First Ivy Native Conference at Princeton Convened with Support from LISD

Natives at Princeton (NAP) with the help of the Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination and other Princeton University departments[1] successfully convened the first Ivy Native Conference to be held on the Princeton University campus on April 8, 2017. This event was the culmination of two years of development efforts to rebuild the Native student group at Princeton University into a vibrant organization. NAP members come from a diverse and engaging group of Princeton students. Today NAP is organized with an Executive Board of 11 members from a range of Native nations including Oglala Sioux, Navajo, Isleta Pueblo, Cherokee, Crow, Native Hawaiian, and Taino.

The Ivy Native Conference brought over 100 students and 4 professionals from around the Northeast to engage in substantive dialogue and action on issues related to the treaty system and ideas of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian sovereignty. The four professionals participating in the conference were:

  • Greg A. Smith, a partner at Hobbs & Straus in Washington D.C.. He has represented Indian tribes and tribal organizations as an attorney and as a government affairs specialist for nearly thirty years. His work includes restoring the Pueblo of Acoma's subsurface rights and including an affirmative recognition of the inherent sovereignty of New Mexico pueblos in criminal justice jurisdiction. He is a graduate of Cornell Law School ’86 and Yale College ’82.
  • Mark N. Trahant, Independent journalist and faculty member at the University of North Dakota as the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism. He is the Editor of Trahant Reports, and former President of the Native American Journalists Association. Also a former columnist at The Seattle Times; a reporter at the Arizona Republic in Phoenix; and has worked at several tribal newspapers. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe.
  • Verlon Jose, Vice Chairman of the Tohono O'odham Nation, is from the Tecolote Community in the Chukut Kuk District.  He was elected as the Vice Chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation in May of 2015 to a four-year term. He is an advocate for greater cooperation with Washington in the best interest of tribal priorities to stem illegal immigration.
  • Megan Alvanna-Stimpfle is a principle at Arctic Geopolitical Consulting, she is Iñupiaq, and a former Legislative Assistant for Senator Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska. Her work there focused on policies responsible for many facets of infrastructure development, health, and wildlife management for Alaska Natives and rural Alaskans. She is still involved with her traditional community on King Island where she is an elected member of the King Island Traditional Council. She holds a Master’s in Applied Economics from Johns Hopkins University and a B.S. in Economics from George Mason University.

The conference kicked off on April 7, with the arrival of all of the student delegates and professionals. The main events were scheduled for April 8, and started with a morning run to the serene banks of Lake Carnegie to see the sunrise at 6:30 a.m. After this, participants gathered over breakfast to raise the tipi on Prospect House Lawn. This is akin to the old practice of making camp to settle into a new place, and with a large amount of visiting delegates, the time was right to make camp at Princeton. The main events followed with lively discussions on the mechanics and ideas of treaty making and sovereignty.

In order to gain a better sense and structure of American Indian treaties and ideas of sovereignty organizers structured the conference with a general overview followed by specific presentations building on the previous. As a result, the first discussion was on establishing a background of Federal Indian law and the development of the treaty system.

Greg Smith’s presentation focused on the development of western ideas of treaties, and he asked the audience, “What is a treaty? Is it a piece of paper, an idea, or agreement?” The audience followed in earnest discussion. He went on to recall a meeting with a State Department official regarding Indian Tribes, noting, “Treaties with Indian tribes are the same as treaties with any other sovereign nation like Russia, France, and England,” to which the official could not fathom the same legal standing was applied to treaties of both. Ratified treaties, whether from a small pacific nation or a large country, bear the same legal protections Mr. Smith went on. However, despite this parity in legal standing the result is anything but equal. In Indian treaties today there is a power imbalance between both parties, and leads to distorted outcomes. In the American Indian case, the rise of American military power coincided with loss in bargaining power by tribes to effectively petition for their sovereign rights. As a result, many Indian treaties in the United States are not honored as other treaties with nations with a credible enforcement mechanism like a standing army or economic sanctions.

Later Mark Trahant was able to talk about the disruption of the Native vote to affect change for American Indian legislators in the past decade while also emphasizing the role social media has played. As a growing demographic his thesis relied on the growing impact the Native community will have in future elections. From his long tenure as a journalist Mark has played a pivotal role in highlighting American Indian concerns of self-determination and sovereignty. In a now famous quote, Mark Trahant asked then-President George W. Bush, “What do you think tribal sovereignty means in the 21st century and how do we resolve conflicts between tribes and the federal and state governments?” President Bush replied, “Tribal sovereignty means that, it’s sovereign. You’re a — you’re a — you have been given sovereignty and you’re viewed as a sovereign entity ... And therefore, the relationship between the federal government and tribes is one between sovereign entities.” Even today the status of tribes as sovereign Nations is still being debated even on a national scale with similar incidents happening between a Malaysian woman and President Obama concerning the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Vice Chairman Verlon Jose’s presentation focused on his tribe’s history with the United States and Mexico. As a nation split between two countries his people have had to engage with governments on both sides of the border to meet their needs as Native people. In the recent proposition of a border wall by President Trump the Vice Chairman has maintained a unilateral decision of this magnitude will have adverse negative effects on the local Tohono O’odham people living on both sides of the border. He has adamantly said, “Over my dead body will a wall be built.” Instead, the Tohono O’odham nation maintains government-to-government consultation should be pursued by the Trump Administration to fulfill their unique fiduciary responsibility as trustees for American Indians. The continuation of the government-to-government dialogue is paramount to protecting American Indian sovereignty and self-determination. His message continues to support the continuation and support of cultural Native identity while supporting development to sustain our people. He also maintains, “We are all Native to somewhere, and are all Native peoples.” Something Natives at Princeton seeks to evoke by our motto, No Reservations Needed.

At the end of the conference participants heard from Megan Alvanna-Stimpfle concerning the importance of preserving our connection to culture and land despite modern challenges. She noted she was hesitant to join the conference because, “[Alaska Natives] don’t have treaties so that conception is something totally foreign to me.” However, she did have insights into the relationship between tribes and land. She asserted tribes should have one hundred percent self-determination over their land, or whatever remains, in order to ensure our continued survival as a people. As a member of the King Island Community she eplained she felt the effect of disconnect with her land because her community was removed from their ancestral island in the middle of the 20th century and relocated to Nome, Alaska. This common theme in Indian Country is disheartening, but as Native people we have great resilience to adapt. She also advocates for greater engagement by Natives of every community to give back to their home as a support for success. Her presentation included an interactive session of breakout groups, which was favorably received by the delegates.

Overall the conference speakers gave every delegate a unique prospective on the future of Federal Indian policy and the strides as a people needed to take and move towards. This includes mutual support for common outcomes and respect for tradition while moving into the future. The future depends on the younger generation, and as noted by conference organizers, Native leaders will benefit when stakeholders at their respective educational institutions work together to hold such conferences. Without a space as the Ivy Native Conference we could not hear and grow from each other.

A’ho, thank you, from the Natives at Princeton Executive Board.


[1] Funders include: The Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination, the Carl Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding, the American Studies Program, the Bobst Center for Peace and Justice, USG Projects Board, the Woodrow Wilson School, the Princeton Politics Department, ODUS, Office of Religious Life, the Spanish and Portuguese Department