President's Address - 2013 Executive Council Winter Session

It’s only been a few weeks since I delivered the State of Indian Nations address and while much of the speech is still relevant – already many things have changed related to a number of the issues that I addressed.  For some of you this is the first time I’ve seen you since our very successful Annual Conference, which we held in Sacramento California, and a number of big events have occurred over the last five months.

First, our Annual Conference was a great success.  Sacramento was absolutely beautiful and we enjoyed great weather.  We shared in the traditions and the celebrations of the California tribes, and we concluded some really important work and discussions.  The Convention this past year was a Constitutional Convention and we reaffirmed our commitment to Indian country and made important decisions about our constitution.  

NCAI members addressed, in detail, a range of issues.  From the first resolution passed - Support for the Duckwater Shoshone Tribe Reservation Expansion Act, to the last, a resolution on the United Nations World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in 2014, NCAI membership put forward our agenda. 

Our Native Vote campaign was a huge part of 2011 and 2012, and was an incredible success.

As a result of the combined efforts of NCAI, Native Vote and all our partners – individuals and organizations alike - we turned out the largest Native vote ever in 2012.  And now that the Presidential election season is over, we will focus on helping Native candidates, increasing protections for all of our people at the ballot box, and supporting get out the vote efforts in upcoming elections.

Since October the Cobell Settlement was finalized and the federal government began to make its payments to individual account holders.  With such a large influx of money to Indian Country, NCAI launched our Protect Native Money Campaign – to educate Native people about protecting Native money from frauds and scams.

Here’s why - starting in 2012, $3 billion in individual and tribal trust fund settlements will come to Indian Country through the Keepseagle and Cobell class action legal settlements. Lump sum payouts to individual recipients started in 2012 amounting to more than $2 billion.  In addition, more than 50 tribal trust settlements, totaling more than $1.0 billion, have been settled and payouts have either already been made or are due shortly, with another estimated 60 tribal settlements in the pipeline to be resolved.  NCAI is committed to ensuring that Indian Country protects Native Money, if you have any questions, go to our website.

In December, many of you attended the fourth annual White House Tribal Nation’s Summit, where we welcomed the next four years with the Obama Administration.  In advance of that meeting, NCAI once again developed and issued a substantial collection of policy recommendations, from tribal leaders, governments, organizations, advocates, and citizens.  We hope the Obama Administration will take steps to ensure that these meetings remain a central promise of the trust responsibility, and not an element that might come and go with each administration.

The importance of nation-to-nation dialogue became even more clear with the dawn of 2013, as many of us looked North.  Our brothers and sisters and first Nations of Canada are working to realign the nation-to-nation relationships between Canada’s political leadership and the first nations of Canada.  As we said then; we stand united as the tribal nations of North America, as a family of first peoples and first governments of this land, and we stand united to protect our rights.

These nation-to-nation relationships do not disappear when leaders come and go from office, these are bonds that will forever link us as we were the first people of this land.

In the weeks following Superstorm Sandy, where the nations of the Northeast coast underwent great hardship, the federal government passed and signed into law the Stafford Act.  This act authorizes tribal governments to directly request emergency aid from the federal government without going through state governments or waiting for state governments to act.  This is a shining example of what dedicated consultation between nations can accomplish.  I want to thank Administrator Fugate for his help in getting this done.

Many of these items I referenced just two weeks ago during the 2013 State of Indian Nations Address, which I delivered just days after President Obama delivered the State of the Union.

In that address titled Securing Our Futures, I outlined the State of Indian Nations once again, as we’ve done every year for almost 11 years. I called on tribal leaders and citizens to work to secure our communities, our nations, and our future prosperity.

I noted some of the actions that Congress should take to ensure that treaty rights and trust obligations are upheld and strengthened.  I also outlined actions that are necessary to strengthen our status as equal members of the family of governments of America.

And while I have been criticized by a handful of opinion columnists in Indian Country, for placing an apostrophe out of place, or quoting a great American, let me state for the record that I am proud to be an American – a Native American and a US citizen. 

