Elephants in Indian Country’s Living Room: Responding to NCAI’s State of Native Nations Address

Dina Gilio-Whitaker

To be in a position of leadership—at least for NCAI’s president Jefferson Keel—is to be in the role of a politician, and that means taking predictably centrist positions (at least publically) to appease as wide an audience as possible. In this case it means articulating problems that still remain in Indian country while simultaneously not appearing to bite the hand that feeds you ($8.4 billion flows through Indian country every year in the form of grants, contracts and services). This is the fine line Mr. Keel was walking in his recent State of Native Nations address. I can appreciate the precarious nature of the job; however, not risking a brutally critical stance inevitably means glossing over some pretty crucial issues. These are the elephants in Indian country’s living room that few public leaders—Indian or federal government—care to address.

Mr. Keel characterizes Indian country as “strong” but strong is a relative term. Compared to a hundred years ago when our nations were at their weakest, yes, we are stronger. But compared to two or three hundred years ago when many tribal nations were still well intact and some didn’t even have contact with Europeans yet, we are still reeling from the catastrophic affects of colonization.

Nations struggling to revive moribund languages, have Eurocentric governmental structures based on values that are contradictory to traditional tribal values, are forced to pay taxes on resources from their own lands or have no land bases at all—to say nothing about rampant social disorders like teenage suicide and drug and alcohol addiction—are not in positions of strength.

At best, they can be said to be in the process of regaining strength. It somehow seems okay for tribal leaders to publically talk about problems related to cultural breakdown, but when it comes to calling out the ways the U.S. asserts domination over our nations without permission, they predictably stop short. What are they afraid of?

In Mr. Keel’s address, the word “sovereignty” was thrown around like dice on a craps table, but sovereignty is one of the biggest elephants not being confronted. What kind of sovereignty does he mean? The kind of quasi-sovereignty the U.S. means, as in “you’re not really sovereign nations but we’ll let you have self-government?” Or sovereignty as in pre-constitutional self-determining nations not defined and controlled by U.S. law? The kind meant by the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples with its language of self-determination based on free, prior and informed consent, to which Mr. Keel himself even referred? Because either you believe in the latter kind of sovereignty for your nation or you don’t; you can’t have it both ways.

This leads to the idea of a “sacred trust” between the U.S. and tribal nations which Mr. Keel referred to. He seems to place an inordinate amount of confidence in the US's ability to protect and manage Indian resources, without questioning for one second the concept itself.

Native nations don't own title to their own lands and the trust relationship is no less than the embodiment of a paternalistic relationship in which tribal nations are deemed incapable, undeserving even, of owning and managing their own territories and resources. And this is to say nothing of the way the Department of Interior has incessantly mismanaged Indian trust assets.

The trust relationship is one of the biggest elephants in the living room that no one wants to talk about, except to go on complaining about how bad of a job the feds do. No grand ideas or suggestions for meaningful trust reform were offered in Mr. Keel’s address.

Copious attention was paid to economic development on tribal lands, with his talk of oil and gas leases and coal production, “to transform tribal lands and boost economic growth, while contributing to America’s energy independence.” Not that there’s anything wrong with energy independence, but in this day and age it doesn’t take a climate scientist to know that our continued reliance on fossil fuels is the leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions that are responsible for climate change.

Just ask the people of Kivalina in Alaska who are losing their homelands due to the melting of the ice that protects them from the encroachment of the ocean, or the people of Kiribati in the South Pacific or dozens of other Indigenous Peoples who are facing the loss of their lands because of rising sea levels and other detrimental effects of climate change.

The promotion of fossil fuel production also completely sidesteps the Keystone XL Pipeline that the Obama administration is pushing on Indian country. No matter what route the pipeline takes, the exploitation of Alberta tar sands oil means “game over for the climate,” in the now-famous words of climate scientist James Hansen.

To blatantly promote the production of fossil fuel industries on Indian lands and completely ignore global warming is irresponsible, contrary to our traditional teachings to care for the land, and traitorous to other Indigenous Peoples who are suffering the direct impacts of climate change.

Ignoring all the elephants in Indian country’s living room is tantamount to tacitly allowing them to remain. Those elephants are a metaphor for Indian country’s ongoing colonial relationship with the U.S. Our leaders must be willing to publicly confront that relationship by not only naming it, but by offering alternatives to it. We have powerful alternatives available to us, but if we aren’t willing to fight for them, all we continue to do, as Ruth Hopkins said, is “settle for scraps at the Master’s table.” I, for one, am not OK with that.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker is a research associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies.





