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May 2015 • Online Edition

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Rubin Seeks Authentic Empowerment For Indigenous Peoples | Print |  E-mail

by Susan Dugan

Jeanne Rubin, general counsel for the International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management, learned what it feels like to be considered outside mainstream society at an early age.


"WHAT'S GOOD FOR THE COMPANY IS NOT ALWAYS GOOD FOR THE COMMUNITY," says Jeanne Rubin, general counsel for the International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management. The organization has turned its attention to the effects of climate change of native cultures.

As a child, she accompanied her family to Japan in 1956 where her father worked as a civilian for the United States Army. “I lived in Japan from age four to eight. I remember people looking at me and pointing and taking pictures. Moving back to DC in 1960 was a shock.”

Rubin later attended the University of Maryland for two years before transferring to the University of the Americas in Mexico, where she earned an anthropology degree in 1974. She returned to Washington, DC and landed a job with a just-launched Indian program within the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). “There was a new council created in which every agency within HEW was represented at every meeting by the top appointee. The idea was to have people who could make a decision at the table. They functioned for a year organizing and then were ready to start developing policy proposals and hire staff. I was the first staff person hired. It was new and exciting and great fun for me.”

After nearly 10 years at HEW, Rubin applied to law school. “I didn’t want to be a career federal employee. I had gone to school nights and gotten a master’s degree from George Washington University and then went to Stanford Law School.” She relocated to Denver in 1986 and worked for a law firm specializing in commercial litigation and business law, but “really missed that sense of doing something with more of a social component in the public policy arena.”

Shortly thereafter Rubin struck off on her own, serving as gaming counsel for the Ute tribe in the Four Corners area for the next six-and-a-half years. Toward the end of that time in 1996, her husband, who had been working for the Council of Energy Resource Tribes as general counsel and director of their environmental program, left and founded the International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management. Rubin began doing pro bono work for the new organization on the side, helping them file for 501(c)3 status.  “I woke up one morning and realized I had two full-time jobs. The institute was doing some really new and exciting things and I felt I had to make a choice.”

Rubin has worked full-time for the law and policy research organization ever since. “We have an all-indigenous board, and our model is to have amazing associates we’re affiliated with that we pull in on a project-by-project basis. We adhere to a philosophy of enhancing tribal sovereignty and making sure that any work done with a tribe takes into consideration the tribal culture.”

The organization has recently focused on the direct impacts of climate change on tribal life. “Talking to people about climate change in general is too big for people to respond to, but if you talk about what’s happening to their water supply or to agriculture in their area, that’s something they can focus on and deal with.” The institute hosts trainings, workshops, and roundtables in which representatives from tribes, universities, and industry consider issues from different perspectives.

“It’s about looking at issues from a broader policy approach,” Rubin says. “We have partnerships with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder and Haskell Nations Indian University in Lawrence, Kansas, where our president teaches through a long-distance learning setup and is able to bring in associates from all over the world as speakers. Students and interns conduct research projects always factoring in the importance of tribal input, developing research that’s meaningful to the local community.”

Indigenous people around the world face similar challenges to their way of life, issues revolving around land ownership and control, how development is conducted, and whether it’s done sustainably, for example. “What’s sustainable from the perspective of the company isn’t necessarily sustainable from the perspective of the community. If a company comes in to develop a resource, it creates changes. While the specifics may differ from one community to another, in a broader sense the impacts are very similar.”

For the past nine years Rubin has poured her heart into the Institute’s Indigenous Film & Arts Festival, presented each October. The only collaboration of its kind in Colorado, the festival displays artistic works and films from North and South American Indian, Canadian First Nations, Hawaiian, Maori, and Aboriginal Australian participants. The most recent event included a film screening and panel discussion at NCAR and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.

“Film is a very powerful way to present an issue firsthand without someone filtering it. We started this because film is a good way to engage people and communicate a message. For example, we just had another screening of a film about whaling in the Makah tribe in Washington State. People may be familiar with the Greenpeace perspective on whaling, but they don’t often hear from the Makah perspective where people have traditionally hunted whales.”

Because Denver was a relocation city under the federal policy of relocating Native Americans from reservations to urban areas during the 1950s and 1960s, members of many American tribes attend the festival to learn more about their heritage. “We also have Polynesians and lots of folks from Mexico and South America living here,” Rubin says. “There’s a population of five thousand Peruvians in Longmont. We connected up with them through the Peruvian consulate and arranged for some people to come and do traditional dancing at one of our festivals. We screened a Bolivian film last year and featured an afternoon celebrating Bolivian culture.”

To find new films Rubin attends the biannual festival conducted by the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. “We also look at what’s being screened around the world. There’s a tremendous Maori filmmaking industry in New Zealand. We always have an open call for entries and we started a wonderful partnership with the Denver American Indian Commission to present a monthly indigenous film screening.”

The idea for the monthly film screenings sprang from a 2011 partnership with the Denver Botanic Gardens in conjunction with the exhibit of Apache sculptor Allan Houser’s work. “The Denver American Indian Commission wanted to continue it, so we worked together to do so. Monthly screenings will be hosted at the Su Teatro theater on Santa Fe Drive beginning in 2013.”

Partnerships with a variety of organizations have helped the festival grow and thrive. “One of the things I like about film is that it is by definition a very collaborative art form. The festival has evolved as a very collaborative event. This year, for example, we partnered with the Art in Public Places program at Republic Plaza. We always have an art exhibit to open the festival and this year we held an all-indigenous art exhibit there.” Venues for film screenings included the Nighthorse Campbell Native Health Building, the Crossroads Theatre, and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

“All these organizations have opened up their venues and supported the festival in so many ways. By moving into different neighborhoods different people come and it really extends the filmmakers’ reach. I’m the one at the end of the day that gets to stand on the stage with the microphone and introduce these amazing filmmakers, but there are so many people who make this happen. Volunteers and interns come from all over. And all the partnering entities enabled us to offer these screenings free, making them accessible to everyone.”

Rubin believes the festival offers creative filmmakers with strong voices a rare opportunity to have their work experienced and appreciated. “A lot of these films don’t make it into mainstream festivals. Some of the filmmakers get critiqued on their pacing because their films move slowly. There’s maybe a different eye and a different way of looking. For me to be able to make these films available to audiences who are so appreciative is so much fun! I get to hear the Q & A with filmmakers and artists after the show. I get to organize all these creative people. I don’t have it in me, but I recognize creativity when I see it. As my mother used to say, ‘If you’re not going to learn how to bake, know where to find a good bakery.’”

(Editor’s note: to learn more about the far-reaching work of the International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management,including a schedule of monthly films, visit iiirm.org or call 303-733-0481.)
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