The president of the National Congress of American Indians sets high expectations for Obama and native leaders as well.
Jefferson Keel, President of the National Congress of American Indians, delivered the 8th annual State of Indian Affairs address January 29 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C..
Keel, as readers may recall, is the same guy who introduced President Obama at the Tribal Nations Conference last year. After introducing Obama, Keel questioned the President about the Supreme Court ruling in Carcieri v. Salazar, that restricts the Department of the Interior from taking land into trust for those tribes that were federally recognized after the Indian Reorganizion Act of 1934. Tribes want to use trust land to build housing and other community facilities.
Dressed in a nicely tailored pin-stripe suit and subdued Indian-inspired bolo tie, Keel appears a bit more stylistically reserved than many of his predecessors. This reserve, however, may belie a willingness to hold the administration’s feet to the fire for promises made to Indian Country.
Keel, who is also Lt. Governor of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, rated unemployment as the top priority for Indian communities. He noted that the current American jobless rate of 10 percent has made headlines, yet unemployment on many reservations and Indian communities stands above 50 percent and has been this high for decades.
He specified seven steps that could be taken right now to help remedy this problem and meet other needs. These actions, he stressed, would help create jobs, expand health care, improve education, and address crime:
1. Restore the tribal land base. Tribes face daunting bureaucratic red tape in efforts to consolidate and make use of their lands. Consolidation is critical to economic development.
2. Improve law enforcement. This problem, Keel said, stems from a failure of coordination and lack of funding. “The administration has the power to fix both,” he said.
3. Grant tribal government the same treatment as state and local governments on tax and finance matters. Jacqueline Johnson Pata, executive director of NCAI, explained during the question and answer period that the inability of tribes to acquire surety bonding, which protects the recipient against loss in cases where terms of a contract are not fulfilled, also hinders economic development in Indian Country.
4. Invest in Indian Country’s children. Keel stressed that investment in children needs to be made at the outset rather than waiting until intervention services are needed. He called for support of youth-led wellness initiatives.
5. Distribute funds effectively to tribal governments. Considering the promising level of current collaboration among the administration, Congress and tribes, now is NOT the time to shrink back from investments in Indian Country. Keel called for exempting tribal government services from discretionary funding freezes.
6. Coordinate federal agencies to improve tribal infrastructure. A federal commitment across programs is needed to coordinate with tribes as they work to provide the basics, like access to safe water and sanitation to their communities.
7. Legislate a fix to the Supreme Court’s Carcieri decision.
After Keel’s speech, Victor Merina of Reznet News asked if the ARRA, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, had really been working for Indian Country. According to Jackie Pata, a lot of recovery money has been spent to address scores of backlogged tribal projects. NCAI hosts a website called Indian Country Works that provides information on the ARRA for tribes. NCAI is also collecting data on ARRA funding used in Indian Country and hopes to release that information soon, according to Pata.
Washington insider Bambi Kraus of the Tlingit tribe, executive director of the Native American Tribal Historic Preservation Association, described Keel’s speech as “ the best NCAI address to date.” (You can watch a webcast of it here.) Kraus lauded how Keel had combined a forward-looking theme of working with the Obama administration with specific targets for improving social and economic conditions in Indian Country.
Along with Keel’s expected praise for tribal sovereignty, self determination and the Obama administration’s reaching out to Indian Country, I noted his mention of the responsibility elected tribal leadership has to their communities.
“Tribal governments represent, and are accountable to, the citizens who elect them,” he said.
There is a whole lot of private discussion among Indian people about the need for greater transparency in tribal governments. It’s the issue in Indian Country that no one really wants to address. Some tribes are making efforts to rewrite their constitutions and reexamine their governing structures to create more accountability to their citizens. We can hope that Keel’s comments represent a step in this direction.