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NewsMar 12, 2021

Broken promises: Mohegan chief calls for U.S. to uphold treaties with Native people

Chief Lynn Malerba advocates for the future of indigenous people during Lesley's Strauch-Mosse Visiting Artist Lecture

By Georgia Sparling

When Chief Mutáwi Mutáhash (Many Hearts) Lynn Malerba received her Mohegan name, she was told that it signified the many hearts she’d held in her career as a nurse, as well as the hearts she now held as leader of her people.

In the decade since she became the 18th chief of the Connecticut-based Native American tribe, she has sought to live up to her name.

“She is her tribe’s most powerful advocate and a strong advocate for the rights of all native and indigenous people,” Lesley President Janet L. Steinmayer said in her introduction of Malerba on Thursday night as Lesley welcomed her to campus, virtually, as part of our Strauch-Mosse Visiting Artist Lecture Series.

Before becoming chief, a position also held by her great-grandfather, Malerba had an extensive career as a registered nurse. She also served in a number of roles with the Mohegan tribe, including as chair of the Tribal Council and executive director of health and human services for the tribal government.

In her hour-long talk, “United States Policy and Indigenous People: Why Trust and Treaty Obligations Matter,” Malerba discussed the consequences of centuries of legislation aimed at reducing and eliminating Indigenous peoples, that has left them in poverty with scarce resources.

“Layer a pandemic on top of that and we are really struggling here,” said Malerba. “How do you deal with the pandemic when you don’t have complete plumbing? How do you get people to care if you don’t have a telephone and you need to call emergency services?”

Broken promises

For the Mohegans, the century following “first contact” with European colonizers resulted in a loss of 90 percent of their population and land. Documents from the time show that tribal leaders tried to gain sovereignty, basically saying, “we want to be left alone. We’re very happy that you’re here but we want to live our own lives,” Malerba paraphrased.

The tribe even won one case against the colony of Connecticut, only to have it overturned on an appeal.

In the intervening years, the United States entered into, then reneged on, a number of treaties with Native American people, said Malerba, who serves on the Tribal Self-Governance Advisory Committee of the Federal Indian Health Service, Justice Department’s Tribal Nations Leadership Council, Tribal Advisory Committee for the National Institute of Health, and Treasury Tribal Advisory Committee.

She cited the Snyder Act of 1921, which authorized funding for health services for American Indians; the 1928 Meriam Report, which found failings by the federal government in regards to the health, education and financial stability of tribes; and the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, of which the goal was to give more self-governance to Native Americans.

In 2018, however, the Broken Promises report by the United States Commission on Civil Rights showed that the federal government has failed Native Americans. The commission stated, “The United States expects all nations to live up to their treaty obligations and it should live up to its own.

“Even when federal funding for Native American programs has increased, these funding levels have not kept pace with declines in real spending power, let alone fulfilled the trust obligations to which the federal government has committed itself for Native Americans,” the commission wrote, citing “vast health disparities,” a decline in affordable housing development and inadequate schools.

Funding for Native Americans is unstable and mostly relegated to the discretionary side of the budget, despite supposedly legally binding treaty agreements.

“We are the only people who have trust and treaty rights to health care and yet we are on the discretionary side,” said Malerba, while Medicaid, Social Security and veteran’s health programs are on the mandatory side of the budget.

People of the present

“We believe that respect for tribal sovereignty has a long way to go,” said Chief Many Hearts. “It requires a seat at the table at the highest levels in the administration.”

Food deserts across Indian country need to be addressed, she said, but that means removing silos among the federal agencies that work with tribes, such as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Economic Development Administration and the Department of Transportation.

“We need to partner with the USDA to develop farms and roads to get to those farms. We need to help the communities provide for themselves,” Malerba said.

She is heartened by the appointment of Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) to secretary of the interior. Upon confirmation, Haaland will be the first Native American cabinet secretary in history.

“You want to talk about restorative justice, let’s have a Native person be in charge of all of the interior,” said Malerba. “She will protect our sacred sites, and she will ensure the United States upholds the trust and treaty obligations, that we will protect Mother Earth.”

Chief Many Hearts is also encouraged by her own tribe’s work toward restoring its language and culture. Although she still has a lot of work to do in learning the Mohegan tongue, the tribe now has immersion language classes. There is a childcare center on the reservation for tribal members and employees, which she hopes will foster a sense of community among Mohegan kids as they grow up. Plus, language and cultural programs for youth and internships and work opportunities for high school and college students keep young people connected to the tribe.

The Mohegan people are working to uphold their history and culture as they strive to be viewed as vital parts of America today.

“People talk about tribes as though we’re in the past. We do live in modernity and we are political sovereigns,” she said. “I think we need to do a better job of educating people. The more you understand the rich diversity of the tribes as well as the rich diversity of everyone in the United States, we avoid so much heartache and pain.”