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How Do You Mediate a Land Battle between National Counties and Native Tribes? Share a Few Stories

In her new book, environmental mediator Lucy Moore explains how an ice breaker ended a vicious feud between county officials and Native American tribes.

The following is an excerpt from Lucy Moore's new bookCommon Ground on Hostile Turf: Stories from an Environmental Mediator(Island Press, 2013):

Chapter 3: The Power of Story

When I was born, my father ran out of the hospital and headed straight for his suburban garden on the outskirts of Seattle. I assume he gave me a decent welcome into the world, a beaming smile, a little male-style coo of some kind, and a brief holding of my sturdy little newborn body. But he had a special job to do. It was April. His garden was on his mind, and he didn’t want to waste a minute.

In those days, new mothers stayed in the hospital a luxurious amount of time, up to two weeks for a normal delivery. My mother enjoyed every minute of it and still talks about the divine taste of those scrambled eggs every morning, the kind nurses who educated her about how to care for her first baby, and the marvel of her little Lucy, with jet-black hair and chubby, red cheeks.

After ten days, my father brought us home. But before he allowed my mother in the house, he led her to his garden. With me in her arms, she rounded the corner of the house and saw a freshly spaded and planted area. She has told me over the years, every time with tears in her eyes, “And there was the name ‘Lucy’ planted in radishes. He had planted the seeds to spell ‘Lucy’ the day you were born, and they were just popping up, so new, so fresh—just like you.”

It is a story that I have always loved. It says something about my father, my mother, and me, who we were, how we felt about one another, what it was like back then. And, of course, I like it because it is the first story about me. It is also a “naming story.” Many cultures have rituals for naming new babies, and thanks to my father I have my own story of my naming. Had my babies been born in the right season, and in a fertile land, I might have followed in his footsteps and created a tradition, but that was not the case. And so I keep it as my own first story.

For me as a mediator, it is all about the story. Each of us is made up of our stories—stories about our ancestors, our childhoods, crises that have changed our lives, moments of insight and inspiration. 

***

I have seen the impact a story can have on a group struggling to find common ground, and I am always amazed at the courage some people have to open up and tell those stories. One of my earliest experiences came in Denver in 1992.

I had been called by the director of the National Association of Counties (NACo) to bail the group out of a very tough situation. Headquartered in Washington, DC, NACo is a powerful lobbying organization dedicated to the well-being of counties and their officials and employees throughout the United States. The membership includes all elected county officials in the country—sheriffs, clerks, commissioners, and so on. A small percentage of NACo members also happen to be members of Indian communities, reservations, and nations, since many counties, especially in the western United States, include Indian lands within their borders.

The overlapping jurisdictions of tribes and counties had become a point of contention in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was too difficult, said county leadership in Wisconsin, Washington, and Utah, among other states, to try to serve county citizens when a significant piece of the county’s land base was reservation land. Expected to serve all citizens, including tribal members, they claimed the counties were denied taxation, law enforcement, and regulatory authority on Indian land. Furthermore, and this was particularly irritating, some tribes were beginning to compete with local government, setting up businesses, attracting county dollars to casinos, and levying their own taxes on county citizens. It was time for Native Americans to leave their entitlements behind, said these county officials, and become “regular citizens.” The disgruntled counties pressured NACo to initiate legislation that would abrogate treaties with tribes.

The reaction from the tribal membership of NACo was swift. This was their organization, too, and they would not permit such a destructive initiative to be considered. A serious schism developed between the Indian and non-Indian members of NACo, and in response the organization formed a task force on county and tribal government relations. The task force was mandated to resolve the tough issues—treaty rights and the county-tribal relationship—and draft policy recommendations for the NACo board that would guide the organization’s future actions with respect to tribes and counties. The twelve task force members (six Indian and six non-Indian) were to deliver the results of their negotiations at the annual NACo meeting the following month.

