Back to The Forefront
June 15, 2011
NCAI President Keel's Prepared Remarks at 2011 NCAI Mid Year Conference
NCAI President Keel's Prepared Remarks at 2011 NCAI Mid Year Conference

Speech Addressing the Native Resources: Tribal Cultures and the Economy

Good morning! We have received many great welcomes today from the wonderful people of the Midwest region. I trust that our dedication to our work will honor the spirit of their hospitality.

As the President of the National Congress of American Indians I’m honored to welcome you to NCAI’s Mid Year Conference here in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

We come together with a great purpose; to work together and move forward shared priorities of our nations and communities.

And, we come together as a result of the amazing work of the local planning committee led by co-chairs Scott Vele and NCAI’s own Recording Secretary, Matthew Wesaw. I’d also especially like to thank Lewis Taylor of the Great Lakes Inter Tribal Council.
I’d like to start my report with some thoughts about NCAI itself and the membership of the organization.

So, I’ve got some thoughts about you, the members of NCAI, and the thoughts are good ones and I hope they inspire you in the days to come.

Your dedication to this organization, its vision and purpose, is the reason we are here. For close to 70 years now, Native people, leaders and advocates, have traveled to NCAI meetings from tribal nations and communities, villages and cities, in large groups or as a sole representative for thousands. We have slept in our cars, held bake sales, since 1944 we have made the sacrifices we need to make to gather with a single purpose – to strengthen the unified voice of Native people and ensure we protect and enhance sovereignty for the next generation.

Look around you, that tradition continues by you being here. We gather at these meetings not simply to exchange business cards or make deals. We are here to reconnect with family and friends, brothers and sisters, and even those we might disagree with, to ensure that as a whole, we have an ability to express the culture and traditions that make all of our nations so rich.

Look around you, these are our Native Resources. We are our Native Resources. We are our culture, we will help ensure the health of our people, we are the new ideas of living and teaching. We are the farmers that know our ways of agriculture and the business leaders who are engineering innovation in trade and commerce. We hold in our hearts the reverence for the land, and our relationship with it. Lastly, our most vital resource, is our relationship with each other. We are NCAI – leaders and advocates for a stronger Indian Country. Our greatest Native Resource is our unified voice and I encourage you this week to strengthen it by working together here, so that we speak to the world around us from the position of a shared alliance.

This theme, Native Resources: Tribal Cultures and the Economy, sets a course for us to imagine our future, with the circumstances of today as inspiration; our Native Resources will help us chart the course forward, to build stronger tribal economies based on the resources within our own nations, our own people, and ourselves. There is one way to honor vast resources of our nations, by doing the work to protect all that makes our people great. I ask you to remember with me here today, that the tradition of NCAI is not one that should be taken lightly, and your presence here is an affirmation of that tradition.

Last year, as a unified Indian Country we all experienced the fruits of our efforts, as we won an incredible set of legislative victories. Our follow up on these wins will shape Indian Country for years to come.

As we’ve reached our midway point of 2011, we stand on the brink of another historic year for Indian Country, not because of the legislation that is passed into law, but what we choose to do in the face of a difficult political environment in Washington, DC. As we all know it’s about the follow through. And 2011 can be a great sequel to our victories last year.

NCAI kicked off this year at the State of Indian Nations, where I called for tribal leaders to lead our nations and define a new era in federal-tribal relations. This era, as I explained, would be defined by what we as Native peoples choose to do for ourselves. And now we are seeing movement on issues and we must not lose our momentum.

I highlighted the importance of removing barriers to energy development on Indian land; now tribal energy legislation is being drafted in the Senate by Senator Borrasso as part of the work of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

We called for our children to continue to be a priority; just weeks ago, I stood with the First Lady, Michelle Obama, on the lawn of the White House, with dozens of Native Youth and other tribal leaders looking on, as we celebrated the launch of Let’s Move! in Indian Country. And in Congress, Federal legislation to establish a National Tribal Youth Corps is being considered, offering thousands of jobs in natural resources to our young people.

We called for more action to protect Native women from the terrible epidemic of violence. As our own First Vice President has highlighted in Indian Country Today, the Department of Justice, is making incredible progress, like we rarely see in Washington, DC, in offering solutions to the alarming rates of violence against Native women.

At the beginning of the year, we called for tribes to express their economic independence, to determine our own approaches to commerce and resource management. That’s why this past spring along with USET, we held a Tax Summit at Miccosukee. Our work here this week on Tax Policy and Tribal Economies will build on that momentum to remove barriers to economic development.

In the State of Indian Nations I asked us to consider this new era in front of us as the era of Promises Kept. NCAI and forty partners have formed an alliance that will keep a promise to the next generation. The alliance called Our Natural Resources, is developing a National Natural Resource Strategy that will shape a course for determining tribal natural resource management policy for decades to come.

We have set it as a goal this year to increase the visibility of investments in Indian Country to the highest levels of the federal government. That’s why when Robert Gordon, Executive Associate Director of the Office of Management and Budget, attended our recent Tribal Interior Budget Committee meeting it represented a significant moment to elevate our tribal governments’ place in the federal budget process. The tribal leaders who attend these meetings – and the HHS budget meetings – have been instrumental in advancing Indian budget priorities in this Administration.

There is no doubt that we have battles still to fight and Indian Country as whole must stay unified to overcome them. A Carcieri fix is a top priority and we will continue to push forward this agenda. The nomination of Arvo Mikkanen, has stalled in the Senate, and we still await a Native person to take their rightful place serving on the Federal bench.

In the media and in public perception, while our own media efforts have improved, there have been detractors, distracters, and setbacks. We must always meet these moments with a unified message, about our place in the American family of governments; one that has an equal place, guaranteed to us by our treaties, the U.S. constitution, and our inseparable bond to this place.

This past Memorial day, I laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I did this for a number of reasons. First, as we all know to well, our Indian warriors serve at a disproportionate rate, more than any other minority group, in the Armed Services. We currently have over 22,000 active duty members serving in the Armed Forces today. Many, too many, have died in the line of service.

We should all take a moment to honor our Native warriors. We have sent a letter to the Department of Defense to ensure that they reform their policies to ensure they honor our Native warriors.

Right now, the global market and the national economy continue to experience setbacks and Indian Country is not safe from these hardships. As governments at the federal, state, and local level, search for new revenue streams, Indian Country stands at the brink of a new economic revolution leading to sustainable prosperity for tribal nations, and as a result prosperity for the United States. We will do this, led by our cultures and people dedicated to the stewardship and management of our resources, ensuring that what has been provided to us by the creator.

Exactly how we envision Indian Country’s collective relationship to our “Native Resources” will change the future of Indian Country and our nation. We will do it by offering fresh and bold solutions to our nations’ most pressing problems.

Let’s remember NCAI is not just another meeting, let’s renew our partnership. Let us reaffirm this in our resolutions, our promises, and the actions we take when we return home to our people.

We are grateful to be here on the shores of Lake Michigan. As we watch the sun rise over the lake in the mornings, I invite you to cast your mind to the new horizon for Indian Country. On the horizon I see our futures rising and I ask every NCAI member to gather here with optimism in your heart and a common concern on your mind.

This week we speak of “Our Native Resources,” it is our sacred duty – only ours – to ensure they remain this way.

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