Honoring Nations: Rick Hill: Sovereignty Today

Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development

Former Oneida Nation Business Committee Chairman Rick Hill offers his perspectives on sovereignty today through the lens of the challenges facing his nation and the strategies theyr employing to achieve their nation-building goals. 

Resource Type

Hill, Rick. "Sovereignty Today." Honoring Nations symposium. Harvard Project on American Indian Economics, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 17, 2009. Presentation.

"Well, good afternoon to you all. I'm glad you're still awake here. This kind of reminds me of the Mo [Morris] Udall statement, 'Everything's been said, but not said by everyone.' So, here we are. I think if you get a copy of this book, it has a great explanation about the Oneida Farms and it's very well written. It's basically my speech, so you guys can read that on your own time and I will do some other things here.

I really enjoyed the humor today. It kind of kept me awake. The teepee creeper story, the other lady that was, the co-mingling thing here, and I say, 'More warriors, more warriors, more warriors.' So I thought that was good -- that we're a dying race of people. And I liked the other thing that our friend, Manley, said about being at Harvard. Indians gathering at Harvard, we should all run. Manley, I enjoyed that, I thought that was good and I'll borrow that. And then when I walked in I seen the commander. I was like, 'who in the hell's the commander? What's this about?' So then I walked through the halls here and I see it's George Washington and he's the commander. And so it made me think about what my elders taught me about the history.

Basically -- and Oren [Lyons] knows this story better than I do -- but they know that Oneidas gave George Washington and the Continental Army -- we were the first allies of George Washington. And a lot of us went to Canada, decided not to be in the war, and others stuck around and were the first allies of George Washington, if you didn't know that. And fed his army at Valley Forge [because] the colonists couldn't afford to give them their little bit of food that they had. So it was a matter of survival. And so the Oneidas brought 500 bushels of corn, as the story goes. And they taught them how to make cornbread and corn soup, [because] those guys were just gobbling it up when they received it and their stomachs swelled up -- they were just looking for something to eat. And so that was the staple that was the turning point in the war. Otherwise, we'd all be speaking French. That would really be the case. But somehow those chapters are left out of our American history, and that whole big chapter about genocide that happens to be missing in the curriculum, [because] actually, it was to start out to wipe us all out, right? That was the whole thing. It went from our people, to the buffalo, to whatever staple we had to build our economies, to feed our people, was to the first issuing of the small pox blanket, was the first form of chemical genocide, right?

That was all strategically done. We started out in the War Department [because] they were trying to kill us all off and figure ways to do that: exterminate us. And then we ended up in the Interior Department -- no coincidence there, right, because it was about the land, and then it's about all the resources. And then the history goes on about the policy. So that's what we're up against, in terms of our communities, when we exercise sovereignty. We were always running against the grain relative to those policies. So I used to do the gaming speech and I always went back to like, we've been reduced to gaming. We owned all this territory and all these resources. They had the weapons -- that was the whole thing. They had superior weaponry. It was our families against military force. And so here we fast forward to gaming and the dollars that gaming gives us for economic development that allow us to do a lot of the things that we can do today. So that's based on demographics and hopefully the other Indian communities and nations will have some form of economic development, less a tax base, to run your governments. So I always like when we can all get together, because it's sharing ideas and sharing resources and getting new ideas to bring home to advance your community and to protect your inherent sovereignty and all that. So that takes a lot of infrastructure to do all that kind of stuff. So I wanted to put that out there.

The other thing that I came here is, I was like, 'Wow, I'm in Boston.' And then I thought about our senator friend Kennedy who just passed on, Ted Kennedy. And several years ago, I had the opportunity to meet the Senator. And so we flew here and then we went to a reception where all the other mucky mucks here and we waited and we waited and we waited and we waited. So he worked the whole room and then he finally came over to say hello to us and we were all happy that it was our time. And then he started telling a story about Bobby Kennedy. Their family always wanted to help the less fortunate or the different races of people and they have a legacy of that. And so he just shared the story about how him and Bobby had a conversation one day and he actually asked him to help the Indian folks out. And so I guess some history would speak to that, I don't really know that in detail, but Indian education and health reform and all these other things and he had a hand in it and he had us in mind to pass some of those kind of things. I thought that was kind of an interesting moment for me personally. And then later on to meet his son Patrick, I think that's a good thing. I think Patrick's a solid guy and I feel for the family and all that stuff.

But there's always the Kennedy jokes, right, the Kennedy stuff. Like, a guy will walk into a bar, a regular old guy will walk into a bar and see a woman sitting on a stool and say, 'Why?' Then Ted Kennedy walks into a bar and sees a woman sitting on a stool and he says, 'Why not?' Or it was so quiet in the room you could hear a Kennedy's pants drop. I always like that one, yeah. So we'll save the late show for later. I have to get the mood of the crowd here. Oh, wait one more. I can't escape this. How about, John Kennedy should be in heaven because any man that would share Marilyn Monroe with his brother Bobby should be in heaven. So there, I had to get that off my chest.