My job was to mediate the task force’s final meeting, its last chance to reach consensus on how the organization should deal with “Indian issues.” The group had met five times in ten months, to no avail. In the meeting minutes I saw diatribes from both sides: “You don’t know what it’s like to try to run a county that includes Indian land. It’s not fair.” “You don’t understand our history as Native peoples and the meaning of tribal sovereignty.” For all the presentations, legal arguments, and emotional pleas from both sides, neither message was getting through. The group was at an impasse. It was a predictable, but very sad, situation. I drove for seven hours from Santa Fe to Denver, praying that the road would reveal a bright idea to break the impasse. No such luck.

As I walked into the hotel meeting room and saw those twelve weary faces, I was filled with empathy and anxiety. I have learned that this is not necessarily a bad pair of emotions for a first encounter. Empathy allows me to connect with people at an emotional level, and anxiety keeps me on my toes and humble. In this case, my anxiety was not free-floating but had a very real basis. How could I help this exhausted group find a more constructive path? In an effort to buy time, and still hoping for divine inspiration, I suggested that each of them introduce himself or herself. “Of course,” I said, “you all must know each other well by now, but I am new here. So, for my sake, please take your time and tell me a little bit about yourself.” I thought this might take a half hour or so. It would allow me time to get a feel for the group and, I hoped, make a plan.

The first two participants, both Anglos, went quickly, rattling off their home areas, their professions, their relationships to their county. “I’m Joe Jameson from Vernal, Utah. I own the feed store, and I’m the county clerk.” “My name is Sally Burnett. I’m a housewife and county commissioner in Snohomish County—that’s in Washington State.” Oh no, I thought, this is going to be over too soon. I panicked. There would be no time to plan my next step.

But I needn’t have worried. The next task force member was a Hopi woman from Navajo County, Arizona. Her name was Thelma, and she began slowly.

“I was born just outside Holbrook—do you know where Holbrook is?” She looked around the table at the eleven blank faces. “Well, it’s about in the middle of the state of Arizona, about fifty miles south of Oraibi, where my family lived. My dad was driving as fast as he could to get to the hospital, but he didn’t make it, and I was born in the pickup just north of Holbrook,” she said with a chuckle. She continued, in chronological order, with the highlights of her life, including cultural footnotes along the way. “My grandma really raised me and my four sisters—that’s the way a lot of us were raised.” She gave us a picture of Hopi life in the villages. “I was really busy when the melons came in—that was the time when the men danced their ceremonial dances and the women and girls did a lot of cooking, special kinds of food.” She even gave us a recipe for the paper-thin blue corn piki bread, explaining how it must be cooked on a hot stone to be authentic. She told us about her favorite dog and its demise under her uncle’s pickup, about her homesick days in boarding school, about the pain of her mother’s alcoholism, and about her struggle to get through high school.

By the time she was twenty-four she had four small children, no job, and a husband who was gone most of the time, working on the railroad. And then, just when things were really bleak, she received word that her husband had been killed. They claimed he had been drinking and had passed out on the tracks, but she never believed that. “He wasn’t a drinker,” she said with certainty. “Not him. He was a good man. But what could I do? Now I was a widow with four little children, still with no job and now with no husband.”

Early on in this saga, I began to get nervous. After five minutes, she was still at the elementary boarding school outside Tuba City. At ten minutes, she was spending a summer with a Navajo cousin, herding sheep. (Late one afternoon, their flock was attacked by coyotes and they lost three lambs, and they almost lost their best sheepherding dog, too.) At fifteen minutes, her fourth child was born. (She named her Darrelyn, after her husband, Darrel.)

I had a silent conversation with myself. Should I interrupt her and move the introductions along? That would be the fair thing to do, making time for the others. But it was a riveting story, and she was so generous in her offering of it, and, after all, Native Americans value a good story. I looked around the table for a cue and saw eleven faces mesmerized like mine. I sat back and listened.

