2015 State of Indian Nations

Abstract: 13th Annual State of Indian Nations Address Remarks by Brian Cladoosby, President National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) Thursday, January 22, 2015 Newseum, Knight Studios, Washington, DC

My fellow tribal leaders, Members of Congress, members of the Administration, friends and partners gathered here and watching from home . . .

I want to thank the Creator for this beautiful day . . . for allowing me the privilege of representing Indian Country . . . and for providing the opportunity to honor our history and celebrate the promise of our nation-to-nation relationship.

In this week when we remembered a great civil rights leader, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and when our President delivered his annual State of the Union address, it is fitting that we take this time to consider the transformation and change that is under way in Indian Country.

Today, Indian Country is leading. Indian Country is innovating.  Indian Country is growing.

And the state of Indian nations grows stronger by the day. 

Tribal nations are steadily reclaiming our rightful place among the American family of governments.

And we are doing this, despite antiquated ways of thinking about Native peoples and tribal governments and outdated policies that belong to another century.

We are not where we want to be in our relationship with the federal government, but we are also glad that we are not where we used to be.

Today, I bring a simple message from the tribes of the 21st Century:

We must tear down barriers to growth, simplify regulations that are limiting opportunities, and acknowledge that tribes have the capability as governments to oversee our own affairs.  

As we reach out to the federal government as a partner, we must continue to insist that the United States honors its trust responsibility to Native peoples.

Honoring its trust responsibility means recognizing Indian Country’s legal authority to control its own destiny.

It means respecting Native peoples for who we are, not who others think we are

And it means modernizing the trust relationship between our nations.

These are things we can and must do, as a united Indian Country.  We are determined to create opportunities for success – within our borders and beyond.

This is a remarkable moment in our shared history.

For the 566 federally recognized tribal nations and many state recognized tribes, for the more than five million Native people living in cities or on reservations across this land, these are the days that our ancestors prayed for. We must seize the opportunity to sustain our progress.

As the twenty-first President of the National Congress of American Indians, I have been privileged to witness great progress over the past few years, from our families to our tribal councils to Capitol Hill. 

We worked with Republicans, Democrats, and Independents in Congress to make Indian Country safer by reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. 

We made Indian Country healthier by working together to permanently reauthorize the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.

We made Indian Country fairer by passing the Tribal General Welfare Exclusion Act to ensure that Indian people aren’t unjustly taxed for benefits they receive from their own tribal governments. 

In the last six years, we have seen Congress and the Administration work together to pass an unprecedented number of bipartisan bills that will improve opportunities for our peoples.

Last month, I was proud to join hundreds of tribal leaders from across the nation as we participated in the sixth annual Tribal Nations Summit with President Obama

And, of course, 2014 was also the year that we were privileged to have President Obama visit one of our tribal homelands. The President told me his trip to the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation had a profound impact.  He urged his cabinet to follow his lead and make visiting Indian Country a priority.

Today, I want to make a personal invitation to Speaker Boehner, Leader Pelosi, Majority Leader McConnell, and Minority Leader Reid – as well as every Member of Congress: Come to Indian Country this year. 

Just today, several Members of Congress, a Cabinet Secretary, and representatives of the Administration are visiting the Navajo Nation.

Let’s make that visit the beginning of a year of unprecedented engagement between tribal nations and our federal partners.

Among all the gains in recent years, we’ve also suffered some losses. Close to my heart and to many across Indian Country was the loss of my friend and mentor . . . a Native American hero . . . an American hero . . . Billy Frank Jr. 

Billy, like me, was from the Pacific Northwest.  His people, the Nisqually nation, are fishing people, like my people.   

At age 14, he was arrested for exercising his treaty rights by fishing in the Nisqually River.  

As Billy put it, he wasn’t a policy guy. He was a getting arrested guy. Over the years, he was arrested more than 50 times.  That’s one of Billy’s accomplishments that I have yet to achieve.

