Tribal leaders from across Turtle Island are currently gathering at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Connecticut for the National Congress of American Indians Mid-Year Conference & Marketplace. The conference theme of Sovereign Infrastructure: Building Our Communities Through Our Values comes at an important time for tribes.
“You’re gathering at a time that is tremendously important for Native Americans all across this country… this budget that the President (Donald Trump) proposed is absolutely devastating to Indian country,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) told the gathered leaders in video message.
Even more important to tribal leaders who spoke to those gathered was the concept of coordination and presenting a united front to Washington, D.C. in order to strengthen sovereignty.
“It’s been said that we all have the potential to change the world for the better. Potential means absolutely nothing if it is not realized,” Kevin Brown “Red Eagle,” chairman of the Mohegan Tribe, said during his welcome address. “This week is intended to be a week where you capitalize; use this week to capitalize our collective potential as Indian country.”
NCAI President Brian Cladoosby, also chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribe, reminded gathered tribal leaders that even though times seem uncertain and tough, their tribes have seen tough times before, and come through it.
“We have overcome past challenges because we have learned how to play the long game, perhaps better than any other societies on earth. That’s what has enabled us to survive and persevere—on our own terms in accordance with our own cultures and values,” he said, while also emphasizing the need to educate new members of Congress. “We have to tell them what tribal sovereignty means to you, we have to tell them what self-government means to you, and we have to tell them what that means legislatively in the year 2017.”
Cladoosby wants each tribal leader to get with their tribes and come up with a plan for infrastructure so tribes can be a part of President Donald Trump’s proposed $1 trillion infrastructure plan. To help tribes get ideas, NCAI Executive Director Jacqueline Pata introduced three tribal leaders to discuss how their tribes have had success with sovereign infrastructure.
Roger Rader, a tribal council member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, explained how his tribe, which serves around 5,300 members in a 10-county service area had to upgrade all their systems in 2012 after a severe storm knocked everything out. He said it was a blessing though, because it gave the tribe a chance to properly assess its infrastructure and digitize everything, which has made it easier to provide services to their members, no matter where they are.
Jefferson Keel, Lt. Gov. of the Chickasaw Nation and former NCAI president, explained to the gathered tribal leaders how self-determination and self-governance has allowed his nation to help its citizens in a number of ways including building a state-of-the-art hospital.
He also reminded the group, that it’s “not just to construct buildings… that’s what we do, that’s not who we are,” Keel said. “We have to remember who we are as Indian nations. We are sovereign nations charged with the responsibility to provide for our citizens, for their health and welfare and all of the things that come with that. We also have to remember our cultural connections... The self-determination and self-governance compacts allow us the flexibility to operate our government within our own system and how we determine what our priorities are.”
Zinke a Potential Ally in DC?
It seems as though tribal leaders may have an ally on the hill in Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who came to speak with tribal leaders during the First General Assembly on Tuesday, June 13.
Zinke told gathered tribal leaders he was looking forward to the Interior being equal partners with tribes. “Sovereignty has to mean something, it has to be more than a name, it has to be that tribes decide for themselves what is right,” he said. “Not only should the department meet our treaty obligations but exceed our treaty obligations.”
“We live in a great nation. We should not accept failure as a standard,” he said pointing out failures in Native American education and the Indian Health Service. “We should not accept failure as normal. So my pledge is to work with you, partner with you, and be your advocate to fix a system that’s broken.”
Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation, agrees that the system is broken, and pointed out the amount of fear and uncertainty in Indian country because “from our perspective that broken system in large part cannot be fixed because others have a vision for what they want to do with and for us,” she said to Zinke. “We appreciate your recognition that tribal sovereignty has to mean something; a government-to-government relationship has to mean something. Our relationship is not with an agency; it’s with the United States.”
But some tribal leaders feel the system is more than broken. “We are invisible to this country,” Juana Majel Dixon, of the Pauma Tribe, became emotional as she explained to Zinke how she feels many of the issues tribal youth face are because they are invisible. “You teach nothing about us to the children of this country… if you don’t change it our children will have the same issues because they are invisible,” she continued. “[Native American students] fight to wear their eagle feathers and tradition regalia to graduation. This country assaults our children daily by not teaching about us to their young.”
In response Zinke said: “You’re not invisible to me,” and explained that some issues need to be addressed on a community by community basis.
Following his remarks, Secretary Zinke was honored in a blanket ceremony by two former NCAI Presidents Joe Garcia, Councilman, Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo and Keel, both of whom are veterans joined by Mohegan Tribe Chairman Brown. Zinke, who served for 23 years as a U.S. Navy SEAL, was draped in the blanket while an honor song was performed by Leander McDonald, NCAI Area Vice President and President of the United Tribes Technical College.
Tribal leaders will be in Connecticut for the NCAI mid-year conference until June 15.