She was at a turning point, she said. Her sister stepped in and helped with the children, or she never could have done what she did. She went to the community college! She beamed as she told us about the experience and her pride in getting her associate degree as an alcoholism counselor. She worked for the state program and began to see how government could help or hurt someone struggling for a better life. She wished that the local government in Navajo County took more interest in the Hopi citizens. A friend convinced her to run for a seat on the county commission. She thought at first it was an impossible idea, that being an elected official was what white people did, not a little Hopi lady. She laughed at the memory of her grandchildren holding signs for her along the highway, where one car passed every half hour. She told how she felt when she heard she had won, the first Hopi ever elected to county office. “And I was a woman, too!” she said, beaming.

“Then,” she said, “came the scariest moment in my life.” What on earth was coming next? We had heard terrifying moments from her life: when the snake bit her baby sister, when her mother died in jail, when she was widowed at twenty-four, when her oldest son was missing in the mountains for three days. What could be scarier? We were on the edges of our seats.

She went on. “I walked into the commission meeting room on that first night, and I looked at those huge leather chairs, you know, where the commissioners sit.” She scanned the faces of the other county officials sitting at the table and smiled in a quizzical way. “Why do they make those chairs so big? Do you know what I mean? They are so big!”

The others smiled and chuckled, saying, “Yeah, you’re right,” and “I don’t know why they make them so big,” or just nodded in acknowledgment.

“Well, anyway, my chair looked extra big that night, and I was so scared. I thought, ‘What am I doing here, a little old Hopi lady? That big chair’s not for me.’ But you know what I did? I walked up to that chair—my knees were just shaking!—and I sat down! And now I’ve been sitting in that chair for three terms. I’m not scared anymore. I like being a county commissioner, and I try to do a good job for everyone in the county—not just the Hopis—I help the whites, too, and even the Navajos!” she said with a laugh. “Well, that’s my story,” she said, “and I sure appreciate you listening to me.”

I looked around the table. There were smiles; there were looks of admiration; there were some moist eyes. I thanked Thelma for her story and asked the next person to introduce herself. We continued around the table, hearing longer introductions from the Native Americans, but as we progressed the Anglo task force members began to open up, too, and reveal more of themselves. By the time we had completed the circle, it was almost time for lunch. Half the day was gone, and I was worried about the little time remaining to deal with the tough issues.

***

When the task force members returned from lunch, it was clear that the group had found a level of relaxation, even affection in some cases, that had not existed before. I feared that this atmosphere would fall victim to the hostilities that I was sure lay ahead. But I was in for a surprise. The members had no trouble seeing the path they needed to take. The old hostility and resentment had been replaced by compassion and understanding. The mood was calm, the way was clear. They agreed that there was no decision, or rule, that was going to apply in all situations involving counties and tribes.

“After this morning, and hearing all those stories,” concluded a sheriff from Montana, “it’s clear to me that every situation with a tribe and county is different. Each county is different. Each tribe is different, and the way it all fits together is going to be different.”

Another Anglo conceded, “Dissolving treaties is out of the question. I can see that’s not going to happen. There’s too much history there.” The point, they saw, was to find a way to work together on a site-by-site basis, getting together, listening, learning, finding ways to improve the lives of county citizens and tribal citizens alike. That would be their recommendation to NACo’s board of directors next month. Together, they developed steps that NACo might take to help in these individual situations, and it was a challenge for me to write their ideas fast enough on the flip chart. 

***

As I remember it, we even finished early that afternoon. The task force co-chairs had instructions from their colleagues and were ready to deliver the [list] to the annual NACo conference the following month in Florida. The group dissolved into twos and threes and straggled out of the room. The good-byes were sincere; the exclamations of “See you next month” were warm. I stayed until the last member had left the room, packed up my markers, rolled up my flip chart papers, and took a last look at the hollow-square table arrangement, site of such a remarkable event.

FromCommon Ground on Hostile Turf by Lucy Moore. Copyright © 2013  Island Press. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington D.C. 

Lucy Moore is the author of Common Ground on Hostile Turf; Stories from an Environmental Mediator.

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