Courtesy Rep. Betty McCollum’s official website
National Congress of American Indians Executive Director Jacqueline Johnson Pata (left) introduced President Brian Cladoosby. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., (middle) gave the Congressional response.

Progress and Promise in Indian Country: NCAI’s 2016 State of Indian Nations Address

Tanya H. Lee

National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, presented the State of Indian Nations Address on January 14 at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. The room was packed with tribal leaders, members of Congress and senior Administration officials. In addition, the address was livestreamed to audiences all over the country.

Calling this “a moment of progress and promise,” Cladoosby spoke of how far Indian nations have come during the Obama administration, citing specifically passage of the Tribal General Welfare Exclusion Act of 2014, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act of 2010 and the Tribal Law & Order Act of 2010, reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013, and amendment of leasing and right-of-way regulations in 2015.

Cladoosby said this progress was predicated on Indian self-determination, guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and since then “affirmed in laws, executive orders and Supreme Court decisions.” He pointed out that this fundamental principle was stated more than two centuries ago in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to President George Washington: “Indians [have] full, undivided and independent sovereignty as long as they choose to keep it, and this might be forever.”

Policies and prejudices over the decades have challenged this view of Indian nations, but “we have not disappeared, and we are not victims. We have persevered. We are survivors and we are growing stronger every day. We are thriving 21st century governments, built on self-determination. Yes, our ancestors were central to America’s early days. But we are also central to America’s present – and vital to its future.”

Achieving the promise of tomorrow will require a respectful partnership between the tribes and the federal government, Cladoosby said, naming four areas where more work must be done: community security; economic equality; education, health and wellness; and climate change.

He called for “reauthorization of the Tribal Law and Order Act. Congress should fully fund important juvenile justice programs, efforts to collect accurate and relevant data, and preventative services for all families in Indian country…. Tribes need full authority to protect them from harm caused by non-Indians on tribal lands. Across America, states and territories receive direct assistance from the Crime Victims Fund – and it’s time that tribes do, too.”

Economic equality for tribes depends on creating a level playing field, Cladoosby said. “Tribes should be able to collect taxes without placing extra burdens on local businesses. We call on the Department of Interior to amend The Indian Trader regulations … eliminate dual taxation in Indian country … and empower tribes to invest in the infrastructure and services that make economic development possible. In addition, tribes must be able to issue tax-exempt bonds. They are an indispensable tool that every other modern government uses to seed private sector growth. Tribal governments must be treated the same as state and local governments on labor issues.”

“Education,” Cladoosby said, “is a promise made in exchange for our land. We have more work to do, to ensure that tribal governments are directing the education of their youth – especially on schools located on tribal lands.” During the Q&A after his address, Cladoosby talked about the high rate of teen suicide—in fact, all suicide—in tribal communities, saying that he believed it was due to historical trauma, coupled with drug and alcohol abuse. Education, he said was the key to combatting both. A kid with an education won’t be on welfare, in jail, in court, in rehab or visiting his drug dealer, said Cladoosby.

In the area of health care, he asked Congress to “permanently reauthorize the Special Diabetes Programs for Indians, so that tribal communities can continue to combat this disease,” and for advance appropriations for the Indian Health Service.

Global climate change “threatens not only food security … but all of humanity,” said Cladoosby. “In Paris, tribal leaders were proud to take their rightful place among leaders of nations. They shared their scholarship and their indigenous knowledge, and helped the world reach a historic agreement. We ask for the establishment of a permanent Climate Adaptation Task Force, in collaboration with tribal leaders…. Native peoples stand ready to serve as experts and partners.”

President Obama concluded his State of the Union Address on January 12 by saying, “That's the America I know. That’s the country we love. Clear-eyed. Big-hearted. Undaunted by challenge. Optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. That’s what makes me so hopeful about our future. I believe in change because I believe in you, the American people.”

President Cladoosby took this concept one step further, concluding his speech with these words, “It is up to us. ALL of us. Just as it always has been.”

Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., gave the Congressional response. She talked about the need to improve Bureau of Indian Education schools and urged members of Congress to accept Cladoosby’s invitation to visit Indian country, citing the impact of President Obama’s visit to the Crow Nation just before he was elected in 2008.

But what will probably be her most-quoted words from her presentation occurred when she recommended strengthening relationships between American Indian women and their sisters in Congress. “When Native women lead, tribal nations succeed,” she said.

Watch the speech:

NCAI today released its FY 2016 Indian Country budget request, “Promoting Self-Determination, Modernizing the Trust Relationship.”

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