Securing Our Futures
11th Annual State of Indian Nations Address
Remarks by Jefferson Keel, President
National Congress of American Indians (NCAI)
Thursday, February 14, 2013
Newseum, Knight Studios, Washington, DC
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.
I could not always stand here and tell you that.
When I was a young boy growing up in southern Oklahoma, there weren’t many opportunities in my Chickasaw community. My family, like many others, was poor, barely scraping by. As soon as we were old enough, we started working, harvesting cotton, peanut and corn crops, piling hay onto trucks, hauling them to the barns.
I saw neighbors working hard to build better lives for their families. Parents and grandparents maintaining our culture—from traditional food to name-giving ceremonies to celebrations of life and death. Passing on the timeless values of our tribe.
Even when the federal government told us we had no right to exist, we stayed true to ourselves.
Still, times were tough. Our people sometimes wondered if our best days were behind us.
But through it all, we carried on, forging new bonds with each other to strengthen our nations.
NCAI was critical to this effort—in fact, that’s why it was started in 1944, when tribal citizens and tribal leaders stood together to speak as one voice for America’s tribal nations. To protect our sovereignty. To affirm our rightful, constitutional place in the American family of governments.
Their work to unify and mobilize tribes rippled through Indian Country. My own community, like so many others, started to organize and advocate for our rights.
And we committed ourselves to carrying out the vision of our forefathers and mothers who signed the original treaties protecting tribal sovereignty.
That vision guided us through a new era in tribal governance: self-determination. Where tribal governments were once again able to run their own nations without interference.
This new era was transformational. When I came home from Vietnam, I witnessed the optimism of leaders shaping their own community. The energy of people making their own decisions. The pride of a tribal nation unleashing its own potential.
In many ways, my own experience, and my tribe’s experience, reflect not just Indian Country’s advances, but our aspirations. That our communities might thrive in a modern global economy. That our children might achieve their dreams.
And today, more than ever, those aspirations are within our reach.
II. A moment of progress and possibility
Thanks to greater trust between tribal nations and the United States, we are in a moment of real possibility.
In President Obama and his administration we have a partner committed to strengthening tribal sovereignty, who believes in our right to determine our own course, who understands what we’ve always known to be true: that Indian nations are best governed by Indian people.
This partnership extends throughout the federal government, on both sides of the aisle—because Indian issues are not partisan issues.
The result has had a meaningful, measurable impact on Indian people’s lives. Today, more tribes are managing resources instead of managing poverty programs.
Residents of rural Oklahoma drive to our health facilities first, because they offer the best services around. Other governments seek our traditional knowledge of natural resources. Non-Native people come to us for jobs and educational opportunities. And companies partner with us to set up new businesses on reservations.
It’s no wonder that more highly-skilled and educated Native young people are coming back to serve in our communities as doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, entrepreneurs.
And as we are revitalizing our own economies, tribes are becoming key players in America’s economic recovery.
My tribe, the Chickasaw Nation, contributes $2.5 billion to our regional economy every year and employs over 12,000 people. At the same time, we’re taking a proactive approach to budgeting and stewardship so that we are more resilient.
The nation-to-nation relationship we enjoy as tribal nations has never been confined to the borders of the United States. And thanks to more international trade agreements developed by tribal leaders, our businesses—and those of many other tribes—reach all around the globe.
At the same time, our people’s dedication to America has never been stronger.
Last year, I stood at this podium and called for Native Americans to get out the vote, and Indian Country responded like never before.
NCAI’s civic engagement campaign Native Vote was the biggest, most successful in our 70 year history. A massive grassroots campaign deployed huge numbers of volunteers, young and old. They knocked on doors, registered voters, drove people to polls, and helped turn out the highest number of Native voters ever.
They did this even though our people still had unequal access to the polls. Too many Native voters traveled long distances to exercise their right, only to be turned away.
So even as we applaud the efforts of the 2012 Native Vote movement, we know this is just the beginning, and we have much more work to do to ensure that every Native vote is cast, and counted.
Our commitment to democracy stretches beyond the ballot box to distant shores where, every day, thousands of Native men and women fight proudly under the American flag. To the more than 22,000 active duty Native warriors, and to my more than 156,000 fellow Native veterans, I salute you. America salutes you. We are grateful for your service.
Every day, in ways big and small, we are strengthening the unique nation-to-nation relationship tribes enjoy with the United States—a relationship of mutual respect, mutual obligation and mutual trust.
We’ve come a long way, but there’s much more work to do. And I am convinced, now more than ever, that we must protect and strengthen tribal sovereignty. That is how we will meet our three shared goals: to secure our communities, secure our nations and secure our future.
III. Securing our communities
First, securing our communities.
There is nothing more important to tribal leaders than the safety and wellbeing of tribal citizens.
But today, one in three Native women will be raped in her lifetime. Almost four in ten will be beaten and abused by a domestic partner. The death rate of Native women on some reservations is ten times the national average.
The numbers are so high as to be almost numbing.
But here’s the thing: violence against women is not a cultural practice. It is a criminal practice.
That’s why we don’t tolerate it. Tribes can and do pursue justice against Native men who commit these acts. But that’s not enough.
