Mary Annette Pember
Brian Cladoosby, president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), opens the four-day 73rd annual Convention and Marketplace in Phoenix on October 10.

Sovereignty, Prosperity and a Defining Moment: Cladoosby Opens 73rd NCAI Convention

Mary Annette Pember

Sovereignty, prosperity and unity—these themes and more emerged as National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) President Brian Cladoosby recognized Phoenix as an especially fitting venue for the NCAI’s annual gathering.

“What better place to celebrate sovereignty by remembering the challenge and perseverance of our ancestors on Indigenous Peoples’ Day at an NCAI annual convention than in Phoenix, Arizona!” he said, addressing the crowd on opening day of the NCAI’s 73rd annual Convention and Marketplace.

The Phoenix City Council recently became the largest U.S. city to recognize October 10 as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, unanimously passing a resolution to declare it.

RELATED: Take That, Columbus: Indigenous Peoples’ Day Unanimously Passes in Phoenix

The conference has a packed agenda with government-to-government listening sessions scheduled to discuss consultation over infrastructure projects such as the Dakota Access oil pipeline with U.S. officials; strategy sessions on the gaming industry; a task force to address violence against women, and a panel on how to inculcate interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) to develop a tribal workforce for the future.

Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Tribe, is the 21st president of NCAI and has served on the Swinomish Indian Senate since 1985; he has been chairman of the Swinomish Indian Senate since 1997.

Cladoosby lauded Arizona’s 22 Native nations and the local planning committee for their hard work in coordinating the convention. He noted that the convention’s theme, “Prosperity through Sovereignty,” is a potent statement about the power of tribal self-determination.

“Health and welfare can only flow through the ability of tribal governments to make decisions for the benefits of our tribal citizens. It is a fundamental truth that the best solution for Indian country is Indian country itself,” he said.

Cladoosby recognized that it was the engineering genius of the Hohokam people, the ancestors of the Tohono O’odham tribe, who created the more than 500 miles of irrigation canals that make the city of Phoenix and surrounding communities a reality.  He described this as an example of “Native Injunuity.”

This is a perfect example of how indigenous knowledge holds the key for solving life’s greatest challenges and how the knowledge can be used to build strong government, healthy tribal citizens and communities, he said.

Cladoosby also cited the example of the Navajo Nation’s School Accountability Plan, recently approved by the Interior Department, that enables 60 Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) schools on the reservation to have equal standards and curricula guided by Dine’ language and culture rather than guidelines by the three different states that serve Navajo schools.

RELATED: Obama Administration Gives Historic Control of Education System to Navajo Nation

Cladoosby described the Indian Trust Asset Management Reform Act as the major accomplishment of the U.S. Congress so far.

“The Act promises tribal decision-making about our own homelands and places critical resources at local tribal levels,” he said.

He praised the Act for including the creation of an undersecretary of the BIA, a brand-new position whose purpose is to avoid a silo relationship between the BIA and Office of Special Trustee. This new position will create a single line of authority for delivering trust programs and service to tribal communities.

Cladoosby recognized the historic 2004 Gila River Indian Community Water Rights Settlement Act. The largest in U.S. history, the tribe’s claim for water damages took almost 100 years of litigation and 20 years of negotiations to settle.

“The Act is an incredible example of the patience and determination of tribes and how we live in accordance with our indigenous values that keep future generations in mind,” he said. “Putting decisions about tribal lands into tribal hands is key to all of our prosperity. During this convention we are going to have robust conversations about infrastructure projects on tribal lands. One such project, the Dakota Access Pipeline, (DAPL) has become our defining moment.”

The NCAI President warned the U.S. President that his legacy will reflect what happens with the DAPL.

“We must send a unified message to President Obama. Don’t let DAPL be your administrative legacy. We are telling our trustees to do the right thing. We ask them to conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement and deny all permits,” Cladoosby said.

“As we stand together, we have shown the world that an attack on one tribe’s sovereignty is an attack on every tribal nation,” he continued. “Our friends and relatives at Standing Rock know now that we won’t rest until this disaster-in-waiting has been stopped.”

Alluding to a court decision handed down on Sunday, October 9, that denied the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s request for an injunction to halt pipeline construction while a pending lawsuit over the permits makes its way through the courts, Cladoosby said, “Many tribes and leaders have stood together with Standing Rock. We won’t allow the continued dominance of pollution-based economies to destroy our homelands. Even after the disappointing court decision yesterday that allows the pipeline work to continue, we will not be deterred. We will continue to stand with Standing Rock.”

He noted that one of the goals during this week’s convention is to deliver a strong and unified message to the federal government about the importance of tribal consultation during listening sessions with the departments of Interior, Justice and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“The peaceful and powerful gathering of tribes standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Standing Rock amplifies the voice of Indian country,” Cladoosby said. “The federal government heard us loud and clear that the impact of our collective action rises far above the result of a single pipeline project. The strength of our unification ripples far beyond the impact of a single tribe. When one tribe takes a step forward for self-governance, it’s a step forward for all tribes. When one tribe lifts itself up through the power of self-determination, we are all lifted up.”

Cladoosby also recognized tribal participation in the DOJ’s Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) pilot project that increases the ability of tribes to prosecute non-Native offenders in domestic and dating violence acts.

“The project has also revealed troubling limitations in the ability of tribes to protect Native children in these cases,” he said. “NCAI continues to work to reaffirm tribal jurisdiction in child abuse and drug cases.”

Cladoosby cited the work of the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla, who have reshaped their child welfare system so that 70 percent of the tribe’s children are now thriving with their families in home communities. He also noted the success of the Salish Kootenai Tribe’s new skills training, job placement and professional mentoring program that has cut tribal unemployment in half.

Cladoosby described the work of tribes in South Dakota whose members have come together to protect Bear Butte from the degradation that would ensue if construction of the “world’s biggest biker bar” at a campground on the fringe of the sacred site is approved.

RELATED: ‘World’s Largest Biker Bar’ Puts Sin City at Base of Bear Butte

“We stand on principals protecting our homelands, our resources and cultural history,” Cladoosby told the crowd. He also noted that tribes are working together to address the health challenges such as those experienced by the Great Plains tribes.

“And we support the land-into-trust process for tribes in Alaska, finally! Like all tribes in the nation, they need to have their land protected for their inherent rights,” he said.

Cladoosby noted the importance of this year’s Presidential election, which will have a lasting impact on tribes especially when it comes to Supreme Court appointments. “Get out the vote—not just for yourselves but also for your children and grandchildren,” he said.

Cladoosby gave special recognition to former White Mountain Apache Chairman Ronnie Lupe, who was in the audience. A Marine veteran of the Korean War, Lupe was the youngest person to be elected as tribal president when he took office in 1964, two years after first being elected to the council. He has had a long record of leadership and service to his people.

Cladoosby closed by noting that Indian country is “embarking on a period of change, but change creates opportunity to educate our federal partners and modernize relationships. As we look at the opportunities tribes have created with the Obama administration over the past eight years, we have set a new standard for government-to-government relations.

“We will continue to remind the federal government that we are 21st-century tribal governments; we know best how to serve our families and communities,” he said. “We will remind the federal government that we want a partner, not a parent; we want a trustee worthy of our trust. We demand that the promises made to us be kept. If we continue to build on the legacy of the Obama administration, our best days are yet to come.”

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