10th Annual State of
Indian Nations Address - NCAI President Keel Remarks
January 27, 2012
I want to thank the Native service members and veterans who have joined
us today. Many know the story of Indian Country -- the challenges we
have faced, and the ones we face today. But very few Americans know the
story of the hundreds of thousands of tribal members who have served in
the United States military, as far back as the Revolutionary War. As a
veteran myself, I want to thank Lt. Colonel Hunting Horse and the 24,000
active duty American Indian and Alaska Native service members serving
today to protect the sovereignty of the United States and the tribal
nations of North America. Thank you.
Strong Indian Nations
My fellow tribal leaders, tribal citizens and American citizens, members
of the National Congress of American Indians, members of the
Administration and the 112th Congress, and those listening or watching
today: I am honored to speak to you all, but especially to address
representatives of the more than 5 million Native people and the 566
tribal nations of Indian Country.
The State of Indian Nations is strong. Our nations are strong. Our
peoples are strong. Like our sovereignty, the strength of our nations,
is our inheritance. The State of Indian Nations, as I outline it today,
should be defined by what we commit to right now to make the state of
Indian Nations even stronger in the years to come.
We all know tribes have faced a difficult history. We are rising from
harsh economic conditions to contribute to a more prosperous tomorrow.
Tribes have been doing more with less for generations, and I am here
today to outline a path to overcome our shared challenges – to lay out
specific economic changes and improvements for our tribal nations. Some
of these changes require legislative action but many others can come
from direct action by the Administration. Ultimately though, it will be
the actions of Native people that can change their nations and
Native people are the first Americans. Tribal nations are its first
governments – one of three sovereigns recognized in the United States
Constitution. And our America is a place where each member of the
American family of governments contributes to a prosperous future.
Native Vote in this election year
To achieve that vision, we need leaders who understand that Indian
Country matters. Especially in a Presidential election year! We’re all
aware of the impact an election can have on Indian Country. And, in
recent years, many have come to learn that the door swings both ways –
Indian Country can have a significant impact on elections – and it can
be game changing.
As grandmas on the Navajo nation and young people in Alaska Native
villages go to the ballot box this November, they are standing on the
shoulders of those who fought hard for that right. As students at
Arizona State University and veterans in foreign lands cast their vote,
they are reminding America that we matter.
In the 1940s, thousands of Native veterans returned home to a shocking
reality: America had accepted them on the battlefield, but had no place
for them at the ballot box.
Ira Hayes – a member of the Gila River Indian Community, who raised the
flag at Iwo Jima – returned to the homeland he had defended, and was
denied the right to vote. Miguel Trujillo from Isleta Pueblo, who
enlisted as a Marine in the days following Pearl Harbor, returned home
to New Mexico and was denied the right to vote.
These American heroes inspired the fight – all the way to the federal
courts – for the right to participate in the 1948 elections. They
expressed the power of the Native vote the first time they cast their
ballots, and it’s been at work ever since.
Stories like these have shown Native people that when it comes to Native
Vote, we can and we must think big. Simply put, we will work tirelessly
in 2012 to see the highest Native turnout ever.
We know it can be done. For instance, on the Fort Belknap Reservation in
Montana, turnout rates are regularly over 80 percent. A survey of
seniors at UCLA showed that Native young people participate at rates
higher than any other group of students. This is especially important
because almost half a million Native youth will be eligible to vote for
the first time in the next four years.
Native people don’t see the world in two and four year election cycles.
We’re focused on building stronger communities for generations to come.
When we step in the ballot box, we want to vote for candidates who will
stand with tribal nations to create a strong prosperous future. We are
not mobilizing for one party or for one candidate. Indians don't just
vote D for Democrat or R for Republican. For us, it’s “I” for Indian. We
are independent voters and we will continue to vote for the candidate
who is strong on our issues, and cares about our priorities.
That’s why today, I’m calling on all Presidential candidates to make
sure Indian Country is at the table during the campaign and throughout
your Administration. These specific actions should form the foundation
of your Native policy platform:
First, we call on the President to send a Special Message to Congress on
the importance of the Nation-to-Nation Relationship. In 1970, President
Nixon sent a historic message to Congress on tribal self-determination.
That message launched the self-determination era – the very framework
that allowed tribes to prove our capacity as governments. All Presidents
should do the same.
Second, we call on the President to fully implement the United Nations
Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. We specifically call
for a review of all existing federal law to ensure they are in alignment
with the Declaration.