There's a legacy there and who's going to take this spot? Who's going to fill this void up on Capitol Hill? So everybody will be vetting for this new senator position, but who's going to lay on the tracks for the Indians? So we have to go and develop and educate. And my buddy Tim Wapato -- he's passed on -- he says, 'When we educate white folks, it's a lifetime commitment. And then it's your kid's lifetime commitment.' And that's what we're up against. [Because] if they don't live next door to Indians or have these disputes with our communities -- these local units of government and county governments and state governments -- they don't have an idea, but yet they're going to vote on major pieces of legislation -- the Indian Healthcare Improvement Act or education act comes up, or you want to resolve your land claims, that kind of stuff. That's all. We need to develop friends and new friends and it's a continuous process.

So I see Oren -- and I think about land claims a lot of times when I see Oren. And the Haudenosaunee had a certain position, we had our position on land claims but yet, there was over 27 million acres of land. And that conversation, after 200 years is still occurring. So in terms of exercising sovereignty we're still in that conversation. Who knows how it's going to come out, but yet that's still pending after 200 years. So for us to have the staying power to stay in these conversations is important as we develop our communities and our educational systems, and teaching about sovereignty and the importance of inherent sovereignty, that this fight goes on and on and on and on and on.

My traditional chief told me -- when I was recruited to run for chairman last, I was in office a year, we have three-year terms. So I started when I was 23, I'm 56 now. So I've seen different leaders through time. I was happy to see my father Norbert, Purcell Powless, Roger Jourdain, Wendell Chino, Oren and a lot of folks. I was really blessed with seeing how these guys protect sovereignty and the fire and brimstone routine that Chairman Chino used to represent. It was all about sovereignty and his territory and 'you'd be damned if you do something in my territory, over my dead body,' it was like that. And now I think I kind of feel like that's kind of missing. I don't feel the fire in people's belly anymore. I feel a little bit here when I hear some of the speakers, but I don't oftentimes feel it.

And then as I go back home, we have 16,000 members, we have 3,000 employees, and we have a large general tribal council, which is the ultimate body. And so with that -- $100 a meeting for our members to come to the meeting -- we get anywhere from 1,500 to over 2,000 people at a meeting, but they all left because of relocation programs and survival reasons. So like a generation and a half, they're back home, so to speak. And so when they drive up, the infrastructure's there, the casino's there, the bank's there, the industrial park's there, all these kinds of things are there. So they didn't have any sweat equity into building this, so they have a different mindset about what that's all about.

But I have a fond appreciation, [because] when we had our debate about the per capita issue more recently, they were going to issue, they emptied the coffers at one time -- like you said, the other council -- but the other general tribal council took the position that they were going to pay themselves first. And so they emptied about $89 million out of the coffers that took us generations to build. And then more recently, we had a conversation [because] there was another petition for another $160 million for our 16,000 members. And so I asked if they would suspend the rules. And so as the meeting went on, they eventually suspended the rules. We had great testimony then [because] they knew -- when we talked early on at this conference here about traditional values and way of discussing and consensus building, that's what we ended up doing. So we had a lot of testimony about [that] land was important, health care was important, educational resources are important and all these kinds of things were more important than the dollars as an individual member. So it was nation first and then let's talk about, 'Can we afford the per capita later on?'

And so that was important in terms of – [Because] in 1934 we went through, you guys understand the Allotment Act. And we lost most of our land and we went down to a few hundred acres. And with the advent of gaming we were able to buy land back, and tobacco sales, we were able to buy a lot of our land back. So that builds more the foundation of what we do in the community and the institutions we put into our community. The importance of nation building, to get everybody on the same page in terms of the allocation of resources for certain priorities for the nation, and that's the challenge that we have now. What does that look like? What are the priorities? There's only so many resources. And how do you allocate them on priorities?

So when I got into the office a year ago or so, we had a 100-day plan, and it evolved to the 200-day plan, [because] there was so much to vet, in terms of what we're going to do. So we established three standing committees on quality of life and economic development, commerce and land development. I think was another subcommittee. So I think we got a way to funnel our issues in and they're vetted and then they're brought as recommendations to the committee later on. So we've been able to at least go in that direction.