We know that assaults against Native women tend to take place at private residences.
That many Native women live on tribal lands.
That almost 60 percent of Native women are married to non-Native men.
We know all this, yet, we also know the tragic reality: today, tribes do not have the authority to prosecute non-Natives who beat, rape, or even kill women on tribal lands.
State and federal authorities are often hundreds of miles away, without the local resources to investigate crimes. And in recent times, U.S. Attorneys have declined to prosecute a majority of violent crimes in Indian Country—most of which are related to sexual abuse.
No other government would stand for this violation of sovereignty or continued injustice. No other government has to.
The solution is simple. Congress must reauthorize the landmark Violence Against Women Act and assure that tribal governments have the authority to prosecute non-Native men accused of violence against women on tribal lands.
In other words, Congress must allow tribes, like all governments, to protect their own people and surrounding communities, from brutality.
So if we believe that a Native woman’s life is worth the same as every other woman’s, if we believe that justice should not stop at the border of a reservation, if we believe that tribes are truly sovereign, then it’s time for the House of Representatives to step up, put partisan politics aside, and reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act with expanded protections for all victims of violence.
Congress has demonstrated that it understands the importance of tribal sovereignty.
That’s why, in the 1970s, they passed the Indian Child Welfare Act to ensure that tribal families have the ability to protect their children.
And it’s why Congress recently authorized tribal leaders to directly seek a presidential disaster declaration, a critical tool for our governments to secure our communities.
It’s why the United States has joined more than 140 members of the United Nations in acknowledging that Indigenous peoples are entitled to free, prior, and informed consent on decisions that affect our nations.
This respect for our nation-to-nation relationship must extend to other issues that impact Indian Country—including immigration.
What many Americans may not realize is that almost 40 tribal governments are located on or near the borders of Mexico and Canada, which means tribes have jurisdiction over some of the areas most affected by immigration policy. These issues directly impact the lives of our citizens, and tribal nations must be at the table as the federal government considers common sense immigration reform.
Tribes have faced new immigration for over 500 years, and we know it has its challenges!
But to us, this isn’t just a policy issue—it’s a moral one. We firmly believe that the arc of justice must stretch from the First Americans, to the newest Americans.
IV. Securing our nations
As we continue to secure our communities, we also secure our nations.
Our nations range from more than 200 remote Alaska Native villages where tribal citizens make up 20 percent of the state’s population, to the Navajo Nation in the Southwest, with over 300,000 tribal citizens and a land base of 17 million acres.
From Alaska to Arizona, California to Connecticut, tribal lands cover over 100 million acres, which would make Indian Country America’s fourth largest state!
This land is held in trust by the federal government. It was supposed to protect Indian land from both infringement and isolation.
Unfortunately, that trust—our trust—was broken too many times.
The funds used to maintain the trust were grossly mismanaged. Not just once or twice. But over and over. For decades and decades. It was a fraud that added up to billions and billions of dollars, and opportunity lost for generations of Native people.
Last year, the federal government finally implemented the Cobell settlement to resolve the issue. While it doesn’t erase the past, or repair the damage, it closes a painful chapter in our history, and turns a new page on our trust relationship.
That relationship continues to grow. After 200 years of disputes, recent settlements are securing tribal rights to water, which are critical to economic development, community livelihood, and people’s health.
Much more must be done to restore the trust relationship. The Carcieri Supreme Court decision overturned a longstanding precedent and threatens our economic future by limiting federal authority to acquire land in trust for Indian tribes. This cannot stand. Congress must pass a clean Carcieri fix right now!
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.
Fortunately, new federal policies are addressing this barrier, enabling tribes to develop our own sources of energy. The goal is to transform tribal lands and boost economic growth, while contributing to America’s energy independence.
For instance, the Los Angeles City Council recently approved a 25-year, $1.5 billion project to buy solar power produced at the Moapa Band of Paiute Indian Nation in the southern Nevada desert. When it goes online in 2016, it will be the largest solar power plant on tribal lands, capturing the desert rays to power over 118,000 Los Angeles homes. In addition to the plant itself, over 900,000 solar panels will be built on the reservation, creating more jobs—and industries—of tomorrow.
One way to ensure that we see more projects like this one is to promote fair, equitable tax policy.
Like all governments, tribes must be able to collect and manage their own taxes. But right now, tribal governments don’t have the same taxing authority or ability as states, local governments, and the federal government.
We will continue working with our federal partners to fix these policies so that the economies of Indian Country grow, and become a source of strength in our family of nations.
V. Securing our future
Tribal sovereignty is how we can secure our communities. It’s how we can secure our nations.
And it is how we will secure our future.
This is our greatest challenge.
A quarter of our people live in poverty, twice the national average. And while the country as a whole struggles with an unemployment rate that hovers around 8 percent, the unemployment rate in Indian country is more than double that.
Almost one in five Native people don’t have basic phone service. And thousands more don’t even have plumbing.
For too long, these statistics have been accepted as the way it is in Indian Country. The goal, it seemed, was just survival.
But we must do better. And when tribes can develop their own priorities and make the right investments, they don’t just survive—they thrive.