I do believe that tribes are the first Americans and have the inherent sovereign right to enrich the lives of their citizens.  And, that the public should be educated toward a better understanding of Indian and Alaska Native tribes.

The fact is that tribal nations are sovereign nations, each with its own history, culture and traditions.  And, the inherent sovereign rights of tribes are recognized in the United States constitution and have been upheld through numerous Supreme Court cases.

The only way we can change the effects of colonization is through effective change in federal Indian policy.  Historically, federal Indian policy has been made for Indians by non-Indians.  Tribes were left out of the process and had no voice in the proceedings.  Today that is changing.  We have a voice.

NCAI and many of our partners are making progress in bringing Native issues to the forefront in Congress.

Tribal leaders and our citizens have enormous issues to deal with each day.  Each tribe has the right to determine in own direction, as they have throughout history.  Each tribe must determine its own course of action to ensure its prosperity.  Some tribes have decided to embrace self-governance as a way to advance and raise the level and quality of life for its citizens.  Some tribes have decided that self-governance is not for them, and they continue to wait on the federal government to abide by treaties and provide the things that they need.  Either way, that right to decide is an expression of their sovereignty.   

I also said that we would not be able to secure our communities, our nations, or our future prosperity until the safety of our Native women was assured.

While unresolved at the time of the State of Indian Nations address – I am proud to congratulate all of you – and those who worked so tirelessly – with the United States government, to pass the Violence Against Women Act with the constitutionally sound tribal provisions.

As Indian Country we’ve been working on VAWA for a very long time, and specifically many of our Native women worked tirelessly on this effort.  It represents a legacy that will shift the future of our nations. With our women safer and more secure, our cultures and our pride will be stronger.

I want to recognize NCAI’s Taskforce on Violence Against Women – and the co-chairs, Juana Majel Dixon and Terri Henry.  I also want to recognize Jacqueline Agtuca, Deborah Parker and Karen Artichoke and others – who did so much to lead this effort.

The recent victories of the Stafford Act and the VAWA Reauthorization, were clearly not won over night. At the end of last year, both VAWA and the Carcieri fix were well within our reach, yet by the end of the year they didn’t move.

We set a course and didn’t lose a step. Now, with VAWA and the tribal provisions passed, the legislative fix for the Carcieri Supreme Court is ever more clear.  And NCAI will not rest until the Carcieri fix is completed. 

This week let’s take our unified voices focused on securing our communities, our nations, and our futures, to Congress and get this legislative fix passed; It’s an economic issue, it’s a land issue, and a cultural issue.  We call on Congress to act now to fix this long-standing problem.

There are many legislative priorities that you will find we must advance in the days and months to come.  Issues of immediate concern that we must address are the sequestration and the budget issues.

In the State of Indian Nations we once again called for Indian Country programs to be held harmless in the budget decisions.  Last week we outlined the devastating effects a sequestration.

As of Friday, tribal programs in the Department of the Interior which fund core governmental functions like human services, law enforcement, schools, economic development and natural resources stand to lose almost $130 million.

Sequester will impact Indian Health Service (IHS) decreasing inpatient admissions by 3,000 and outpatient visits by as much as 804,000 in IHS and tribal hospitals and clinics.

We called for all other federal programs that serve the health of our nation’s populations with the highest need, such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and Veterans Administration, to be exempt from funding reductions. IHS should be exempt as well.

In addition to our financial policy focus, we have an incredible list of priorities and trust reform issues that we must pursue.  This list is included in your packets.  Jackie will be reviewing many of these in her upcoming presentation – and you know I call her the encyclopedia – so be sure to listen to her.

Overall though – from land restoration to education, tax reform to energy. Whether it be the farm bill or language preservation – NCAI and Indian Country must remain focused on the immediate windows of opportunity that are open. And in the long term we must all work together to open new windows of opportunity so that we can advance our agenda.

