Pettifer family descendant Angela Riley serves as Chief Justice of the CPN Tribal Supreme Court. She is a professor of law at the UCLA School of Law as well as an Indigenous rights scholar and activist.
Justice Riley recently spoke with the Hownikan about her position on the Board of Governors for the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development’s Honoring Nations program. After receiving an official invite, she joined the board in 2016. As a Harvard graduate, Justice Riley said she felt privileged to be asked to join.
Honoring Nations recognizes tribal governments’ successes in self-governance in a wide variety of sectors such as education, health care and economics. The board of governors annually evaluates applications based on their “effectiveness, significance to sovereignty, cultural relevance, transferability, and sustainability,” according to Honoring Nations’ website.
Each year, the top 10 applications receive funding to spread their ideas and projects to other tribal governments. The goal of the program is to increase communication and the dissemination of this valuable information. More than 130 programs have been recognized to date including Citizen Potawatomi Nation for its Community Development Corporation, constitutional reform and Potawatomi Leadership Program.
How did you get involved with the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development’s Honoring Nations program?
“When I was a student at Harvard Law School in ’95-’98, Joe Kalt was teaching his nation-building course at the JFK School of Government. Law students were allowed to take a few courses outside the law school, and I took the class. It was a continuation of my education in Indian law and tribal governance. I kept in touch with Joe and his colleague and Native Nations Co-Founder, Stephen Cornell, for years. By the time I was in academia and writing extensively in the field, we had become friends and colleagues.”
What are some of your responsibilities as a member of the board of governors for the program?
“The board is actually quite active and very engaged in the work. We provide guidance in terms of mission and institutional support for the organization. But the primary work of the board is to review the applications from tribes and begin to narrow them to a smaller set. Then the board conducts site visits around the country and makes further assessments. Finally, we have our final board meeting where we make the final selections and give those honors out at NCAI.”
Why do you think Honoring Nations is important?
“The future is Indigenous. Native Nations have unlimited potential to develop as sovereigns and also to set the standard for good governance, which I believe the world needs right now. The Honoring Nations program is dedicated to seeking out that kind of innovation, brilliance, grit, and leadership, and not only rewarding it but making it known in Indian Country to serve as a model for other tribes.”
Since you have spent your career studying Native American law and sovereignty, what are some of the major facets of a tribal program that help its government in the long term?
“I have to be transparent here — I’ve been truly inspired by Chairman Barrett and the leadership he has shown in numerous respects. I feel our own constitutional revitalization was critical to adopting a constitution that comports with our own Tribe’s governance and mission. As I’ve spent more than a decade studying Native Nations, the programs I have seen that are most successful share some common features. In the words of Joe Kalt and Steve Cornell, they constitute a ‘cultural match’. That is, they are culturally integrated into the tribal community and reflect tribal tradition and values in a way that achieves support and buy-in from the community. They are run with principles of integrity and transparency, and — difficult but essential — they are sustainable. In my view, any sustainable, culturally relevant program helps the people, thereby helping the government. Tribes are a community, and must remain so to survive and succeed into the next seven generations.”
What do you think are some of the biggest challenges tribes face governmentally?
“People forget that many tribes are still recovering from an incredibly disruptive — and, in some cases, violent and destructive – colonial process. This means that the governments established in the Reorganization Period might not be suitable for today’s challenges. Or the tribe may now be on lands away from their aboriginal homeland, making connection to traditional culture and spirituality more difficult. But I think some of our biggest challenges will come in figuring out how to be global leaders in marrying innovation with sustainability — specifically, a respect for our planet, the Mother Earth, and how to ensure her continuation into the future for all people. In addition, the pressures of the outside world are significant, to say the least. As the Indian population moves off reservation in increasing numbers, we have to think creatively about membership, community, and tribalism for the future.”
What kind of feelings for the future of Native American governments does going through the applications and selecting honorees give you?
“I am constantly inspired by Indigenous peoples, in the U.S. and around the world. The unbelievable agility in adapting to new technologies and new innovations, while staying true to tribal culture and tradition, is truly remarkable. When I read the applications and see tribes leading the way for their people in health care in remote Alaskan villages or in green food production in rural Oklahoma or creating Indigenous-based justice systems in Northern California, I am awed every single time by the human capital that goes into those programs and the unbelievable success that tribes have in relation to size and resources.”
What kind of future do you see for the program?
“Joe Kalt and Steven Cornell are continuing to lead the program and fundraise for it, which will be based out of the Kennedy School at Harvard. But the program will evolve as its leaders and founders evolve in their own lives and careers. I was at Harvard as a student when the idea was hatched, and I’d love to see it maintain its Harvard affiliation. But, whatever happens, the future is limitless for Native Nations, and that’s really the most important piece of the story.”