Working Toward Indigenous Justice Through Solidarity

Thursday, October 5, 2023
The ACLU of Washington’s offices in downtown Seattle sit on the unceded territory of the Duwamish People, and I write to you today from the traditional homelands of the first peoples of Seattle, the Coast Salish people, who have stewarded this land since time immemorial. On this land, we are a part of a network of relationships with Indigenous Peoples, alert to the devastating and continuing impact of colonialism and dedicated to building brighter futures.
The history of the United States cannot be told without including the historical and contemporary truths of genocide, land dispossession, discrimination and erasure experienced by Indigenous Peoples, who have been intentionally left out of our national narrative. This project of erasure continues to cause massive harms and injustice, with Indigenous people disproportionately likely to be deprived of their rights in the civil and criminal legal, health, and education systems.
We are grounded in this truth at the ACLU of Washington and committed to making a difference.
On this Indigenous Peoples’ Day, as we continue to learn and expand our understanding of Native American history and culture, we must also work toward Indigenous Justice by nurturing, deepening and sustaining relationships with tribal communities.
For decades – long before I arrived at ACLU-WA – this organization has supported efforts to ensure tribal sovereignty for Indigenous Peoples in Washington, where there are 29 federally recognized tribes. Now ACLU-WA is committed to prioritizing a dimension of our Indigenous Justice work measured not solely by lawsuits and legislation, but more intentionally through the relationships we build with tribal governments, Indigenous-led non-profits, and Indigenous leaders, and the consistency with which we show up and listen.
Last October, I was honored to help organize the ACLU’s first ever nationwide Indigenous Justice Convening with colleagues from affiliates around the country. ACLU-WA’s Integrated Advocacy Director Vanessa Hernandez also attended the convening and a follow-up retreat last month. There, she helped ground us in the importance of solidarity and learning in the ACLU’s work to advance Indigenous Justice. I am not Native American. I am descended from African people who were enslaved by colonizers. Our communities are called to build solidarity through our unique stories and our common experiences of colonialism and white supremacy. Brighter futures will emerge from these relationships.
In the year since the first convening, our dedicated staff has worked toward advancing Indigenous Justice in a variety of arenas, from high-profile court battles to sustained efforts to build relationships in community. Here’s a sampling of this work:
  • We helped defend tribal sovereignty before the United States Supreme Court. One bright spot in the U.S. Supreme Court’s term was its decision in Brackeen v. Haaland, a case challenging the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) in which the ACLU-WA joined other ACLU affiliates and national in an amicus brief. ICWA protects Native American children from removal from their homes and communities, because of the long history of attempts to destroy Native peoples through genocide and massacres, legalized kidnapping during the boarding school era, and deep overrepresentation within the child welfare/family regulation system. In Brackeen, the Court ruled that Congress had the power to adopt ICWA and dismissed all other claims due to standing. This battle is not over. The ACLU-WA will continue to monitor cases challenging ICWA or otherwise seeking to twist equal protection doctrine to undermine tribal sovereignty, and we will collaborate with the national ACLU’s Indigenous Justice Working Group on responses.
  • We continue to build relationships with Indigenous people who are incarcerated. This summer, Smart Justice Policy Program Director Chelsea Moore and I attended the annual powwow at Washington Corrections Circle in Shelton, at the invitation of the institution’s Native Circle. We continue to work with members of the Native Circle and other incarcerated people on our sentencing reform efforts, and to facilitate connections between Indigenous incarcerated people and lawmakers.
  • Our work to ensure Indigenous people who are incarcerated have access to traditional religious ceremonies continues. In 2021, for example, with Indigenous civil rights lawyer Gabe Galanda, we successfully advocated to restore access to Inipi (sweat lodge) and other traditional religious ceremonies for Indigenous inmates in Washington prisons, following months of disproportionately applied COVID-19 restrictions.
  • The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians issued a resolution calling on the state Legislature to retroactively end the practice of lengthening state prison sentences based on juvenile records, a practice that disproportionately impacts Indigenous people and one that the ACLU-WA is actively fighting.
We will move forward to support and pursue Indigenous Justice with humility, guided by members of Indigenous communities and the priorities they define.
To that end, I invite you to join our Annual Celebration on October 21 with the goal of learning. This year’s theme “Dwell in Possibility” captures the expansive and healing vision of our keynote speaker Edgar Villanueva, member of the Lumbee nation, and author of “Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance”.
I also encourage you to learn more about Indigenous Justice by revisiting our Flights and Rights discussion on Decolonizing Thanksgiving from 2021. Bree Black Horse, enrolled member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma and member of the ACLU-WA Board of Directors, urged the Flights and Rights audience to remember that decolonizing means honoring the resilience of Indigenous Peoples while recognizing and working to combat ongoing assaults to tribal sovereignty and justice: “We are all here despite the best efforts of the U.S. government to eradicate us and our cultures,” Bree noted. “None of us can change that past but we can change the future.”
Our shared commitment to anti-colonialism and anti-racism binds us. Now, we work toward deepening relationships to achieve a vision of Indigenous Justice that reflects the goals of tribal communities. I am  excited to build a more just future together.  
In Solidarity,
Michele Storms