Trust reform remains one of the most important windows of opportunities of our time. With the Trust Reform commission working hard to advance the dialogue and ideas for taking action, we must continue to work on this critical reform. Our own Northwest Area VP Fawn Sharp and former NCAI President Tex Hall are working hard as commissioners, and I know they want to hear what you have to say. At the end of April you can join with USET in Tennessee for the next Commission meeting, and at the beginning of June in Oklahoma City I hope you’ll join me.

And yet, we shouldn’t stop with trust reform at the Department of Interior. Trust reform must occur across all agencies, and that’s why NCAI has called on President Obama to modernize the trust relationship by requiring Interior to take the lead and reform the trust relationship with all federal agencies.  When that happens, we’ll take another step in advancing this relationship.

The last few months have made it very clear, Indian Country can be common ground for all members of Congress. As a result we can and we will continue to affect policy in Washington DC. And yet, it is vital that we also remain focused on what we can do at home.

One of the most pressing issues is fighting poverty in our communities.  Poverty in Indian Country is devastating.  I know – like many of you and other tribal leaders, I’ve looked it dead in the eye – and everything NCAI does addresses this head on.

Tribal leaders and our citizens deal with this every day.  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.

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 we’re working hard every day to do better for our people.  When tribes can develop their own priorities and make the right investments, they don't just survive—they thrive. This drives all of our policy work.

That’s why we released the Securing Our Futures Report during the State of Indian Nations outlining the best practices that tribes have been employing to create new economic opportunity in Indian Country now. 

When you come to Washington, DC, the pace of progress may seem as slow as it always has been, a bureaucracy that has failed Indian Country too many times.  There are things that people from the federal government promise us and later we find ourselves reminding them of what they said.  And, as we’ve seen in the last week, there are those in this town that still harbor stubborn and old stereotypes about our people, our communities, and our nations. But the days of those views winning out are over, and even fewer who stand in the way of strengthening tribes.

NCAI is advancing the pace of progress in the nation-to-nation relationship with the federal government. We are getting a lot done here, and it’s in part due to the Administration, but it’s also a result of your work and the work of our partners.

Self-governance and self-determination are advancing our nations.  And though in many cases we face great challenges, the resilience of our people and our nations cannot be overstated.  That’s what we mean when we say Indian Country is strong. We are doing better and we can do better. And here’s what I know; we will do better.

How do I know? This upcoming October in Tulsa, we’ll celebrate our 70th Annual meeting – 70 years of vital work from NCAI members protecting tribal sovereignty. 

NCAI has been and will be defined by what we continue to accomplish together.  From 1944 to 2013 and beyond.

From stopping termination to reminding members of Congress that we are not a special interest group, NCAI has represented all of Indian Country and we work with all tribes and people to ensure we do so.

Yes, we have members, and our membership insists that we work across Indian Country.

So, who does NCAI represent?

Why not ask the Native women of Indian Country, many of whom aren’t individual members of NCAI, but whom NCAI, not for one moment, ever stopped focusing on in the Violence Against Women Act efforts.   

Let’s ask the nations who aren’t members of NCAI who will benefit from the Stafford Act, or the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, or NAGPRA, or the Indian Religious Freedom Act, or the Tribal Law and Order Act, or VAWA.

What about the young girl who is waiting on the Supreme Court Decision to tell her what family she should live with – with her father and her tribe? Is she a member? Not yet, but regardless, we’ll still fight for her. Because she is a Native American with rights, and she is the daughter of Native father who loves his daughter. 

I will conclude with this.  When our parents and grandparents formed this organization, they called on us to work for the greater good of Indian Country, for all Native people from all of our relations. 

When we look out across Indian Country – many of our people continue to struggle, but at NCAI and across Indian Country we work to make the struggle less and less each day for all of our relatives.  Indian Country is our communities, our nations, and together we are our future.

We are not standing down, we are not a weak people, we never have been and we never will be.  The tribal nations of America are strong, and NCAI, our members, and the rest of Indian Country must stand together as a family.

That is how we will secure our future, by standing together, united, as a family of nations. 

As we come upon our 70th year as an organization – I look forward to entering another 70 years with you.  Thank you!