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Caring for Our People with Disabilities & Chronic Illness

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This page emphasizes information that will be common to a number of tribes. The information provided is not specific to people with disabilities and should be of interest to anyone working with American Indian families.

Political and Employment Status


The American Heritage ®Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000.

1. Supremacy of authority or rule as exercised by a sovereign or sovereign state. 2. Royal rank, authority, or power. 3. Complete independence and self-government. 4. A territory existing as an independent state.

A misunderstanding of sovereignty is the basis of many disagreements between Indians and non-Indians. Of course everyone knows that when the United States was ‘discovered by various European nations it was already home to a large number of indigenous people. Many of these tribes fought to retain their ancestral lands, and to end the fighting, the U.S. government entered into various treaties. It is common knowledge that the U.S. government has broken every treaty ever entered into with the several hundred federally-recognized tribes. Nearly everyone recognizes this was morally wrong, unethical and illegal.

What does this have to do with us today?
Even though there have been many violations, those government – to – government agreements entered into between the United States and the tribes still stand.

An Indian tribe has the sovereign authority to regulate commerce and other behavior within the boundaries of tribal lands. Just as the United States can require that people not use certain drugs within the U.S. borders that are legal in other countries, such as Mexico, a tribal government can require that alcohol not be transported, stored or sold within its boundaries.

Although tribes are required to comply with federal regulations such as ADA and IDEA, and compliance with state licensing laws may be necessary to receive funding, these requirements may not be compatible with what an individual wants.

People with developmental disabilities, older people in particular, may be adapted to the reservation community. Although independent living services, sheltered workshops and other ‘programming’ may be considered essential by staff to further an individual’s quality of life, relocation off the reservation may be strongly opposed by the individual or family.

TERO – Tribal Employment Rights Ordinance
Most larger reservations have a TERO office. The purpose of TERO is two-fold, first to see that there is no discrimination against Indians in employment on the reservation and, second, to require reservation employers to give preference to tribal members.
Some non-Indians see the latter as discrimination. In fact, it is no different than when the United States, a sovereign nation, requires a visa for employment of non-citizens within its borders. Is it fair that Indians should have preference for employment on the reservation and equal opportunity off the reservation? One might as well ask is it fair that Indians now possess a minute fraction of the land that was once theirs. Both the right of non-Indians to live on what were formerly tribal lands, and the right to sovereignty are guaranteed by the same treaties.

Pow-wows and other cultural events

Most American Indians are very welcoming of non-Indians who express a genuine interest in the tribal culture. We have not been to all of the hundreds of reservations and Alaskan villages in the United States, but among the numerous tribes with which we do have experience, a sincere desire to learn has always been appreciated. One reason non-Indians may feel uncomfortable attending pow-wows is that they are not sure they are welcome. (We just addressed that, didn't we?) Below is a brief guide to your first pow-wow.


"The Powwow begins with the Grand Entry. All spectators are asked to rise as the flags and eagle staffs of the host and visiting tribes are brought in. The Eagle staffs represent nations, families, and communities. As the drums begin a grand entry song, the chief of tribal chair of the host tribe and visiting dignitaries enter the arena. They are followed by other honored members and the color guard of veterans. Elected royalty (princesses, warriors, etc.), young people who have been chosen and honored by their specific home community to represent that community at Powwows around the country, follow next. Led by the elders, the men dancers follow next, generally in the following order: men’s traditional dancers, men’s grass dancers and then men’s fancy dancers. Then the women enter, also led by the elder women and in the order of women’s traditional dancers, jingle dress dancers and then fancy shawl dancers. The teenage boys enter next, followed by the teenage girls and then the younger boys, girls and tiny tots. The dancers in each category are announced by the MCs as they pass the announce stand. Finally the arena is filled with all of the dancers, each dancing in their grand regalia. Responsibility for maintaining the song passes form drum to drum, going around the circle until all dancers are in the center of the circle and dancing. With all remaining in the center of the circle, the prayer song and honoring song for veterans begin next. It is a spectacular sight filled with beauty and pride."

Courtesy of Dakota Supplies

"Songs are very important and have intense personal impact. The music in a Powwow comes primarily form the drum groups who circle the arena. The drum groups usually consist of several men, each with a covered mallet, circling a large drum covered with hide (buffalo, elk, cow, etc.). The men then blend their voices with the beating of the drum to create the song. The songs are varied and endless in number: some are traditional and passed down through history; others are contemporary and created to speak to current concerns and interests. Many songs are sung in the original Indian languages, a fact some believe will help keep the languages alive and vital to the growing youth. Each category of dance has a specific style of song and pace that is appropriate for the specific dance. The Drum group, particularly the lead singer, is responsible for having whatever style of song is required immediately available at the request of the MC or arena director."

Courtesy of Dakota Supplies

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