The other thing I think it's important to mention, at least I think it is, is about what Oren kind of alluded to early on in his open remarks. And there's an urgency about all this subject matter we're talking about here. There is an urgency to get things in place and to find the best talent to protect your inherent sovereignty. And a lot of it is related to the climate changes and stuff like that, and then it relates back to health of the community. And I think on the climate change issue, I don't know who this group of people is, but I heard about a group of elders and medicine people one time who were discussing that. And we need to demand to get into that conversation [because] they probably can help position us with that message and how we should prepare for that time. And then I look at our farm thing and I was thinking about that too. And our farm is to have more of a traditional way of agriculture. And then you look at, I go to my health center, and if you want to campaign, you'll see everybody at the health center. We have a huge health center, but you'll see everybody there, right? We've got heart issues, diabetic issues, we're a sick people. We are. And the only cure for that is really, good eating and a healthier lifestyle. The other subgroup we have is called the Quality of Life, so we're trying to look at the quality of life for our people. Although we have this great farm, not everybody uses the farm [because] it's a lot easier going to Walmart to pick up your frozen food, right? So to me it's about, food is the medicine, the fresher the better. And if we can, like I said, the farmers' market should be right next to the health center. So people can get their medicine or more traditional forms of medicine should be in the health center. So these kinds of things, we've got to breath more healthier lifestyle into our people and if you have strong individuals then you've got stronger families then you've got a stronger community and those kinds of things. So I think in terms of what the message Oren was talking about -- the climate and the health of the people in the community -- it starts on the ground. And we need to really make a bigger push urgently to try to get that done. I think that's an important thing to advance here.

I had a lot of other Kennedy jokes to share with you. However, my time is limited and they're really for late night. The other thing that we're doing, we know we don't have resources to do the things, [because] we don't have tax bases as governments, so we're in the process of really working with our corporations to try to monetize what we're doing within our corporations. And then some of you asked me a question about the silos in the communities, and we're bringing groups together to break down the silos and collaborate to really have a stronger more vibrant economy. And more recently we started businesses in the environmental arena, and it does environmental engineering, construction and management services. We were able to buy a golf course that was bankrupt and to expand our hospitality business, to go along with our casino and other things we do well. We're looking at the biomass projects, and [I] was happy to work with Chief [James] Gray here [because] he's the present Chief of the Consortium of Renewable Energy Nations. So I wanted to put that out there. If you're interested in that, we can get you information. By us coming together to define the organization and to address the federal legislation on citing and permitting, and get some of these federal citing and permitting issues, impediments lifted, have some kind of one-stop-shopping thing. Because on the investment side, we've got to be competitive with the commercial side -- no one's going to invest in our renewable energy projects. So we've got to work hard on that legislative piece and we all need to come together to help do that.

One last thing is our committee decided to address Public Law 280 and retrocede [jurisdiction] from the State of Wisconsin. And that happened when I was 23. Now they're going to revisit that folder and try to build a plan to move towards that. And I think that's a good thing in terms of what are we doing to address sovereign issues and exercising our own sovereignty. So that's really important that we get all of our infrastructure. So we're really looking at our judicial system and giving them more authority and more power and those kinds of things. The other thing that's kind of a thorn in their side and John -- [I] was happy to see John after many years -- after the gaming wars, to come to our community and talk about these anti-Indian groups that are rearing their ugly heads again. We should all be aware of that. I think up north in northern Wisconsin there's actually billboards from the...from the fishing wars to more sophisticated ways of campaigning to change federal Indian law and Indian policy. They're more sophisticated in their messaging and their networking. They have more expertise to try to disrupt Indian tribal governments, as we want to exercise our sovereignty. So they don't like land into trust. They don't like you to have jurisdiction. And all these battles go on, so we need to all pull together.

In Wisconsin, we're working with the 11 nations there to organize and do something that John has done in the past, that have proven to be successful, some public service announcements regarding our communities and what we're capable of and what we can do. But we need to be aware of that, because that's just an ongoing battle. I guess they figured they job ain't done. They didn't exterminate us yet, so they're going to figure to try to change Indian federal law and policy to thwart our governing authorities, our inherent rights. So be aware of that, if you haven't noticed it. But that's something that will affect all of us -- if they can change Indian federal law and policy, that's going to affect all of our communities. So they'll be trying to find a court case that they can advance and the courts. My dad always told me, 'It's really hard for an Indian to get a fair trial on a court that sits on stolen land.' So there's enough case law to support that theory my dad was trying to teach me when I was much younger. You can't get a fair trial in a court that sits on stolen land.

So we need to be careful about when they think it's a controversy and they want to raise it up to the area and raise it higher. We got a case that was about condemnation in our community and we thought we had the set of facts on our side. And we usually do when we want to advance something, and only to have Judge Griesbach look the other way and be political and say they could condemn our fee land. So we stopped there [because] it affects us, but we couldn't advance that [because] then it'll affect everybody else, right? So even when you've got the facts on your side, it doesn't necessarily mean you're going to get a fair day, so be conscious of that as we get challenged by these rednecks to get us into a court situation. As Charlie would say, 'You should never judge a man by the color of his neck.'

All right, so I guess these remarks didn't do me any good today, but I wanted to put that energy out there and hopefully get your attention on some things here. And I appreciate the good work of my niece here, Megan Hill, and all of your good work. Don't take no prisoners, and don't become one. Thank you."

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