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Who Does NCAI Represent?

Ruth Hopkins
2/17/13

This past Thursday, Jefferson Keel, President of the National Congress of American Indians, delivered the 11th Annual State of the Indian Nations Address.

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.

As a science instructor at a tribal college I witnessed my students’ struggle to find transportation and childcare on the reservation. A number of times I gave students rides to and from class myself. I also allowed single parents to hold their infants during lecture. There’s housing shortages too. When my husband and I first got married, we lived with his Uncle, in a two bedroom house, along with eight other relatives. Our living situation was common, and still is. Indian country is also in the midst of a diabetes epidemic. For many Natives, healthcare is sorely inadequate. The Native population is growing, so these problems will only get worse if we choose to ignore them.

Substance abuse still runs rampant in Native communities too, and its effects are far reaching. We face staggering rates of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and suicide. We lack the resources required to fight this systemic dysfunction, do we need to fight for the resources we need to combat them, Mr. Keel?

Mr. Keel did touch on the issue of safety, but framed it within the context of tribal sovereignty. In my opinion, to speak of using Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) to bolster tribal sovereignty was an egregious error that plays right into the hands of right-wing Republicans who seek to defeat both. Native provisions in VAWA have been under attack by Republicans who hold that such a device unreasonably expands tribal jurisdiction. While a slight increase in tribal jurisdiction is one result of the provisions for Natives that VAWA now contains, its main purpose is to protect Native women from non-Native abusers and rapists, not give tribal leaders more leverage. A case involving ICWA is set to go before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. ICWA was enacted to "protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families." (25 U.S.C. § 1902) Whereas tribal sovereignty gives teeth to both ICWA and Native provisions in VAWA, it is not the ultimate objective of either.

NCAI was established to fight the federal government’s assimilation and termination policies, but I thought the tone of Mr. Keel’s speech didn’t reflect that. Most disturbing to me was Mr. Keel’s take on energy.

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 our 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.

The National Congress of American Indians stands at a fork in the road, where they risk vanishing into useless obscurity, as bootlickers who beg for scraps from the Master’s table, or they could take a stand and recommit themselves to representing Indian people, asserting the people’s needs, finding solutions to people problems and moving the people forward.

Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton and Mdewakanton Dakota, Hunkpapa Lakota) is a writer, blogger, ethnoscientist, Tribal Judge for the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, and the Tribal Colleges Liaison Manager for the University of North Dakota (UND) and North Dakota State University (NDSU) via North Dakota EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research). Her first horror novella will be released in 2013. Follow her on Twitter.
 

 

 

 

 

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Anonymous's picture
Wow. A breath of fresh air. The silent majority finally speaking up. What does NCAI really stand for??
Anonymous
Two Bears Growling's picture
Sister, what you say is true & others from this Congress of Indians should come & visit the places that fall into the categories you describe on a number of our reservations. While we see some of our people & tribes have made loads of money in various businesses, MOST have not. STILL, we see great poverty, hopelessness that leads to drug & alcohol abuse, suicides, abuse in our families, etc. Let Mr. Keeling come & visit a number of our tribes & witness for himself all that we speak of. Let this man come & comfort anyone who has lost a child or family member to drugs, alcohol & suicide, feeling their grief first hand. There is so much poverty on reservations here & there you'd think you were in a poor 3rd world country. People digging through the garbage bins behind restaurants & fastfood places because they are hungry. Don't say this can't be, because it does go on each day. Places so poor on our reservations that people struggle to survive the cold winters. Many places with no running water, electricity, decent houses to live in because the people are so poor. Not by choice, but because there is nothing there to work for a wage at that would support anyone. Not all tribes have made a killing in the casino business, but many people have been destroyed none the less because of them. Still, those whosepeople have done well in the gaming industry do not know how to manage their per caps. Just drop by some of those places whosemembers get nice fat checks each month & look at the homes they have. Sure, some have nice homes, but look around the communities & you will see junker vehicles in the yards, holes in windows & places looking junky because the people weren't taught how to manage their funds, take care of things, etc. With that all said, I do find some places that give me hope that they are changing things for the better by requiring their members to attend financial management classes BEFORE they turn large amounts of money over to them. Money doesn't last forever, but job skills can keep that cash coming for as long as someone is of working age. Financial responsibility classes can teach those who don't know how to manage their finances to develope those skills as well. We have loads of work to do among all our many tribes to get all our people on the right path for successful living in todays world. Those tribes who are flush with lots of money need to spend it on ALL their people. Be wise in how it is spent, use those funds to teach the people the old ways, beliefs, culture, language & begin teaching OUR children in OUR schools with OUR teachers. Unless you teach the future generations of the past eventually our people will become no more than a memory in a picture. So leaders of our people fare & wide, listen with your ears & look with eyes & feel with your heart & spirit what truly is among our people. Don't be distracted by shiny things. Instead keep on the paths that reveal the truth of all our many people near & far. Two Bears Growling Buffalo's Thunder
Two Bears Growling
Anonymous's picture
THANK YOU for speaking out! NCAI representatives of today have lost the TRUE VISION of past LEADERS (to be called a leader you must earn leadership respect, not just win a political election) of serving Native Nations goals of protecting our creators gift of sovereignty our RIGHT to self governance, and equal economic opportunities for tribal government and individual tribal members. Buzz, Native Citizen
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
They should be representing the #SaveHickoryGround movement and call the Poarch Band of Creek Indians out for desecrating sacred land and falsely imprisoning Wayland Gray for having the courage to speak out. Show some moral courage NCAI and join us at facebook.com/SaveHickoryGround
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Well said. And it needed to be said.
Anonymous
Two Bears Growling's picture
My last post has not been posted for some reason, so I will attempt to submit another post on this article. Daughter of the people you are right in what you had to say, speaking what many have not dared to say. I admire you for your courage. Kr. Keel & the various committees need to visit our various reservations & see for themselves the the severe poverity, see the effects of drinking & drugs on whole families, communities, etc. I find the NAIC needs to get back to it's main mission & help ALL our many peoples. There is so much to do it would take another 100 years to see to it all. Instead of braying about the billions some tribes have added to their local economies,these fotunate tribes should be reaching out to our people who are far less fortunate with their situations through no fault of their own. Instead of patting themselves on the back they need to be helping the less fortunate. In some areas there is lack of decent housing, lack of running water & septic systems & lack of tribal law enforcement to drive out these gangs who are destroying our peoples lives one at a time. On & on I could go. Perhaps it's time for these NAIC members & Mr. Keel to make some surprise observations for themselves to see just what we are talking about. THEN, they just might get back to what they are in the NAIC for: The benefit of helping ALL our Indian peoples regardless of socioeconomic levels wherever they may be or tribe affiliated with. That's the goal or should be. Two Bears Growling
Two Bears Growling
Anonymous's picture
Ruth outstanding words my friend.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
It looks like some of the natives that got theirs (wealth) started to think like the white colored people, move to a upper class . They forgot where they come from ! The Reservation !
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
I agree completely. I read what he had to say representing their focus group, the NCAI, but what about the real Indians, I said. Thanks for sharing this thought. I am sure the NCAI will not change and is too deep in the system. Let's just bid them farewell and begin anew.
Anonymous
avondall's picture
You said it! NCAI stands only for the state-recognized rich-kids who were lucky enough to have their parents take the limo through the rez once in a while to remind them why they have brown hair and green eyes! Even their ancestors would'nt recognize the white men these "indians" have become!
avondall

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