of Yakima warrrior Qualchan (also called Qualchew) by the reportedly violent Col. George Wright, in his campaign that defeated five tribes in Washington in the eastern half of what is now is the state. 

On Sept. 25, 1858, Qualchan had surrendered with a white flag and was hung within 15 minutes. That was followed with the hanging of six Palouse warriors the next day. Such incidents typified the period of conquest in my home state. Exploitation of tribal rights followed the signing of treaties. The Colville Tribes, for instance, had their lands stolen without their consent, setting off decades of legal battles that continued to the 1930s and ended in historic settlements returning hundreds of thousands of stolen acres of land.  Salmon and steelhead runs in the state were decimated by commercial fishing interests that harmed tribal groups in the upper and lower Columbia River basin. The runs were further extinguished by the dams built on the Columbia River. Only with the Boldt Decision in 1974 did the tide turn, but with numbers that no where near compared to the great runs of 100 years earlier.

Again, all of this is very academic and abstract to me and most Western Washington residents. Only when I traveled to the “World Famous Omak Stampede” rodeo and suicide race, with Native riders who charge down a 200 foot hill on horseback every second weekend of August, did I again realize I was truly in Indian country. Omak, in north central Washington, lies partially in the 1.4 million-acre Colville Reservation, in sparsely populated Okanogan and Ferry counties. The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation number less than 10,000. I found the area to be amazingly beautiful. It’s hot in the summer, and bitterly cold in the winter. During my visit to Omak for the Stampede, the mercury hit 100 F.

Outside of agriculture (on non-tribal lands), there is little industry in this part of the state, but there is gold mining, forestry, and a limited personal use salmon fishery for tribal members.  Forestry is the mainstay for generating tribal revenues. Gaming is also a big moneymaker at the tribes’ three casinos. If you can believe it, the casinos are attracting acts like blues legend Buddy Guy and rock has-beens like Foreigner and Joe Walsh in the next few weeks. I think it’s a bit sad that even stalwart Canadians are driving south from British Columbia to spend their loonies at the tribal gaming tables, but come they do.

Despite the flow of revenues, health issues remain a problem, as they do throughout Indian country. A June 9, 2012, story republished in the New York Daily News about Tribal Councilman Andy Joseph, Jr., profiles his efforts to address Native health funding issues. The story notes his tribal members and others nationally “are dying of cancer, diabetes, suicide and alcoholism. They are dying of many diseases at higher rates than the rest of the population. And instead of those rates getting better, they’re getting worse.” Joseph is the tribes’ representative to the Northwest Portland Area Health Board, which serves 41 tribes in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, and is that group’s delegate to the National Indian Health Board, which speaks for all 566 federally-recognized tribes in the country. The story notes that, nationally, tribal members die an average of five years earlier than the rest of the U.S. population and are six times more likely to die of tuberculosis or alcoholism, three times more likely to die of diabetes, and also twice as likely to be killed in an accident. What’s more, they are also twice as likely to die from homicide or suicide. Pretty grim data indeed.

According to Joseph, the major health issues associated with diet and nutrition have occurred as a result of conquest and cultural assimilation: “‘Joseph holds up a jar of canned salmon sitting on his desk. ‘Our people crave this,’ he said. ‘It was taken away from us when they put Grand Coulee Dam in.’ He reaches for a string of dried camas root. ‘It’s what our bodies were raised with for thousands of years. Now, we have Safeway and Albertsons and Walmart.'”

In Omak, I got a taste of Native pride during the Omak Stampede Parade, which mainly featured local businesses, rodeo princesses, groups like firefighters, Republican office holders or candidates, and less than half a dozen Indian floats. (I saw no Latino groups in the parade, despite their large presence picking fruit and in agriculture–they “officially” number about 15 percent of Omak’s residents.)

A Native float at the Omak Stampede parade.

Some of the many teepees at the Native encampment at the Stampede.

The Stampede features a tribal encampment with teepees and a performance area where tribal members perform traditional dances and song in gorgeous costumes.  It reminded me a lot of Alaska, particularly the many gatherings I saw there, including the largest conference called the Alaska Federation of Natives Annual Convention. Yup, I was definitely in Indian country.

My only real, true regret was that I missed the Suicide Race, which features some of the state’s finest Native horseman who charge down the steep hill and swim across the Okanogan River on their way to the finish inside the Omak Stampede stadium. You can watch it on YouTube, and note some times, yes, horses have died in this race.

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