Third, we call for an Annual Nation-to-Nation Summit and ongoing
high-level meetings. This would institutionalize the current Tribal
Nations Summit, a meaningful commitment to our nation-to-nation
relationship that must be upheld by all future Presidents. We also call
on the President to convene regular meetings on specific issues between
tribal leaders and cabinet secretaries.
Fourth, elevate Native people in the federal government. It is past time
for qualified Native people to be seated on the federal bench. The
appointment of a Senior Advisor on Native American Affairs has advanced
policymaking at the White House and we applaud President Obama for his
leadership. With the importance of the Indian budget in the coming
decade, we urge the creation of an office for Native American programs
at Office of Management Budget.
And finally, we call upon all candidates to actively engage Indian
Country in your campaign. We invite each candidate to visit Indian
Country to outline your policy positions. We also urge the campaigns to
make sure tribal nations are part of the discussion at the Presidential
Opportunities for Congressional Action
Between now and the election, we have a lot of work to do! For all of
the partisan challenges of the past year, the Congress has found common
ground on Indian policy. Under the bipartisan leadership of Senators
Akaka and Barrasso, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs has reached
across party lines to develop legislation that promises to transform
Indian Country. And in the House, Republicans like Chairman Don Young
and Democrats like Dale Kildee have worked hard to educate their
colleagues about the benefits tribal governments offer our nation.
There are some important things the Congress can do right now that can
grow Indian economies and create jobs. Without spending a dime, the
Congress can fix the problems created by the Carcieri Supreme Court
decision and offer certainty for land-into-trust transactions that are
critical to Indian Country’s economic future.
The Department of the Interior is already acting to streamline lease
approvals for renewable energy development, and we urge the Congress to
pass the HEARTH Act to expand leasing reform and to pass an Indian
energy self-determination law.
Congress can also act on public safety legislation that will attract
businesses to our communities. We urge passage of amendments to the
Stafford Act that are supported by FEMA and would remove burdens from
states and tribes in times of critical emergencies when lives are on the
Native women are the protectors of our culture, our families, and our
future. We call on the Senate to pass the Violence Against Women Act
Reauthorization and the SAVE Native Women Act— both of which would take
critical steps to address the horrific rates of violence being
perpetrated against our women.
The Native CLASS Act offers the chance to provide the kind of education
our young people need to succeed today and build the economies Indian
Country needs for tomorrow. Our young people must not be left behind
Congress must stand with us now to get these bills passed, but long term
success depends on America keeping her promises. That’s why NCAI, along
with our partners in Indian Country are making available to you today
our plan for the Indian budget.
This document outlines our vision for investing in the future of our
America, and stabilizing the Indian budget. It will create reliable,
safe domestic energy; it will build a 21st century education system; it
will modernize our infrastructure; and, it will fund implementation of
critical legislation like the Tribal Law & Order Act and the Indian
Health Care Improvement Act.
Just as our plan holds hope for the future, the Budget Control Act poses
great risks. The Act requires Congress to cap discretionary spending for
the next 10 years. Much of the funding that fulfills the federal trust
responsibility is categorized -- wrongly, in our view -- as domestic
The trust responsibility is not a discretionary choice. It is not a line
item. It is a solemn agreement that has been sustained over hundreds of
years. 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 throughout vast regions of rural
We are well aware of the budget challenges our nation faces. We live in
Indian Country – we know all about doing more with less. We urge
Congress to stand up for the relatively small piece of the federal
budget that belongs to tribal nations and our citizens.
Protecting the Indian budget is the first step but long-term success
depends on tribal nations having the same opportunities to protect and
preserve our communities that are available to state and local
governments. We exercise jurisdiction over lands that would make us the
fourth largest state. We run dozens of social programs previously
administered by federal agencies or states. And, we protect reservation
environments in the manner that states regulate off reservation
lands.Tribal governments have proven our capacity to grow our economies,
educate our people, and manage our resources. We need the federal
government to put decision-making power back in the hands of the people
who live in Indian Country -- the people who know best because these are
our homelands, these are our people. The old way of doing things causes
missed opportunities every day. The Swinomish Tribe, in Washington
state, saw this first hand. The tribe had worked out a deal with
Wal-Mart for a big new store on the reservation. This was a great deal
-- a million dollars a year in lease revenue for the Tribe, and new jobs
for tribal members and people throughout the community. As with every
lease on Indian lands, the federal government needed to approve it. The
process took more than a year and by the time it was approved economic
conditions had changed and Wal-Mart had made other plans.
A million dollars a year for Swinomish, gone. All those jobs, gone. And
this is not an isolated story. Many tribal leaders can tell you stories
about business opportunities lost because of red tape. This is why our
federal partners have already proposed crucial lease reforms to free our
economies. Tribal nations have proven our capacity. We don’t need the
government involved in all our business decisions, we need flexibility.
