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Cladoosby Clear in Message at State of Indian Nations Address

NCAI president Brain Cladoosby was vocal about the need for a trust relationship with the Trump administration in his State of Indian Nations address.

Every year since 2003, the president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) has delivered a State of Indian Nations (SOIN) address. The goal is to update United States government officials, non-governmental and international organizations, tribal leadership and citizens, and the American public on the vision of tribes across the United States. This year's State of Indian Nations address kicked off the four-day NCAI 115th Congress Executive Council meetings February 13-16. The speech had an uncertain tone this year as tribes move from what NCAI President Brian Cladoosby (Swinomish) characterized as the "most successful government-to-government relationship in history under President Obama" to one that got off to a bad start under President Donald Trump due to his executive order jump-starting the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) project.

Cladoosby started by citing a sentiment first voiced by Chief Seattle that, "...we are like the stars that never change." He then gently threw down the gauntlet, declaring that tribes are ready to "seize new opportunities to strengthen" the government-to-government relationship in a non-partisan way to "lead America into a new era of progress and partnership." He said this could only happen, however, if there is trust on both sides.


Describing trust as the "sacred obligation accepted by the federal government in exchange for the millions of acres of land we ceded that created the greatest nation in the world," Cladoosby reminded the audience of the U.S. government’s many breaches of trust that continue to this day. "Every federal official is our trustee, and tribes are equal partners in the government-to-government relationship,” he continued. “Nevertheless, the United States persist in taking our lands without our consent, violates our right to self-governance on those lands, and enacts laws that impede our economic development, break our treaties, and interfere with our ways of life.”

Noting that, "Indian people define prosperity...not just in economic but also spiritual, cultural and collective" terms, he asked Congress and the new administration to, "make good on the promise of our trust relationship. Abide by the treaties"

Cladoosby noted that tribes have worked with Congress to pass key laws that support Natives in their efforts to secure, modernize and revitalize their communities: the Tribal Law and Order Act, the Violence Against Women Act, the HEARTH Act, the Indian Trust Asset Management Reform Act, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act (IHCIA), and the General Welfare Exclusion Act. He warned that some of these laws are in danger of being rescinded, endangering the tenuous gains made over the past few years. Cladoosby said Indian country needs to ensure that key provisions like the Affordable Care Act (ACA), in which the IHCIA is embedded, are improved rather than repealed, and that regulations eliminating dual taxation on Indian lands and tribal rights to issue tax-exempt bonds for capital projects on Indian land be passed. "Congress should include Indian country in broader tax reform. And when it does, it must give us full authority to generate revenue, access, capital, and invest locally" without the bureaucratic impediments “currently in our path,” he went on.

He also worried about how Indian country could be hurt by the lack of a federal budget — now projected to be ready in May or June of this year — and the federal hiring freeze. Tribes rely on the federal government to honor its trust obligations, including the issuance of grants that keep health centers open. The hiring freeze means tribes will be unable to replace many teachers and medical personnel, leaving both critical institutions at risk.

Cladoosby said he was optimistic regarding Trump's campaign promise to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure, and said Indian country would like its fair — and direct — cut of that funding. He also reminded the audience that Indian country holds 20 percent of all energy assets in the United States but is not benefitting from them in either jobs or the throughput/outtake taxes that states can charge.

Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND), newly appointed chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs (SCIA), closed out the session with his address. In it, he said the U.S. Senate seeks to continue to work with Indian country in a bipartisan way — "Together, we can build a strong America" — while pointing out that in the first meeting of the 115th Congress, the SCIA had passed nine bills (including one that had been languishing for four decades) that address Indian country issues. Glossing over his support of DAPL, he assured the crowd of about 400 that "we will work with you on a process," without elaborating.

Hoeven also reaffirmed his support of the Indian Country Economic Act, which he believes will lead to growth across Indian country, and predicted that opportunities for economic growth will come sooner rather than later, especially investments in infrastructure. He said he is seeking to reauthorize the Indian block housing grant program to ensure "affordable and much-needed housing" for all tribes.


Hoeven also said he sees the need to modernize certain policies that harm tribes, which is why he will introduce the Energy Development and Self-Determination Act 2017 to provide technical assistance to tribes. This bill would offer tribes equity in the application process, and has already been through the review process in at least three Congresses, though never passed. "Let's get it passed," he said.

Hoeven expressed strong support for the Native American Children's Safety Act, which ensures Indian children have the same protection as off-reservation children do in foster care, and said he is working with the Trump administration to ensure that the act is fully implemented. He said he is also a strong supporter of Native veterans.

Hoeven made a quick exit after his remarks, skipping the Q&A session with the press, but Jacqueline Pata, Executive Director of NCAI, and President Cladoosby took a few questions. Most questions were on the fate of the IHCIA if the ACA goes away. She said NCAI will continue its fight to make sure the IHCIA will not only survive but improve as healthcare reform moves forward.

So what is the state of Indian nations today? As one NCAI board member put it, advancing the Indian country agenda will take the hard work of all interested parties, the battle will be particularly intense over these next three months, and there is no more critical time for Native stars to shine than right now.