Remarks as Delivered by NCAI President Jefferson Keel, National Congress of American Indians
Executive Council Winter Session – 2012
Remarks as Delivered by NCAI President Jefferson Keel
National Congress of American Indians
Executive Council Winter Session – 2012
March 6, 2012 – L’Enfant Plaza - Washington, DC
Good morning and welcome to NCAI’s Executive Council Winter Session. It’s always good to see so many tribal leaders and Native people, gathered together to focus on the issues that matter most to our nations, our people and our culture.
As we gather today in the center of Washington, DC, we do so with the future of Indian Country at the center of our hearts and minds. And we bring with us the voices of our people to share with representatives of the US government. Our purpose here is not to “lobby congress” – we’re not an “interest group” -- we are here to conduct nation-to-nation meetings.
We’re here to represent the people of our nations, young people who’ve told us of their aspirations -- veterans who have recently returned to their homes with the hope of building up their nations -- the elders who sent us here to share their words -- the small business owners who stand ready to create jobs.
As we conduct these meetings here this week, it’s important that we reflect on the incredible opportunities ahead of us.
Lately, opportunity isn’t really a word that has received a lot of airtime here in the nation’s capitol. I think it’s safe to say, that current perceptions of Washington, DC are defined more by infighting than in-roads. Partisan gridlock has paralyzed the government’s ability to function.
And yet, for the nation-to-nation relationship with tribes and the federal government, we’ve seen more opportunities become reality, than not.
Contrary to the popular belief about the political climate here, much of these developments have come as a result of true bi-partisan efforts.
This didn’t happen overnight. We have an Obama Administration that is defining itself as one of the more committed executive branches in modern history to the nation-to-nation relationship. While consultations can be improved, we have some federal agencies that are going above and beyond this Executive Order to shape tribal policy. We have members of the Senate and House from both parties who understand that the federal trust responsibility is a non-partisan issue.
None of this has been easy. And the road ahead will not be easy. The progress that we see has taken a lot of work by you and those who came before you. What we see is the result of long sustained education and diplomacy with the federal government. If history has taught us anything, about how to secure our unique place in the American family of governments, it is that we must be an active and alert member of that family.
Let’s recognize that what’s happening here in DC for our sovereign nations and where it’s being driven from – is coming from within Indian Country. It’s the ideas and innovations coming from our sovereign governments; our sovereign economies; and our concerned citizens.
Last week, a historic moment occurred when the National Commission on Indian Trust Administration and Reform held it’s very first meeting. NCAI NW Area Vice President Fawn Sharp joined four other tribal leaders and advocates to chart a course for working with the Department of Interior to redefine the federal trust relationship. They are looking beyond just land rights and looking at a larger scope of the fundamental relationship between tribes and the federal government. This alone is a historic opportunity.
And this is just one opportunity. This year we have the chance to make major progress and advance tribal policy - from energy to transportation -- agriculture to telecommunications -- public safety to public health – from protecting our cultural rights to protecting our human rights -- we are here, we are present, and we are designing our future.
Acting in a Unified Way
We must not only say that we are unified, we must act in a unified way. In 2010 Indian Country came together to advocate for historic policies – and many called the gains we experienced at a policy level – the most comprehensive in nearly two decades. Everyone knows we took unprecedented unified action to see that through.
Efforts of the last year place us in a powerful position to once again shape our future. And we must not squander it.
In our NCAI Executive Committee meeting held yesterday, we had our entire board present – with the exception of our 1st Vice President Juana Majel-Dixon. In this meeting every member brought up that the federal government is experiencing tough times and that we must stay unified.
In an environment of tight federal budgets some people expect us to become divided rather than maintain unity. But we agreed to not falter during a great moment.
One example where our unity is vital is in the transportation bill. The distribution formula and proposals on transportation allocation are places we can get tripped up. Instead, we all agreed yesterday that its important stay unified on our goal of increased appropriations necessary for Indian Country.