And those arrests laid the groundwork for an historic judicial ruling, later affirmed by the Supreme Court, which acknowledged that our treaties reserved our right to fish where we had for generations.

After all, our rights as sovereign nations were not granted by the Constitution. They existed before there was a Constitution. 

Now, if you don’t know who Billy Frank was, you’re not alone.  The history that he lived—that our people have lived—is a history that’s not often taught in schools.

But it is essential to understanding the connection between our nations, the trust that defines our partnership, and the responsibility that is entrusted to all federal officials —especially Members of Congress.

That’s why, as long as I knew him, Billy had the same message:  Tell your story, tell your story, tell your story.  Billy knew that no one could tell our story better than we can.

So for those who don’t know, let me tell you the story of our trust relationship.

If the story has a theme, it’s a story of pride and resilience book-ended by self-determination on either end.

There are many people who believe that when Europeans got to this land, and moved west, they simply claimed empty Indian land for themselves.  But that’s not true. 

When my grandfather and Billy’s grandfather were young, the U.S. government signed more than 400 treaties.

In fact, it was 160 years ago today that my dad’s great-grandfather, Kel-kahl-tsoot, signed the Point Elliott Treaty, between the Swinomish tribe and the United States.  My dad proudly carries on that name. Dad is 81 years old and – like his namesake – he inspires me every day.

Tribal nations like ours accepted a smaller land base.  In exchange, the federal government made three basic promises: 

To guard our right to govern ourselves.

To enable tribal governments to deliver essential services. 

And, to help manage our remaining lands and resources in our best interests. 

These treaties are older than many U.S. state constitutions.  In fact, the Point Elliott Treaty preceded the existence of the State of Washington by three and a half decades.  All of our treaties continue to stand as the “supreme law of the land.” 

Every Member of Congress and federal official is responsible for carrying out that trust, whether a Member has a tribe in their district or not.  Part of their job description is to make sure that the United States of America honors its commitments and lives up to its word. 

After all, this trust: it’s not a handout, it’s a contract.  It’s a commitment. And it’s their duty to honor it.

So, why do I mention this history now? 

The nation-to-nation relationship between the United States of America and Indian Country has reached a crossroads.

Many tribes today are on the forefront of innovative, 21st century governance.

Don’t take my word for it.  As I mentioned earlier, I invite you to come and see for yourselves: 

Come to the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, where you will see homes as old as 700 years being rehabilitated. The name of the pueblo says it all:  Place of the Strong People.

Come to Shaktoolik, Alaska, where you will meet the first cavity-free elementary classes.   It is the direct result of the dental health therapist workforce – the first-of its kind in-the-nation. To date, 40,000 people have been treated at 30 percent of the cost.  Now, other states are studying how they can replicate the success in Alaska.

Come to Lummi Nation, where you’ll see the first tribally developed and operated commercial wetland mitigation bank in the United States – more than 2,000 acres that are creating income streams for the tribal government while preserving fishing streams for salmon and shellfish. 

Many tribes are engines of economic growth, not just for Native people, but for non-Native people, too.

In fact, there are nearly a quarter million Native-owned businesses across the United States.  

The five tribes in Idaho contribute more than $850 million to the state’s economy, and have increased statewide employment by more than 10,000 jobs.   

The eleven tribal nations in Minnesota have collectively contributed more than $2.7 billion to the local economy while employing 41,000 Native and non-Native Minnesotans. 

These are more than Native American success stories. They are American success stories. And we’re ready to write many more in the years to come.

Of course, there is much more work to be done.  Too many of Indian Country’s reservations and communities are a long way from prosperity.   Too many tribal communities are still plagued by: high unemployment rates; high dropout rates; rampant drug and alcohol abuse; and an appalling suicide epidemic.

Together, we believe we can overcome these challenges.

Of course, trust itself is based on respect. Part of modernizing our trust relationship means modernizing the way Native people are respected, and our civil rights are upheld.

