Back to The Forefront
February 28, 2011
Executive Council Winter Session: Remarks from NCAI President Jefferson Keel
Executive Council Winter Session: Remarks from NCAI President Jefferson Keel

NCAI Executive Council Winter Session 2011

February 28, 2011 – The Westin – Washington, DC

Good afternoon and welcome to NCAI’s Executive Winter Council Session. One of the honors of my role as President of NCAI is to address the many Indian leaders gathered here today. I am both honored and excited because you have worked hard to prepare our nations for a new era in U.S. tribal relations.

In January, here, in our nation’s capital, I delivered your message – to Indian Country, to the nation, and to the world – in the 2011 State of Indian Nations Address. In that speech I emphasized that Indian nations offer enormous opportunity to a country facing economic crisis. The message is clear – and familiar, because it’s one many of us have carried for decades –if only the government will respect our Constitutional sovereignty and work with us to cut the red tape that blocks investment, Indian nations will make a tremendous – and much needed – contribution to the American economy and America will be stronger.

During this time of increasingly bitter partisanship in Washington, we sent a clear message – the federal trust responsibility does not have a political affiliation. At this juncture, when we have seen so much progress, it is critical for Congress and the Administration to honor the special status of tribal nations – and our citizens.

I urged Congress to sustain investments in tribal nations by holding Indian programs harmless and providing much needed funding for infrastructure, law enforcement, health care, job creation, and education. Now is not the time to step back from investments in tribal communities that hold promise for our entire nation.

But the speech also contained an important message that was one for us as tribal leaders. I said that the new era isn’t defined by the opportunities presented to us. It “is defined by what we, as Indian nations, choose to do for ourselves.” This moment in the history of Indian Country must be marked by tribal nations coming together, and I mean together, being unified as we put together the best recommendations for this Administration and Congress.

We must work with both sides of the aisle in congress to create jobs that will address the unemployment crisis that has faced many of our communities for decades. We must work to address tax policy so our governments have access to the same tools available to other governments. We must work to protect business development tools – like the 8(a) program – to provide jobs and economic development that strengthen our entire nation.

It’s time to roll up our sleeves. Let’s come together, here, this week, and forge ahead with a clear plan to present legislative policies that will strengthen our nation, and set the tone for generations to come. In the lead up to this year, we have experienced tremendous gains, but it has not been a result of waiting for someone to determine our future. Our recent momentum is a result of continued work, unity and resolve.

That is why today, I issue an invitation—to all of the tribal leaders in the room and to Indian people across the nation—to unite and move forward in partnership as we combat the challenges of our time and fight for a brighter future for our children. Let us as tribal nations come together and set an example for the rest of America to follow. Let us demonstrate to the rest of the world that unity is strength.

As we face pressing policy challenges, we must remain united as we fight for a Carcieri fix, for trust reform, for energy legislation, for policies that spur economic development rather than slow it down.

Yesterday, the executive board heard recommendations and a call for action regarding a proclamation on native languages. As the nation considers education reform, we must put forward clear and unified policy recommendations that clarify our governmental roles, as we define what Indian education means for our children.

Now, I know this won’t be easy. We all have our differences and our own interests at stake, but unity isn’t about when we all agree. That isn’t a challenge. Unity is when we disagree, and we work to find common ground, because our collective efforts are so much more effective. Indian leaders have worked hard to prepare our nations for this moment. We have demonstrated our capacity as self-determined governments that contribute to a stronger America. If this truly is the dawn of a new era for Indian country…let’s get to work and define that new era, before it defines us.

Defining this new era means working together to ensure the policy changes we have won are implemented effectively. The transformation of tribal justice systems was not won with the passage of the Tribal Law & Order Act, it will only be won in the coming years as we fight to ensure the Act is implemented and funded effectively. A modern health care system worthy of our people was not won when President Obama signed the Indian Health Care Improvement Act into law, it will only be won when our communities receive the health services they deserve, the health services we were promised in our treaties!

Defining the era also means we can’t just ask for policy change, we must be prepared to make these opportunities happen. Take trust reform, for example. We have all been talking about trust reform for decades but with the historic Cobell Settlement and the establishment of the Land Consolidation Fund, we are at a critical moment. For the first time in our history, the federal government stands ready and willing to initiate a process of true reforms to the trust relationship in partnership with Indian people. We have a tremendous opportunity to be a part of these trust reform conversations, and to put forward our recommendations on what trust asset management should look like.

The door of opportunity is open because of your hard work and the work of the bipartisan leaders that we will hear from this week. But it is up to us to walk through that door of opportunity; by presenting fresh ideas and concrete proposals about what we would like to see changed, why we would like to see it changed in that way, and just how to affect those changes.

When the President calls for energy independence or investing in green jobs, when people in Congress talk about domestic energy development, that is our time, that is our chance to say, “look at Indian Country.” We have what you need and we want to partner with you to grow the American economy.

We need to take charge of the policy debate over energy by developing concrete energy policy recommendations that realize the vast potential of tribal energy resources. Policy change in this area offers immense promise for tribal communities, and the United States as a whole. As I stated in the state of Indian Nations address, tribes care for approximately ten percent of America’s energy resources, including renewable energy, worth nearly a trillion dollars in revenue. Yet, only a handful of tribes have been able to successfully utilize these resources.

In the 112th Congress, we need to launch a concerted effort to get our tribal energy initiatives signed into law so we can – at long last – unleash the potential of Indian energy resources throughout the nation.

We have a similar opportunity with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. We need to take immediate action within our own communities to endorse the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples—just as the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma recently did—and make sure that we are living up to the principles of the Declaration in our own communities. In fact, my good friend, Grand Chief Edward John—a great indigenous leader of the First Nations—stated just last week that this is OUR declaration and we need to take ownership over it.

Tomorrow evening at the legislative reception at National Museum of the American Indians, you’ll see the words, “Indian Country; Celebrating Together.” Around the room will be legislative victories from the last year. Let’s take the time and reflect on the significance of these achievements. But let’s look at those victories not through the lens of the past but through the lens of the future. Let’s look forward to the bright future our children, and our children’s children, will enjoy. Let’s envision the time when our children look back and say “This was the moment when the future of Indian Country changed forever.”

This new era has been prepared through partnership with our allies in the Administration and Congress, but it will be defined by what we – the tribal leaders in this room – will do together to seize this moment and enact real and lasting change for our communities.

The new era starts now. It starts today, this very moment. Let’s move forward together, united, for a future of stronger Indian nations that contribute to a brighter future for all Americans.

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