Skip to main content

On Jefferson Keel's State of Indian Nations Address

In reading over the 2013 State of Indian Nations address by outgoing President Jefferson Keel of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), a number of talking points of emphasis stood out as compelling subjects for further examination.

Mr. Keel touched on many subjects in this 11th annual NCAI address. Symbolically, I feel that the address should be made on the Monday preceding President Obama’s State of the Union address, not the day after, but in order to get all of the ducks in a row federally, I suppose it must be done that way.

I appreciated Mr. Keel recounting the hardscrabble beginnings of his own family, as well as his Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma. He grounds me to the slim belief that even he could find exception with the current United States treatment of Onkwehonweh, albeit in background, based on enduring practice.

The prevailing focus on securing our reservation communities falls in lockstep with the contemporary federal "keep you from yourself" big government mindset. While I agree with the stated concern about violence against women, I would go at the cause of the negatively expressed self-esteem issues that lead to the violence against Native women, not just the symptom of domestic violence itself. A nearly-broken people and its own battered collective will is attributable to both colonialism and federal pedanticism of how to live the American dream.

The focus on non-Native prosecution in domestic violence cases via tribal court is again a good start but the exercise also shows the current and continued impotence of these same tribal courts as more of a novelty than an effective institution. The United States Congress reluctance to empower the tribal courts in specific ways shows the underlying fear that eventually an arrest warrant will be issued for American political figures involved in graft within Indian country, and then the real sovereign thumb-wrestling match will be on. Even as we hear “nation to nation” expressed throughout this address.

Mr. Keel also whitewashes the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples signatories’ list affiliation by the United States. This American participation occurs at the minimum level of commitment for the U.N. Declaration, and only when doing so does not undermine the existing United States remedy for Native issues, i.e. the American legal system, among other presuppositions. The NCAI President seems to express that the United States acceptance of the U.N. Declaration alone is enough to do some of this political lifting, including amazingly enough, in the realm of border tribes and American immigration policies that directly affect these tribes. I have to see how that will work for sure, especially pertaining to the border spanning Akwesasne Territory as a community that I am familiar with.

The statement that all of Indian country is held in trust on behalf of Onkwehonweh (original people) by the United States government is a surprising statement as well. I would dispute its assertion. Allodial title, such as Akwesasne enjoys as an unremoved people on their original land base, remains the fly in that ointment. Likewise, the Cobell settlement on mismanaged trust land leases does not quite close a door on past mishandling of federal trust land resources, especially when payments are affected by both efficient settlement distributions and American capital liquidity at the present time. When the entire damages award is paid in full, then the page might be turned, at least to some. To others in that argument, it will never be reconciled, but alas, that is the difference between a democracy and a consensual government.

The issue of tribes and taxes also has some impediments to it. The constitutionality of taxes and Indian country cannot be overstated, no matter who is expressing the limitations of that oil and water mixture. While current tribal fees may represent a tax under a different name, the implication of redundant mainstream systems in Indian country spells yet another engineered way to relegate our tribal governments to political backwaters and obscurity. Why? Because once that path is embarked upon, big government will always say that it can do it better than local administration.

Finally, it is ludicrous to assert that the United States will ever allow tribal businesses to thrive on the international front, due to the fixation of FinCEN laws which hamstring sovereign intent and follow through, and yet allow non-Native corporations to cut their own swath, until they literally become "too big to fail." The frustration of that reality cannot be overcome under the present framework in place. Onkwehonweh must push out the commercial fences at every turn, and as I have stated previously, thrive to survive, unimpeded by competing sovereign interests.

In closing, I would like to acknowledge Jefferson Keel for his NCAI tenure and obvious dedication.

Charles Kader (Turtle Clan) was born in Erie, Pennsylvania to a World War II veteran. He attended Clarion University of Pennsylvania, earning degrees in Communication and Library Science, as well as Mercyhurst College where he earned a graduate degree in the Administration of Justice. He has worked across Indian country, from the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana (where he married his wife) to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, and now resides in Kanienkeh.