For this reason, I want to address an issue the National Congress of American Indians has worked on for almost 50 years.  I want to talk about the stereotypes and degradation that Native peoples continue to be subjected to in our society.   

In particular, I want to talk about the name of the Washington DC football team.

Allow me to read from the pages of a Minnesota newspaper published one September day in 1863: “The State reward for dead Indians has been increased to $200 for every red-skin sent to Purgatory. This sum is more than the dead bodies of all the Indians east of the Red River are worth.”

History is clear on what that vile word meant: it was the scalped head of an American Indian man, woman, or child that trappers and hunters sold, like bear fur, for money.  

Let me be very clear:  the single-most offensive name that you can call an American Indian is “Redskin.”

Today, a majority of people agree. In a recent national survey 83 percent of Americans said they wouldn’t use the R-word to a Native American’s face. And they’re right.

We know the team owner stands on the wrong side of history. He has dug in his heels and refuses to change.

But why do you do it, Fed Ex?  You point with pride to your policy of diversity and inclusiveness.  Yet, your name is on the stadium.  How do you defend perpetuating exactly the kind of racism that 40 percent of your workforce has faced in one form or another?

And why do you do it, Coca-Cola?  For generations, you have been the company that taught the world to sing.  Why do you defend a name that teaches the young generation to hate?

And why do you do it Verizon . . . or Best Buy . . . or HP . . . or United Airlines?  Many of us associate your companies with great American success stories! But doesn’t your defense of this name harken back to the worst of America’s failures?

American Indians are appropriately honored as soldiers and teachers, students and first responders, CEOs and community leaders. There is no honor in the name of that team.

It’s long past time that Washingtonians begin to see their fellow Native citizens through the eyes of respect and not as mascots for a football business that doesn’t even have a fraction of the resilience, pride, or strength of character of any tribal nation.

To those who say there are other issues that Indian Country should focus on, my response is simple:  this issue is no different than any issue we work on every day at the National Congress of American Indians.

As we have since 1944, we will stand for the rights of Native peoples in every corner of our society, whether it’s under the bright lights of the NFL or in the voting booths of South Dakota. 

This isn’t a partisan issue. This isn’t an issue of political correctness.  We’re not trying to make news or make noise. We’re trying to make progress. We’re standing up, with partners like the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights . . . the NAACP . . . the National Council of La Raza . . . and the Fritz Pollard Alliance. We’re standing with tribes and Native organizations, religious leaders and journalists, school students and former NFL stars . . . and we’re calling on all fair-minded Americans to stand with us.

To sustain our progress, and build on it, we must rid ourselves of the old ways of thinking about our relationship.

We must modernize our trust relationship. The next step in strengthening that relationship is for the federal government to trust tribes to determine their own future.

This is about more than tribes having a seat at the table where decisions are made.

This is about having policies and processes that treat tribal nations as partners in governing. 

While we have a unique relationship with the federal government that will never end, it is time that our relationship reflects the true meaning of the word “trust.”  

The federal government needs to recognize tribal governments as true partners in supporting the citizens of our nations.  It needs to update its laws and regulations to reflect that partnership—one based on deference and support, not paternalism and control.   

Whether policy related to the Keystone Pipeline or renewable energy, health care or education, privacy rights or immigration, too often policymakers fail to surround themselves with people who understand tribal perspectives or seek input from tribal leaders and citizens. 

We don’t want the federal government to solve our problems or dictate our future.  We want to solve our own problems.  We want to build our own future.  We strongly believe that the greatest source of solutions that work for Indian Country is Indian Country itself.

In fact, we are already charting this future.  The Native vote is influencing important elections, electing Republicans, Democrats, and Independents who stand with Indian Country and uphold the trust responsibility. 

A growing number of Native people hold elective office. I’d like to take a moment to congratulate my good friend, an Alaska Native, and a former NCAI board member:  Alaska’s new Lieutenant Governor Byron Mallott.

Byron not only embodies his Tlingit culture – but also the idea that Native issues aren’t partisan issues.

The power of the Native vote shows that when we base our work on the principle that our voice can and must be heard, we can work together to tear down the barriers to growth for tribal economies.  We can give the next generation a better chance to work hard – and see that work pay off.   

To that end, I see three important ways we can modernize the trust relationship: simplifying and streamlining government regulations . . . improving education . . . and focusing the talents of tribal nations to create economic growth.

Let me start where Ronald Reagan started—with simplifying government.

Part of our frustration today is similar to the frustration felt by state governments forced to live under regulations that were written for another age and time.

I often speak about how my tribe lost a major contract with a large retailer.  It happened because the federal government sat on our application for nearly two years, until the economy crashed and the retailer pulled out of the deal.

Many tribal leaders have a similar story. The fact is that the federal agencies that oversee Indian Country are not equipped to deal with all of the decisions necessary to build an economy in the 21st Century. 

Congress and the Administration need to find ways to help bring federal agencies out of the 19th Century and into the 21st Century.  We need them to be partners for growth and not barriers to growth.   

Take access to capital.  The ability to issue tax-exempt bonds to fund construction projects is the bread and butter of every modern state and local government.  Yet, this economic development tool is not available to tribes. The IRS only allows tribes to use tax-exempt bonds to fund “essential government functions,” like sewer systems. It is time for the federal government to update its tax code to reflect its recognition of the equal status of tribal governments. 

The same goes for adoption.  State courts say that a parent who adopts a child with special needs is eligible to receive a tax credit to help with care. Yet, if a parent lives on a reservation and adopts a child with special needs, they don’t get a tax credit.  It’s not an oversight – it’s bad policy.  It’s outrageous and discriminatory, and it needs to change.

Or take law enforcement.  Despite an act of Congress, the FBI continues to effectively deny tribal police access to the same National Crime Information Center database that they make available to state, local, and even some campus police.   What does that mean?  It means that if a protection order is issued in a domestic violence case, the tribal court often cannot enter that order into the federal database. It means that protection might not follow the survivor off the reservation.  It needs to change.

The same goes for the Census of governments.  Every five years, 70,000 government entities are surveyed, right down to local sewer districts.  But tribal governments have never been included in this process.  So, when we appeal for federal resources, we do so without any of the data that every other government uses to receive funding.

And take an especially close look at technology.  The rural broadband development project regularly reviews technology access in rural America.  Yet, the last technology census of tribal nations took place before Google, Twitter, or smart phones even existed.  The best data we do have indicates an ongoing digital divide. While 73 percent of Americans have access to broadband, in Indian Country, it’s only 10 percent. 

In spite of these barriers, tribes are maintaining their place as the first American innovators. Just last week, President Obama highlighted a public-private partnership that brought high-speed Internet access to the Choctaw Nation. In a community where access was once non-existent, today the tribal council has a new tool to engage citizens.  The Choctaw School of Language is offering distance education courses. And, the Broken Bow School District serves over 1,000 students using smart boards, iPads, online lesson plans, and tools that increase parent engagement.  

We need a comprehensive and updated study of our technology needs to advance more common sense initiatives like this one to increase our participation in the Digital Age.

Of course, there are more legislative and administrative solutions within reach than I can discuss here.  But I want to focus on two important areas where bipartisan solutions exist: education and economic growth.

No resource is more important to the continued success and growth of tribal nations and the United States than our children.  Education is a treaty right.

The greatest way to invest in this precious natural resource is to provide a high-quality, culturally-appropriate education.  One that benefits all Native children and gives Native students the same chance to succeed as their non-Native peers. 

For Indian Country, it all goes back to trust, flexibility, and local solutions.

Focusing on tribal control of schools promises to improve outcomes for our students.  And creating greater accountability for public schools on reservation lands will ensure that Native students receive the quality education that they need.

