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Elephants in Indian Country’s Living Room: Responding to NCAI’s State of Native Nations Address

To be in a position of leadership—at least for NCAI’s president Jefferson Keel—is to be in the role of a politician, and that means taking predictably centrist positions (at least publically) to appease as wide an audience as possible. In this case it means articulating problems that still remain in Indian country while simultaneously not appearing to bite the hand that feeds you ($8.4 billion flows through Indian country every year in the form of grants, contracts and services). This is the fine line Mr. Keel was walking in his recent State of Native Nations address. I can appreciate the precarious nature of the job; however, not risking a brutally critical stance inevitably means glossing over some pretty crucial issues. These are the elephants in Indian country’s living room that few public leaders—Indian or federal government—care to address.

Mr. Keel characterizes Indian country as “strong” but strong is a relative term. Compared to a hundred years ago when our nations were at their weakest, yes, we are stronger. But compared to two or three hundred years ago when many tribal nations were still well intact and some didn’t even have contact with Europeans yet, we are still reeling from the catastrophic affects of colonization.

Nations struggling to revive moribund languages, have Eurocentric governmental structures based on values that are contradictory to traditional tribal values, are forced to pay taxes on resources from their own lands or have no land bases at all—to say nothing about rampant social disorders like teenage suicide and drug and alcohol addiction—are not in positions of strength.

At best, they can be said to be in the process of regaining strength. It somehow seems okay for tribal leaders to publically talk about problems related to cultural breakdown, but when it comes to calling out the ways the U.S. asserts domination over our nations without permission, they predictably stop short. What are they afraid of?

In Mr. Keel’s address, the word “sovereignty” was thrown around like dice on a craps table, but sovereignty is one of the biggest elephants not being confronted. What kind of sovereignty does he mean? The kind of quasi-sovereignty the U.S. means, as in “you’re not really sovereign nations but we’ll let you have self-government?” Or sovereignty as in pre-constitutional self-determining nations not defined and controlled by U.S. law? The kind meant by the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples with its language of self-determination based on free, prior and informed consent, to which Mr. Keel himself even referred? Because either you believe in the latter kind of sovereignty for your nation or you don’t; you can’t have it both ways.

This leads to the idea of a “sacred trust” between the U.S. and tribal nations which Mr. Keel referred to. He seems to place an inordinate amount of confidence in the US's ability to protect and manage Indian resources, without questioning for one second the concept itself.

Native nations don't own title to their own lands and the trust relationship is no less than the embodiment of a paternalistic relationship in which tribal nations are deemed incapable, undeserving even, of owning and managing their own territories and resources. And this is to say nothing of the way the Department of Interior has incessantly mismanaged Indian trust assets.

The trust relationship is one of the biggest elephants in the living room that no one wants to talk about, except to go on complaining about how bad of a job the feds do. No grand ideas or suggestions for meaningful trust reform were offered in Mr. Keel’s address.

Copious attention was paid to economic development on tribal lands, with his talk of oil and gas leases and coal production, “to transform tribal lands and boost economic growth, while contributing to America’s energy independence.” Not that there’s anything wrong with energy independence, but in this day and age it doesn’t take a climate scientist to know that our continued reliance on fossil fuels is the leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions that are responsible for climate change.

Just ask the people of Kivalina in Alaska who are losing their homelands due to the melting of the ice that protects them from the encroachment of the ocean, or the people of Kiribati in the South Pacific or dozens of other Indigenous Peoples who are facing the loss of their lands because of rising sea levels and other detrimental effects of climate change.

The promotion of fossil fuel production also completely sidesteps the Keystone XL Pipeline that the Obama administration is pushing on Indian country. No matter what route the pipeline takes, the exploitation of Alberta tar sands oil means “game over for the climate,” in the now-famous words of climate scientist James Hansen.

To blatantly promote the production of fossil fuel industries on Indian lands and completely ignore global warming is irresponsible, contrary to our traditional teachings to care for the land, and traitorous to other Indigenous Peoples who are suffering the direct impacts of climate change.

Ignoring all the elephants in Indian country’s living room is tantamount to tacitly allowing them to remain. Those elephants are a metaphor for Indian country’s ongoing colonial relationship with the U.S. Our leaders must be willing to publicly confront that relationship by not only naming it, but by offering alternatives to it. We have powerful alternatives available to us, but if we aren’t willing to fight for them, all we continue to do, as Ruth Hopkins said, is “settle for scraps at the Master’s table.” I, for one, am not OK with that.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker is a research associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies.