2014 State of Indian Nations
My fellow tribal leaders, Members of Congress, Administration officials, friends and partners gathered here and watching from home…
I thank the Creator for giving me the opportunity to stand before you today, as part of a united Indian Country… to celebrate and honor our elders, veterans, families, and youth… to receive the blessings of those who came before us, and to bestow those blessings on those who will follow us.
This is an exciting time for Indian Country. Tribes are meeting our challenges head on… improving the lives of our people and our neighbors… and preparing the next generation for even greater achievements.
Many years ago, our Elders established a relationship with the federal government… a relationship honoring the sovereignty that is our natural birthright and acknowledging the power of tribes to govern ourselves.
My grandfather stood with his brothers and sisters of that great generation of tribal leaders. And together, they sowed the early seeds of a new era of Indian self-determination. He served for many years on the tribal council of the Swinomish, my tribe. It was from him that I came to learn about the power and possibility of our people—and began working to realize it myself.
Now, as the 21st president of the National Congress of American Indians I am proud to carry on his legacy.
The aspirations of Native people and tribal governments are not unlike non-Native people and their governments. We all want good schools and sustainable employment… safe communities and new opportunities… drinkable water and breathable air. And like all people, what we want, above all, is a bright future for our children and grandchildren… a future of limitless possibilities.
We can achieve these goals… if we work together.
So today, I want to share with you how tribes are strengthening their cultures, growing their economies, and contributing to a stronger America – and how, if our federal treaty and trust agreements are respected and honored by the United States of America, tribal efforts can yield even greater returns.
During my years of service to the Swinomish, I’ve had the chance to visit tribes throughout the country, from the Tanana Chiefs of Alaska to the balmy everglades of Florida. From the deserts of the Southwest to the salmon streams of the Penobscot Nation.
In my three months as President of the National Congress of American Indians, I have had the opportunity to visit with the Cherokee Nation, the Fort Mojave Tribe, the Sealaska Native Corporation, and the Pueblo of Sandia.
Each tribe is unique. Each has its own traditional territory. Each its own rich culture.
But everywhere I go, one thing is the same.
Native American tribes are dynamic. They pulse with an undeniable energy… an eagerness to seize the opportunities of tomorrow.
Many tribes are emerging as catalysts for economic development – reviving and expanding local economies, creating new jobs and business opportunities. There are nearly a quarter million Native-owned businesses in the U.S. today, from Chickasaw software companies to Tlingit-run ecotourism in Alaska to a line of Seminole energy drinks. They are proud to create jobs for their people and their neighbors.
Indeed, the tide is turning.
Tribal nations are no longer seen as a footnote to America’s past, but as a force for America’s future.
Foreign nations are exploring relationships with tribal nations.
As the host governments of the upcoming United Nations’ World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, our tribes have the opportunity to expand and deepen connections between the indigenous and non-indigenous nations across the world.
America’s first nations are becoming some of the first in the country to implement cutting-edge technologies and business practices. They are demonstrating that when given the opportunity, tribes can – and do – make better decisions for themselves than federal agencies.
That’s why we are pleased that our relationship with the Administration has never been more promising.
President Obama created the White House Council on Native American Affairs, delivering on a long-awaited priority of tribal leaders. His Administration has also given tribal leaders a seat at the table, especially when it comes to issues that impact our communities.
All of this exciting progress builds on years of positive steps by presidents of both parties, from President Nixon onward.
And Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill have also worked together – it can be done! This past year, with strong leadership on both sides of the aisle, Congress reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act, passed the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, amended the Stafford Act to allow tribes to directly request disaster relief funding, and secured many other legislative achievements.
President Obama has pledged to visit Indian Country this year, and tribes are eagerly anticipating the opportunity to share their stories and their successes with him.
Of course, there is much more work to be done. For too many Native communities, prosperity remains a distant dream.
Yet, tribal leaders and advocates have never been more optimistic about the future of Native people.
We already have the experience, the talent, and the drive to succeed. Now, to achieve what we know is possible, we must encourage prosperous, vibrant, and healthy communities; expand opportunities for our children and future generations; and protect the very key to achieving these goals—the inherent sovereignty of our Tribal Nations.
In many ways, Indian Country is driving America’s economy.
In South Dakota, several Sioux tribes are partnering with the Clinton Global Initiative to build the largest wind power production facility in the United States.
The Southern Ute Indian Tribe of Colorado has generated hundreds of jobs on and off its reservation through an oil and gas enterprise, Red Willow Production Company.
In Arizona, the Salt River Pima-Maricopa recently built two world-class professional baseball facilities for the Diamondbacks and the Rockies—and they are already hosting players and fans at their beautiful resort hotels.
We were delighted last June when the Small Business Administration signed a historic partnership with the Native American Contractors Association, which will catalyze small business development in Indian Country.
Tribes have been integral to America’s economic recovery. For example, in my home state of Washington, twenty-nine tribes collectively contribute more than $3.5 billion to the state’s overall financial well-being, while employing over 27,000 workers. And Oklahoma’s 38 tribes have a $10.8 billion annual impact and employ 5 percent of the state’s entire workforce.
But our ability to contribute to the collective prosperity of the country is threatened by the federal government’s failure to keep its promises.
You see, long ago, we ceded land to the United States. In exchange, the federal government became our trustee and promised three things: to provide funding for essential services and self-sustaining prosperity, to guard our right to govern ourselves on our remaining lands, and to help manage those lands and resources in our best interests. This is the basis of our government-to-government relationship.
Unfortunately, these trust and treaty obligations are often the first on the federal budget chopping block… and tribes are left scrambling to provide essential services. At the same time, federal tax law makes it difficult for tribal governments to raise our own revenue.
The sequester, for instance, cut already strapped tribal funds, affecting everything from tribal courts to road maintenance… resulting in 800,000 fewer outpatient visits to Indian Health Service and affecting Head Start services for 44,000 Native children.
These cuts came on top of years of reductions… each cut compounding the effects of previous ones. Tribes have made great strides in building their economies… but to maintain progress, we need our federal government leaders to recommit themselves to our partnership.
This also means investing in the infrastructure required to support new developments.
Maintenance has been deferred on reservation schools, clinics, hospitals, roads, bridges, and irrigation facilities, often to the point where they are no longer safe. Housing in many communities has been substandard for decades.
Many Native communities lack broadband in their homes and some even lack basic phone service.
The Tanana Chiefs represent dozens of tribes and villages in Alaska, and I am appalled to tell you that many of their communities don’t have running water or modern sewage systems.
If all of Indian Country were a state, it would be the fourth largest in the nation… but more than 60 percent of tribal roads are unpaved.
We call on Congress to uphold its obligations to tribes, and to reform outdated federal tax policy—to treat tribal governments the same as state and local governments. Just as federal tax laws enable state and local governments to provide services to their citizens and stimulate local economies, federal law must do the same for tribes.
Give us that power and we will invest our revenue well: to help educate our children, to care for our elders and the disadvantaged. Our goal is to build strong partnerships with federal and state governments as we work to improve the lives of all Americans.
There is no greater return on investment than when resources are devoted to our children.
This is especially true in Indian Country. For as much as we honor our ancestors, we know that our future lies with our Native youth.
While our nations may be old, our people are disproportionately young. Nearly 42% of Native people are under the age of 24.
Native youth are also disproportionately vulnerable. Many grow up in communities where jobs are scarce or even non-existent… where classrooms lack basic essentials… where parents go sick because they don’t have access to decent health care.
And yet, whatever hardships they might face, our young people grow up surrounded by family and enriched by our timeless traditions. In this spirit, the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed to keep Native children with our families and communities… guided by our Elders, learning about our culture, and taking pride in who we are and where we come from.
We want our young people to live proudly as First Americans… while also embracing, and being embraced by, non-Native America.
That’s why the mockery of Native celebrations and dress in the name of sportsmanship is not just offensive, but insidious… because it asks us to accept the denigration of our heritage. It erodes our children’s sense of self. And that is simply unacceptable.
Our children, our Native youth – brilliant, energized, focused – represent our brightest hopes. That’s why tribes are committed to investing in their potential.
In the past 30 years the number of American Indian and Alaska Native students enrolled in college has more than doubled. Tribes are working with Tribal Colleges and Universities along with other non-tribal, Native-serving institutions of higher education.
Just as our ancestors never could have imagined the world we live in today, we know we cannot predict the world our young people will inhabit tomorrow… but we are determined to do everything we can to make sure they are prepared for whatever the future has in store.
This is a responsibility tribes have proudly taken on, as sovereign nations.
But our success depends on the federal government respecting that sovereignty, and adhering to our trust agreements.
And while tribal nations are prepared to fully engage the challenges of a new century, our trustee relationship hasn’t evolved to catch up to this reality.
The federal government can be an impediment to progress.
Consider, for example, the public safety crisis confronting so many of our Native communities.
Indian Country experiences much higher rates of violence per capita than the general population – violence very often perpetuated by non-Natives. And yet our law enforcement is over-worked and underfunded.
Last year, the Violence Against Women Act authorized tribal police and tribal courts to prosecute Native and non-Native perpetrators of domestic violence on our reservations – a major victory. But Congress left the 226 Alaska tribes out of the law. This injustice must be corrected.
Like all governments, tribes have an obligation to protect their citizens—and, as our trustee, Congress has an obligation to prioritize public safety spending for tribes.
It isn’t just a budget issue. Tribes are stymied by the courts as well.
The Supreme Court’s devastating Carcieri decision overturned a longstanding precedent and arbitrarily limited federal authority to acquire land in trust for Indian tribes – authority that has been central to our trust relationship.
The Carcieri decision has done more than just threaten tribal autonomy… it has turned away potential investors in economic development projects, and raised questions about when federal and tribal authorities can pursue crimes on tribal lands.
It’s time for Congress to fix the fallout from this terrible decision. Even as we work to tear down old barriers, new ones continue to emerge. The trust relationship lacks adequate funding. And it is rife with restrictions, regulations, and red tape.
Our tribal lands are rich in timber, water resources, and grass for grazing. They boast almost a quarter of the country’s on-shore oil and gas resources, and one-third of the West’s low-sulfur coal.
Indian Country contains an estimated 10 percent of the country’s total energy resources—and yet it represents less than 5 percent of our current national energy production. Archaic laws and regulations create delays and disruptions… and make it harder for us to develop our resources.
For instance, a few years back, my own tribe was approached by a large, innovative retailer about signing a commercial lease that would have created jobs for tribal members. The lease required some flexibility from the Bureau of Indian Affairs…but after a year of delays, the market had changed and the developer pulled out.
Far too many tribes have similar stories of lost economic opportunity due to irrational regulations and burdensome bureaucracy.
At the same time, we must have the authority to protect and preserve our natural resources, which are integral to the health and security of American Indian and Alaska Native peoples, communities, cultures, and economies. Native people have a special relationship with our environment—indeed, for thousands of years, we’ve learned how to care for it. Many of our people keep the traditions of our ancestors—living off the land, respecting the life around them, sustained by what the Creator provides.
With full self-determination for our own land, our own communities, our own nations, we can secure a self-sustaining future.
As I embark on my first year as president of the National Congress of American Indians, strengthened by your support and fortified by my faith, I share the optimism of my fellow tribal leaders about what is to come.
Yes, we still have a long journey ahead of us. But despite the challenges we will continue to face, I am confident that we can build on the progress we’ve already made and realize the potential of our nations.
In this nation-to-nation relationship, tribes are doing our part… and we expect the federal government to do theirs.
The federal government must be an ally that promotes sovereignty instead of subordination.
An ally that fulfills its contracts instead of neglecting them.
An ally that honors our trust instead of breaking it.
An ally that encourages growth… because when tribes succeed, our neighbors, and our nation, succeed, too.
My fellow tribal leaders, we’ve learned that together, united, we are greater than the sum of our parts. My fellow government officials, we’ve learned that together, working beyond the boundaries of party and state, we can improve countless lives and generate shared prosperity.
Together, we can build a strong partnership between all of our nations… one that will secure a brighter future for all our people.
God bless our Indian Nations.
God bless the United States of America.