Members of the National Congress of American Indians, members of the Administration and the 113th Congress, tribal leaders, tribal citizens, my fellow Americans.
As President of the National Congress of American Indians, and as one of more than 5 million American Indian and Alaska Natives of the 566 federally-recognized tribal nations and many state-recognized governments of Indian country, it’s an honor to speak to you today.
Native Americans are as diverse as America itself—an array of cultures, each with its own rich heritage, its own proud history.
And all of our vibrant threads, our stories and traditions, our struggles and triumphs, are woven into the fabric of America.
Every day, we are reminded of how far we’ve come, and the great journey we have ahead of us. And though we’ve walked dark roads, and overcome great challenges and tragedies, our future holds great promise.
Today, Indian country is strong.
It seemed like a typical political speech to me. You don't expect any political leader, whether it's Obama or Keel, to dwell on the negative. But this time Natives are speaking up against the whitewashing of Indian country's problems.
Who Does NCAI Represent?
By Ruth Hopkins
Mr. Keel gave a standard political speech. I’m sure it appeased wealthy tribes and mainstreamed Natives. However, I found myself asking what Indian country the NCAI represents, because I hardly recognized the one he described.
Yes, Indian Country is strong--thanks to the tenacity and fortitude of our people. Still, that strength should not mitigate the dire straits some Tribes still find themselves in, nor is it an excuse not to posit real solutions for the most serious issues we face.
In the Northern Plains, there was a blizzard last week. Reservation schools closed, but reopened their doors as soon as possible. When discussing the reasoning behind opening schools despite bad weather, an administrator said a major motivation for keeping their doors open is because they know that for some of the children, the meals they get at school will be the only nutritious food they get all day.
That is the reality for many Native families, especially those living on reservations. While it’s terrific that Mr. Keel’s tribe contributes billions of dollars to their local economy, there are thousands of Natives in this country who are struggling just to survive--and it’s not that they aren’t trying to do better. There are still a lot of barriers preventing Natives from escaping poverty. Unemployment remains to be a major factor, and those who are able to find work often do so for pennies.
He said, “Our nations have enormous potential. Tribal lands boast almost 25 percent of America’s on-shore oil and gas resources, and one-third of the West’s low-sulfur coal. And yet, they represent less than 5 percent of current national energy production. Why? Because of leasing restrictions.”
While I realize that not every Native person practices their cultural values, I can assure the NCAI that hundreds of thousands of Natives in Indian country still do, and turning the lands where are ancestors lie in eternal repose into a toxic desert just to extract oil and gas in order to inflate Tribal leaders’ bottom lines flies in the face of every traditional teaching our grandparents instilled in us.
As a Native woman, I’m proud of Indian country’s success stories, but if we continue to ignore the harsh realities many Tribes face, we won’t last. Further, it’s a mistake to emulate the western class system, where the rich individual fails to acknowledge the struggles of their poorer brothers and sisters.
By Charles Kader
The focus on non-native prosecution in domestic violence cases via tribal court is again a good start but the exercise also shows the current and continued impotence of these same tribal courts as more of a novelty than an effective institution. The United States Congress reluctance to empower the tribal courts in specific ways shows the underlying fear that eventually an arrest warrant will be issued for American political figures involved in graft within Indian country, and then the real sovereign thumb-wrestling match will be on. Even as we hear “nation to nation” expressed throughout this address.
Mr. Keel also whitewashes the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples signatories’ list affiliation by the United States. This American participation occurs at the minimum level of commitment for the U.N. Declaration, and only when doing so does not undermine the existing United States remedy for Native issues, i.e. the American legal system, among other presuppositions. The NCAI President seems to express that the United States acceptance of the U.N. Declaration alone is enough to do some of this political lifting, including amazingly enough, in the realm of border tribes and American immigration policies that directly affect these tribes. I have to see how that will work for sure, especially pertaining to the border spanning Akwesasne Territory as a community that I am familiar with.
By Dina Gilio-Whitaker
Mr. Keel characterizes Indian country as “strong” but strong is a relative term. Compared to a hundred years ago when our nations were at their weakest, yes, we are stronger. But compared to two or three hundred years ago when many tribal nations were still well intact and some didn’t even have contact with Europeans yet, we are still reeling from the catastrophic affects of colonization.
Nations struggling to revive moribund languages, have Eurocentric governmental structures based on values that are contradictory to traditional tribal values, are forced to pay taxes on resources from their own lands or have no land bases at all—to say nothing about rampant social disorders like teenage suicide and drug and alcohol addiction—are not in positions of strength.
At best, they can be said to be in the process of regaining strength. It somehow seems okay for tribal leaders to publically talk about problems related to cultural breakdown, but when it comes to calling out the ways the U.S. asserts domination over our nations without permission, they predictably stop short. What are they afraid of?
By Peter d'Errico
The first and biggest presumption is that the so-called "trust relationship" is a two-way street. President Keel said the "unique nation-to-nation relationship tribes enjoy with the United States" is "a relationship of mutual respect, mutual obligation and mutual trust." Unfortunately, both history and law show that this statement is false.
The "unique" aspect of the relationship between Indians and the U.S. is that the U.S. considers itself inherently superior to Indian nations. Inherently—by definition—according to the U.S. Supreme Court, Indian nations cannot be equal to the U.S. because the U.S. assumes the role of the Christian "discoverer," empowered by the Popes to take and subdue all non-Christian lands and peoples.
That principle—if you can call religious supremacy a "principle"—was laid down in 1823, in the case of Johnson v. McIntosh. The court ruled that the U.S. had "a right to take possession" of Indian lands "notwithstanding the occupancy of the natives, who were heathens"!
When the Cherokee Nation went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1831 to challenge the state of Georgia for its assault on Cherokee people and lands, the court referred to the uniqueness of the relationship between the U.S. and the Indians. It said, "The condition of the Indians in relation to the United States is perhaps unlike that of any other two people in existence." How so? "They occupy a territory to which we assert a title independent of their will…."
So much for the "unique relationship." It's not something an NCAI president ought to celebrate.
I wonder if this is a reflection of the increased activism reflected in Idle No More and other Native protests. Perhaps younger Natives are tired of waiting around for the elders to address the problems in Indian country.
For more on the subject, see Women March on Valentine's Day and Young People Lead Idle No More.
Below: Jefferson Keel.