We call on Congress to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act this year.  We call for the inclusion of tribal provisions to encourage tribal-state partnerships, strengthen local control of education, and begin to help every school deliver a high-quality education.

We also call on Congress to enact legislation that supports Native language programs so education for our children is rooted in our history and culture.

Together, we should also take a hard look at the Bureau of Indian Education schools.  Congress and the Administration can do more to make sure the Native youth that attend these schools have high-quality teachers . . . modern technology . . . and the facilities to deliver excellent education.

Along the way, we must continue to seek innovative solutions. That is why I applaud the President’s proposal to make the first two years of tribal and community college free.  It will finally make K-through-14 education in America a reality.

I look forward to working with Congress and the Administration to make this and other necessary investments in our youth, Native and non-Native.

After all, the relatively few dollars we spend on education today will save many dollars in the generations to come.  Education destroys poverty and drug and alcohol abuse.

Likewise, when it comes to economic growth, what’s good for First Americans is good for all Americans.  

But what can we do to power economic growth within tribes – growth that has ripple effects far beyond their borders?

The answer centers around what tribal governments have proven we can do when Indian Country has the flexibility to pursue ideas developed at the local level.

When it comes to infrastructure, tribes need safe and well-maintained transportation options and housing – just like the rest of the country. And tribes need better information highways, too – just to catch up with the rest of the country.  

I urge Congress and the Administration to accelerate work that is underway to partner with the private sector to expand broadband connectivity in Indian Country. 

When it comes to raising revenue, tribes need the authority to raise tax revenue free from overlapping state taxation, and to create incentives for business and jobs.

I urge Congress to take up significant tax reform this year – tax reform that includes tribes and recognizes tribal sovereignty, so we can better provide essential services and lay the groundwork for growth.

I also urge Congress to pass Indian energy legislation like that proposed by Chairman Barrasso. This legislation would provide tribes with greater control and flexibility to develop their traditional and renewable energy resources and would create careers and capital in Indian Country.

And to further improve access to capital, I urge the Administration to remove hurdles in the Bond Guarantee Program and ensure that tribes are included in the New Markets Tax Credit Program.

With these tools in hand, tribes can more effectively meet local demands with local solutions.

Today, I have reviewed the history of our trust relationship and discussed the opportunities and challenges before us. 

NCAI continues to work to convert the policy ideas that inspire and guide tribal nations today into policy advice for the Administration and Congress.  Today, as in the past, we are releasing a report that outlines our priorities for this year: “Promoting Self-Determination and Modernizing the Trust Relationship.“   The report identifies specific ways the United States can uphold these commitments.

I urge all Members of Congress to read it… review it with your staff… use it as an occasion to continue the necessary conversation about how our nations can move forward together.

In the end, the relationship we have inherited, like any good relationship, depends on two things: respect and trust. 

Here, I have a replica wampum belt. Today, as they have for generations, the nations of the Iroquois confederacy exchange belts like this one as a sign of peace and friendship.  

I carry this wampum belt today because it, too, is a sign of peace and friendship.  But it is much more than that.  It also symbolizes the inherent sovereignty of tribal nations . . . who from time immemorial have made treaties among themselves . . . treaties with European nations . . . and treaties with the United States.

Many generations ago, we did not share a common language. But we did share a relationship of mutual respect and admiration . . . and a belief that our futures would be closely intertwined.

In 1744, Canassatego, a representative from the Iroquois confederacy, had a recommendation for colonists from Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. He said, “Whatever befalls you, never fall out with one another.”

The same wisdom applies to our nation-to-nation relationship today.  In the spirit of Billy Frank, Jr. . . . and all those who shared the vision of common progress and common prosperity . . .  

May we work together . . . make progress together . . . and build a bright future for all Americans together.

When we uphold this trust, we uphold the promise that our nations have always represented and the promise of brighter futures for generations to come.

God bless the Tribal Nations and the National Congress of American Indians.

And God bless the United States of America.