WASHINGTON - National Congress of American Indians President Joe Garcia delivered a State of the Indian Nations address Jan. 25 that held no surprises but promised steady effort on the priorities of Indian country.
Speaking to a standing-room-only audience of about 100 at the National Press Club, and nationally via tribal and public radio feeds, Garcia set forth a list of priorities in Congress drawn from NCAI's 250 member tribes. For the most part, the list was familiar from last year's speech - public safety, health, economic development and education. But two new priority areas - strengthening tribal governments and natural resources - spoke volumes about the new audience on Capitol Hill: a Democratic majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Although there is no saying the 110th Congress that convened Jan. 4 will enact major laws to reduce global warming and American dependence on foreign energy sources, already Democrats have served notice that the issues are on the table as never before.
For most tribes, environmental issues are never off the table. But Garcia's remarks made it clear that the time has come for them to ''be an example to the global community that showing respect and taking care of the environment is something that can no longer be overlooked.''
He added, ''Our traditions teach us that we must respect Mother Earth - to be protective and resourceful with what she has to offer. ... Tribes recognize the importance of balancing natural resource and economic development with sustainable conservation principles and they have been at the forefront of many successful conservation initiatives.''
As examples, he mentioned a White Mountain Apache sustained-yield timber operation and the Yukon River Intertribal Watershed Council, formed by Alaska Native leaders. ''Our brothers and sisters from the North are using this council to serve as a model of self-determination and governance in deciding how to use and preserve this largest and most intact ecosystem in the world.''
The State of the Indian Nations Address followed by days the presidential State of the Union Address, in which President Bush called for alternative fuel use to reduce national gasoline consumption.
''Tribes can be great players in this initiative,'' Garcia said. ''Indian nations across the country have a vast renewable energy potential, and many of them are leading the way in developing wind, solar, biomass and geothermal energy sources.''
He then cited the Morongo Band of Mission Indians and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. At Morongo, in California, a power generating station ''enabled the tribe, including all of their recreation and entertainment facilities, to go completely off the grid and operate independently from the local utility that serves the area.'' At Warm Springs in Oregon, a biomass energy plant, planned for construction next summer, will generate ''enough energy to provide over 15,000 homes with continuous renewable electricity.''
In closing out the section of his speech on natural resources, Garcia called on Congress for a Production Tax Incentive that will make similar projects economically feasible for more tribes. ''Tribes are a natural player in this process. We are the original stewards of the environment and our natural resources.''
Strengthening tribal governance also is not a new theme with tribes, but Garcia geared his remarks toward reforms that faltered under Republican-controlled committees in the House; they may have a better chance now that Democrats man the committee chairmanships, with final say over which bills will advance in committee.
''Too often, tribes are saddled with federally imposed models of governance that do not fit our traditions and cultures,'' Garcia said. ''It is time to address the barriers caused by these mismatched governments. Many tribes, such as the Crow and Osage nations, have engaged in internal reform and are developing constitutions that reflect their unique cultures, traditions and communities in a way that enhances the effectiveness of tribal governments.
''Tribes are updating their codes and regulations to deal with the challenges of today.''
Among them are economic development challenges that can better be met by ''consistent tax code treatment of tribal government pension plans ... access to bond financing to the same extent that it is available to state and local governments; and we need to make sure that tribal governments are included in their rightful place in the national Streamlined Sales and Use Tax agreement.''
Each of these issues was a subject of legislative initiatives that went against tribes last year, and a number of Indian-issue advocates in Washington believe the lay of the legislative landscape may favor a better outcome this year. ''We've been playing defense, fairly successfully,'' remarked Greg Smith of Johnston and Associates, in conversation following the speech. ''We have an opportunity, with the new Congress, to get back on the offensive.''
Garcia began the speech with homage to the strength of tribal governments and a recap of NCAI's legislative successes in 2006. NCAI's Native Vote has helped to install 64 American Indians as state legislators in 14 states, he said. ''This is the most ever.'' And NCAI's call for federal cooperation against methamphetamine or ''meth'' abuse and trafficking in Indian country has been met, he said. ''Our collaborative efforts have put us on the right path.''
Given the emphasis in last year's address on resolution of the Cobell v. Kempthorne litigation for an accounting of the Individual Indian Money trust and a monetary settlement for government mismanagement, the lack of any reference to the case this year stood out. In the question-and-answer session with the media following the speech, NCAI Executive Director Jacqueline Johnson said the long-running legal case affects the federal budget for tribes as well as federal programs, as the government evaluates its liabilities in light of the lawsuit. (The lawsuit argues that the government is liable to Indian account holders for losses from the trust.) But Johnson did not commit NCAI to legislative efforts that would seek to settle the lawsuit, as occurred in Congress last year. She said the case calls for ''long perspective.''