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NCAI's State of Indian Nations: Looking for Federal 'Flexibility'

WASHINGTON – The state of Indian nations is “strong,” but in order to be stronger, they need the federal government to be flexible, according to a speech delivered by Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians.

Keel, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, hammered the point home in his 2012 State of Indian Nations address held January 26 at the Newseum on Capitol Hill.

“Tribal nations have proven our capacity. We don’t need the government involved in all our business decisions, we need flexibility,” Keel said to an in-person audience of almost 200 composed of tribal leaders, federal officials, and tribal citizens. “And by creating it, we will remove the barriers that cost us jobs and opportunity. This is a goal I think we can all agree on, across the political spectrum, and it is something we can achieve with a change in policy, not an increase in spending.”

A flexible federal government would “put decision-making power back in the hands of the people who live in Indian country – the people who know best because these are our homelands, these are our people,” Keel said.

Tribal leaders assembled for the speech, and watching and listening to it on the radio and online throughout the nation, have long said that the federal government needs to do a better job at focusing its resources on Indian country. Some see ways that current programs could be adjusted to better serve tribes, such as bonding authority first granted under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009.

Tribal leaders are also well aware of the current budget crunch in Washington, so they hope that instead of cutting Indian-focused programs, legislators will look at ways to spend the money more effectively.

“That is the kind of solution Washington is crying out for, and we in Indian country are eager to answer the call,” Keel said on the matter.

“This message comes directly from tribal leaders,” the NCAI leader added. “We need freedom at the local level to best use our limited resources. We know what’s best because we live in Indian country. We know where the needs are, and we know what works for our people. No one understands Indian life better than the Indian nations themselves. Give us flexibility.”

Keel offered the example of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, which opened a 65,000 square foot health facility in 2007 and was able to utilize the bond financing incentives offered under the Recovery Act in 2009. “Tribes were denied full access to this source of financing until the Recovery Act created a limited bond offering,” Keel explained. “Based on that experience, the Treasury released a report in December recommending they have the same access to bond financing available to our governmental peers. This will bring huge economic benefits to tribes and surrounding regional economies.”

“With a little added flexibility, our programs will be more efficient,” Jaqueline Pata, executive director of the NCAI, said in a question-and-answer session after the speech. She said that NCAI officials have already shared thoughts with the Obama administration on specific areas that could be fine-tuned.

Whether the current Congress and the Obama administration can rearrange the formula to the liking of 566 federally recognized tribes remains to be seen, especially in a political climate that has stalled many bipartisan compromises on non-Indian issues.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-OK, touched on the reality of the American political situation in his congressional response to Keel’s address. “Let’s be real,” Cole, also a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, said in his speech. “If we wait simply for the federal government to take care of our problems, we will be waiting for a real long time.”

Beyond flexibility, Keel made several calls for action to Obama and the U.S. Congress. Recalling President Richard Nixon’s 1970 message to Congress that ushered in the tribal self-determination era, he called on Obama to send a special message to Congress on the importance of the nation-to-nation relationship. He also called on Obama to fully implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which the president signaled support for in 2010. “We specifically call for a review of all existing federal law to ensure they are in alignment with the Declaration,” Keel said.

Keel next called for an annual nation-to-nation summit between tribes and the federal government, as well as ongoing high-level meetings. “This would institutionalize the current [White House] Tribal Nations Summit, a meaningful commitment to our nation-to-nation relationship that must be upheld by all future presidents,” he said.

Keel asked, too, that Native people be elevated in the federal government, including appointments to the federal bench, as well as for the creation of an office for Native American programs at Office of Management Budget. In this way, a federal commitment to Indian affairs would be institutionalized.

Keel also addressed the individuals currently running for President of the United States, inviting each candidate to visit Indian country to outline their policy positions. “We also urge the campaigns to make sure tribal nations are part of the discussion at the presidential debates,” he added.

Beyond his recommendations to the president, Keel pointed to opportunities for immediate congressional action on Native affairs, specifically on a Carcieri fix, the HEARTH Act, the Native CLASS Act, public safety legislation, and the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization, as well as the SAVE Native Women Act.

Keel then highlighted NCAI’s suggested budget for Indian country. “It will create reliable, safe domestic energy; it will build a 21st century education system; it will modernize our infrastructure; and, it will fund implementation of critical legislation like the Tribal Law & Order Act and the Indian Health Care Improvement Act,” he summarized.

Keel noted the importance of the Indian budget in context of the current Budget Control Act, which requires Congress to cap discretionary spending for the next 10 years. “Much of the funding that fulfills the federal trust responsibility is categorized – wrongly, in our view – as domestic discretionary spending,” Keel reflected. “The trust responsibility is not a discretionary choice. It is not a line item. It is a solemn agreement that has been sustained over hundreds of years.

“Unless Congress acts to hold tribal programs harmless, then starting in 2013 we are facing 10 to 15 percent cuts across the board for the next decade – cuts that will threaten essential services and affect millions of Native citizens throughout vast regions of rural America,” he said.

On consultation, Keel said the federal government must advance, “legally enforceable consultation.” “Without the power of legislation and accountability, ‘free, prior, and informed consent,’ are just some nice words on a page,” he said in referencing the UNDRIP and the commitment called for therein to Indigenous Peoples.

“Enforceable consultation means we must talk about another idea – tribal consent,” Keel added. “There would be a public outcry if the federal government tried to impose policy on a state without its consent. But the concerns of tribal nations are routinely overlooked, even when more than a dozen tribes are larger than some northeastern states. This must not stand.”

In return for the action Keel requested from the president and Congress, he said that Indians will do their part to be good American citizens, noting that Native get-out-the-vote programs are gearing up for this year’s elections. “Our America is a place where all candidates know that we matter, and America sees it at the ballot box,” he said. “It’s a place where each and every president honors our unique nation-to-nation relationship, where Indian country is always at the table – not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the smart thing to do. Our America is home to a Congress that works across party lines to free our economies. Our America is a place where governments keep their promises.”