Anonymous's picture
I agree. Maybe because there's little mention of "colonization" in our public political discourse, there is no mention of "decolonization" either.
Anonymous's picture
Dina does a great job in explaining the finer points of our failures. Information is the key, this goes a way in helping understand what is happening. Andre Leonard,
Two Bears Growling's picture
Daughter of the people, thank you for saying what so many of us see, but few are pointing it out. That's one thing I see far too much of on the Rez here & there.Folks know what is wrong & what needs to be done yet they are afraid to be the first to say anything due to who may be offended. I say nonsense! Until a people face that which they fear they will never fully heal their spirit. Still, the same old things will be allowed to be happening & not one thing change! Step up & do something about the wrongs on our lands. Talking about doing something never got one thing done! Grumbling, pointing fingers & whispering never gets anything accomplished anywhere by anyone. It takes one person who comes unafraid to give others the courage to stand up & get busy. Doing gets things to happening; not talking. I am so pleased with our many brothers & sisters stepping up as of late with the Idle No More movement all across our First Nations lands. Now to keep the momentum rolling & getting things accomplished & out of the darkness, fearing no longer! So many times it is our women folk who make those first steps when they have had enough. I am proud of these daughters of the people willing to get out there no matter the weather or temperatures & taking that stand that says, No More!" I am pleased to see our young people take a stand as well. This gives me hope for the future. Yes, we are all one people across Turtle Island & as such we all need to stand up for what is right, stand up & expose the things that should not be, stand up for our rights, our beliefs, our young ones & elders,etc. Our distant relations here & there who are being shameful need to be exposed & not just swept under the rug. Expose what is shameful & not of our people's ways. Don't be afraid of those who are not living in a good way, expose them! Stand up TOGETHER & demand justice. Demand criminals be held accountable for the bad things they do regardless of who they or their families may be. Our Creator Himself shows no difference in people. When someone is living in a bad way the Great Spirit deals with them. Sometimes gently if they will listen to Him & change their evil ways. If not, Man Above will deal with wicked ones severely. Life is like a pond. When a pebble is thrown in the water you see the ripples. Those ripples don't just stay put, but they spread across the whole pond. Everything we do or say is like that pebble thrown in that pond & affects not just ourselves, but others lives as well. Are the words you say good & lifting others up or are they negative? Are the things you do good things that hep others or are you hurting others with what you do? Think about this my friends. It is our many peoples way to help others when we can. It is our people's way to encourage others who are having a hard time. Our life is so short even at its longest, but the good things you do & acts of kindness, compassion, loving others & the kind words to others lasts even after we have walked on to join the ancestors.
Two Bears Growling
avondall's picture
Yes it's true Keel's idea of Indian Country must have come from a European novel about Noble Savages, but am I the only one bothered by Jacky Peta's CONSTANT interruptions?! I mean, C'MON! Even Boehner and Biden know when to shut up and let the man speak!!!
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous's picture
Bovine scatology! The global warming delusion sold by the American Dis-education system is simply a scam to promote the selling of carbon credits to enrich government and the corporate elites while introducing new laws forcing the removal of Indigenous people from their lands. Wasn't that part of what sparked Idle No More? Losing rights? Look people, it is all connected and you can never again trust liberals or most white conservatives for that matter. I don't trust women with hyphenated names. I certainly don't trust blondes attempting to speak for Indigenous People. If you allow that you lose your race. Government and wealthy elites (racists) want to use such things to take away your rights based on your identity. Sorry about the personal attack on the poor woman but she is brainwashed. For a real education about the climate changes you should learn something from www.iceagenow.info. Also start going outside more and using all your senses! Many have lost their language. Many have lost the prayer ceremonies. Our race is almost all we have for identity.
Anonymous's picture
This woman is biased in favor of the "New World Order's" "global warming" propaganda. Government and wealthy elitists will make billions by selling the "carbon credit" scam which also requires forced removal of Native people off their land. Never trust a woman with a hyphenated last name. Personally, I would never trust a blonde person to represent the view of Indigenous People. You lose the right to call yourself a certain race when your spokespersons appear to be of a different race. But if anyone sincerely wants to educate oneself, just go to www.iceagenow.info. The sea levels are rising now because although there is still some ice melting in the far north, in the far south ice is increasing. On balance, ice is increasing around the globe. Russian scientists predict an ice age starting now.
Anonymous's picture
I work at the BIA in Sacramento downtown and what I share here is based on my own work experience and community development offerings, not the BIA. I am sharing hoping not to be penalized by the feds but to add to the conversation in a positive way. 1. We need surveyors in Indian Country, especially for public domain and individually held allotments, although Final Rule 25 CFR 162 published expanded use of GIS, etc., for conveyance boundaries. There are several Surveyor Aid and Surveyor Technician vacancy announcements by BLM on USAJOBS today. These are entry level positions, with learning opportunities and great future career access. They require people, and I'm especially encouraging Natives to apply, to be able to work in the outdoors, at many locations within the US. Applicants need to have clear criminal records or at least have incidents adjudicated to work for feds. May not have relocation or other moving funding but most of us started out at the bottom, so to speak, and we made sacrifices to gain entry into fed workforce, until we were able to move up in our careers. If tribes want to encourage their young people to enter into this field, they might be able to provide move/travel/temporary living stipends for their young people who can get on the hiring cert. Please encourage anyone who is ineterested to look at USAJOBS and apply. Working in natural environment in challenging mountainous or desert heat can be exciting and fun, especially once the basics are learned and teamwork is experienced. This kind of work experience can have a great effect. Especially good for military vets returning from overseas, who might already have basic land navigation experiences and who are used to working in outdoors. 2. The new Final Rule for leasing 25 CFR 162 also has references to Indian Communities working to get leasing approved, as local entities. One way is to use an Indian Leasing Agreement, where allotment trust co-owners can create a local ownership group similar to a HOA in a housing development. For a copy, let me know and I can e-mail a sample approved by USDOI Solicitor in CA. 3. Some good news = 6 central CA tribes were able to participate and receive broadband connectivity via the 395 Digital broadband grants from the telecommunications office in the Dept of Commerce, like many communities across the country. Fed govt can do good things sometimes and I'm proud to be a part of these activities. Respectfully, Bobbie = [email protected]
Anonymous's picture
It is time we sing our own song ! Let us wean ourselves from the breast of the demon who has smiled at us while sucking the life from Mother Earth , He who will stand for nothing ,Will fall for anything ...... Purge yourself from the poisonous doctrines that have decimated our ancestors . nothing will change until we lose their discriminating perceptions of our culture and heritage . UB40 listen to the words , Sing Our Own Song !!