Throughout Indian Country, from the Seminoles of Florida to the Tulalip in Washington, more and more tribes are driving economic growth for their nations and surrounding communities.
Even in the most remote regions, tribes play a major role in promoting economic development. For example, the Tlingit and Haida Tribes generate $31.5 million annually, and is one of the top employers in Juneau and southeast Alaska—a huge boon to a region with limited economic activity.
And, as I said, many tribes are going global. The Suquamish Tribe of Washington has lived on the Central Puget Sound for thousands of years. Nobody knows how to fish those waters better than the Suquamish.
Today, wearing the latest diving gear and armed with GPS devices, Native divers explore the icy waters to catch gooeyducks.
What’s a gooeyduck, you ask?
The gooeyduck is the world’s largest clam. More importantly, it’s a delicacy in Chinese cuisine. The Suquamish formed a co-op with a number of other tribes to export gooeyducks to Asian markets for as much as $50 per pound. It’s an incredible example of how traditional knowledge is being applied in a new world.
That’s just one example. Multiply that entrepreneurship by hundreds of tribes, growing, making, providing services or selling products, here and around the world, and it adds up to unprecedented progress, and prosperity, for our people.
We’ll continue doing our part to be proactive stewards of our own future. Rather than simply react to the federal government’s actions, tribes are thinking and planning ahead, making decisions that allow us to withstand economic uncertainty. And it’s paying off.
Now, with the wind at our backs, we need our federal leaders to stand with us.
With the right investments, tribal communities will continue growing stronger, and advancing America’s prosperity. We urge Congress to honor the trust responsibility by maintaining support for education, housing, roads, law enforcement, and energy development.
The trust responsibility is not a line item and we are not a special interest group. As budget discussions continue, we urge Congress to acknowledge their constitutional responsibility to honor our sacred trust by holding tribal governments harmless in the sequester and beyond. As President Obama said in the State of the Union address, just two days ago, the federal government must keep the promises they’ve already made.
Because this moment is about creating opportunity for our children and grandchildren.
And with 42 percent of Natives under the age of 25, we must take steps toward a stronger seventh generation.
That’s why Indian Country is investing in education so that more of our young people can receive a higher education and develop skills to access greater opportunities. Gaming, just one example of economic development, has generated funds for tribes to invest in schools and provide talented young Indians with scholarships. In fact, in the past 30 years, the number of American Indian and Alaska Native students enrolled in college has more than doubled.
But we still have a long way to go.
Today, NCAI is releasing a report called Securing Our Futures. It shows areas where tribes are exercising their sovereignty right now, diversifying their revenue base, and bringing economic success to their nations and surrounding communities. The path to securing our future—from education to food security, climate change to workforce development—is illuminated by the proven success of tribal nations. While the circumstances of each tribal nation are unique, the promising practices contained in the report offer a way forward to secure tribal economies and sustain prosperity for future generations.
In my final year as the President of NCAI, I share this vision of a strong future for Indian nations, knowing that it will be carried forward, not just in the year ahead, but for generations to come.
When I look back on our journey as the first peoples of North America, and where we are today, my heart fills with pride.
We are on course to fulfill the promise of those who came before us, of our elders who preserved our cultures against all odds. It is because of their sacrifices that we stand strong today and strong forever.
Our nations have been here a long time. We were a people before “We the people.” We signed treaties. We engaged in commerce. We shaped American democracy.
And in some of America’s darkest chapters, we stood with our non-Native brothers and sisters. In the depths of the Depression, tribal nations rebuilt our communities. When our homelands were attacked, tribal warriors stepped forward, as they always have, to defend our shared sacred ground, the United States of America. For these reasons, and so many more, tribal nations have been a wellspring of hope and strength for our fellow Americans.
Indeed, our unique place in the American family of governments makes us a model for nations around the world, and an inspiration to Indigenous peoples across the globe.
When I think about our shared future I’m reminded of something the late Senator Daniel Inouye, a great American, once said to a gathering of tribal leaders, “I can’t think of anything, not anything, that is more critical to your past, to your present, or to your future than your sovereignty.”
Senator Inouye was not a Native person. He didn’t come from a tribal community.
But he took up our cause and spent his life advocating for our nations because he believed it was a matter of justice.
He knew that America was at her strongest when all of her governments worked together to advance our security and prosperity. When all her people were thriving. He understood that a sovereign people are a strong people, contributing in turn to a strong United States.
He knew that Native peoples were fighting for the same unalienable rights given to each of us by our Creator. The rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
These are the same principles that formed our treaties, and why our Constitution acknowledges tribes as equal, sovereign governments.
Today, you can see that sovereignty in action in tribal courts, in the classrooms of tribal colleges, and in tribal businesses all over the world.
This is the task at hand, to move together toward a more perfect union. To strengthen our trust relationship with the United States. From Washington to Kennedy, Reagan to Obama, tribal nations have worked with the United States to uphold this promise.
That trust, ultimately, is the principle that must guide us—all of us—as we go forward and do right by all of our children and grandchildren.
And when we do, we’ll always be able to say, that the State of Indian Nations is strong, and the future prosperity of America is secure.