Our biggest challenge this year is that we have so many moving pieces that we need to stay coordinated on what each of is staying focused on.
In the State of Indian Nations this past January I outlined some immediate actions Congress can take right now to advance the nation-to-nation relationship between our nations – and there are quite a few.
Restoring land through a Carcieri Fix; Lease Reform and the HEARTH Act; enacting amendments to the Stafford Act; the Native CLASS Act; and the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization and SAVE Native Women Act. The Violence Against Women Act is just a few votes away from passing in the Senate – and key Indian Country members of the Senate could tip the balance.
It is important that we get together and really map out how we are going to achieve these victories this year.
When our friends from Congress visit us over the next few days we need to be assured that Congress will stand with us to get these bills passed. This is not only our opportunity; it’s their opportunity. We are offering to Congress, clear solutions to tough challenges. But let’s be clear; we can’t wait for members of congress to come knocking on our door – we must go to them.
During the State of Indian Nations Address, NCAI, along with our partners in Indian Country, we released our Fiscal-Year 2013 Indian Country Budget Request. Each one of you received a copy of this in your packets – and as you visit with members this week – share it with them.
Once again, we must send a clear message to Congress - the trust responsibility is not a discretionary choice. It is not a line item. It is a solemn agreement.
Unless Congress acts to hold tribal programs harmless, then starting in 2013 we are facing ten to fifteen percent cuts across the board for the next decade -- cuts that will threaten essential services and affect millions of Native citizens.
We must urge Congress to stand up for the relatively small piece of the federal budget that belongs to tribal nations and our citizens. And in the President Obama’s budget request we have a solid footing to work from.
The Administration’s budget requests are a good first step in reflecting the priorities that Republicans, Democrats, and Administration officials have heard from tribal leaders in consultations and Congressional hearings.
During the State of Indian Nations Address, I called on the administration to ensure governmental flexibility for tribes. This message must be echoed in all your meetings.
This message comes directly from you, the tribal leaders. We asked a simple question of you and your fellow leaders from around Indian Country: What can we do with what we have already – without asking for more resources – that will provide greater opportunity for Indians and create more impact for federal programs? Over and over, the answer you came back to the national and regional organizations with: We need freedom at the local level to best use our limited resources.
We know what’s best because we live in Indian Country. We know where the needs are, and we know what works for our people. No one understands Indian life better than the Indian nations themselves.
This week, remind Congress and the federal government to create more flexibility.
Conclusion and Native Vote
I will conclude my remarks here today by re-iterating what I called for in the State of Indian Nations. In the address, I called for the largest turnout of the Native Vote in the history of our civic participation in this country.
In Denver, Colorado, in 1944 one of the first resolutions passed focused on supporting the right to vote efforts in New Mexico and Arizona in the 1940’s – states that were seeking to keep our voices quiet.
Today, the Native Vote – is more than a civic duty, it’s an expression of our unique role as the first Americans. Anyone who says otherwise, anyone who might doubt our civil rights as first peoples – would be best served by considering the fate of our nations if we had been silenced at the ballot box last century. This is our right. We must protect it and use it, so we can protect our sovereignty.
Every NCAI member, tribal leader, and tribal citizen should be focused on November 6th – Election Day - as a sacred day – one in which voting is an extension of our culture.
In 1944 when NCAI was founded, everyday men and women were asked by their elders to travel the long road to meet in Denver with other Native men and women; To look toward better days for tribal nations. It wasn’t an easy trip then, and still today it’s a long trip to be here. What was established then, continues here today, as we convene the Executive Council in Washington, DC to raise our voice together – to the men and women here in the nation’s capitol.
The results of those efforts have without a doubt strengthened our nations and our people. We must remember this week, to listen intently to those who come before us – and we when we speak – speak with the words of our people, for we are the first nations of this country; these are Our People, and this is Our America.