And by creating it, we will remove the barriers that cost us jobs and
opportunity. This is a goal I think we can all agree on, across the
political spectrum, and it is something we can achieve with a change in
policy, not an increase in spending.That is the kind of solution
Washington is crying out for and we in Indian Country are eager to
answer the call.
Moment of opportunity
Ensuring governmental flexibility will yield more efficient programs and
spending, because decisions will be made by those in the best position
to respond to community needs. It will also relieve administrative
burdens at the federal level.
This message comes directly from tribal leaders. We went to them with
one simple question: 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 came back: 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. Give us flexibility.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota is delivering broadband
services across their reservation because of governmental flexibility.
The FCC’s decision to designate Standing Rock Telecom as an eligible
telecommunications carrier means they are the first fully tribally owned
and operated broadband company that can receive universal service funds.
This designation has empowered Standing Rock to own and operate
essential telecommunications infrastructure. This offers avenues for
economic development, opportunities to preserve tribal languages and
culture, and infrastructure for distance learning programs. That, is the
kind of flexibility we need in Indian Country, when only one in ten
Native people have access to broadband today.
The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony in Nevada opened a 65,000 square foot
health facility in 2007 that showed the promise of tax exempt bond
financing. Almost $16 million in bonds funded a full service clinic that
serves 100,000 people each year. This project created permanent jobs and
built the infrastructure for quality health services.
Tribes were denied full access to this source of financing until the
Recovery Act created a limited bond offering. Based on that experience,
the Treasury released a report in December recommending they have the
same access to bond financing available to our governmental peers. This
will bring huge economic benefits to tribes and surrounding regional
Education is another example where flexibility can prepare our children
for the global market place. The Cherokee Nation's Language Immersion
School formed an innovative partnership with Apple Computers to
integrate technology and the Cherokee language. They developed Cherokee
language software for use on Macintosh computers, iPhones, iPods, and
iPads. Students even chat online – in Cherokee – with students from the
Eastern Band of Cherokee in North Carolina. This is a powerful example
of tribal innovation and initiative—the type of innovation that vesting
tribes with greater authority over our own programs unleashes.
Whether in economic development or education, healthcare or energy, the
key to getting it right is the freedom to identify and tear down
barriers to our success.
A new era for the trust relationship
Tribal leaders carry with us a dream. It’s a dream passed down from our
parents and grandparents. It doesn’t look forward to 2012 or 2016, it
looks to the seventh generation. We see a future where the trust
relationship actually works – works for tribal nations, and works for
our federal partners.
Our ancestors knew that tribes could govern our nations like no one
else. Today, we have proven it. Residents of rural Oklahoma are driving
to our health facilities, because they offer the best services around.
States and counties are turning to our traditional knowledge to best
manage natural resources. Citizens of those states are coming to tribes
for job opportunities and a good education at tribal colleges. And
companies are coming to us to set up businesses on the reservation and
bring American jobs home.
When we have the tools and freedom we need, we are creating businesses,
delivering services, and leading the way. It’s time to build our trust
on that reality.
That trust also requires consultation, legally enforceable consultation.
Without the power of legislation and accountability, “free, prior, and
informed consent,” are just some nice words on a page. As President
Obama himself said, when he announced his support for the UN Declaration
– “What matters far more than words…are actions to match those words.”
We call for action to make consultation count.
Enforceable consultation means we must talk about another idea – tribal
consent. There would be a public outcry if the federal government tried
to impose policy on a state without its consent. But the concerns of
tribal nations are routinely overlooked, even when more than a dozen
tribes are larger than some northeastern states. This must not stand.
Our America Our
America is a place where all candidates know that we matter, and America
sees it at the ballot box. It’s a place where each and every President
honors our unique nation-to-nation relationship, where Indian Country is
always at the table – not just because it’s the right thing to do, but
because it’s the smart thing to do. Our America is home to a Congress
that works across party lines to free our economies. Our America is a
place where governments keep their promises.
Our America is where tribal nations create economic opportunities, where
people come to us for the best jobs. It’s a place where tribes are on
the forefront of new technology – high-tech manufacturing, telemedicine,
clean energy. Our America is where Indigenous peoples reach across
borders and bring home economic opportunity for all Americans.
As the oldest governments in America, tribal nations understand what is
required to overcome stark economic conditions. Perhaps more than any
other time in history, our nations must stand together, empowered to
make profound and permanent improvements in the lives of our people. Our
nations are committed to the success of the United States of America.
Let us realize that future together so that our nations thrive, today