State of Indian Nations Speech Ignored Northern Plains Reality

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As I listened to the State of Indian Nations address delivered by National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby last week, I couldn’t help but come to the conclusion that the Indian Country he spoke of did not include those of us living on the Northern Plains.

As a member organization representing hundreds of tribes across the country, it’s inevitable that NCAI must juggle the interests of some tribal nations that are in conflict with the interests of others. But the failure of Cladoosby to touch on the most pressing issues facing tribes on the Great Plains is inexcusable.

While Cladoosby and NCAI were quick to take credit for the passage of the Tribal General Welfare Exclusion Act (that protects tribal citizens from being taxed for services their individual nation provides for them) there was no mention made of people like Mark Van Norman, Bryan Brewer, and others on the plains who did the real work necessary to get the bill passed.

As a tribal member and journalist who covers topics across the Great Plains it was incredibility disappointing to watch the largest and most influential lobbying group in the country gloss over important issues like pervasive poverty and the Keystone XL pipeline. No mention of the continuing epidemic of suicide on our reservations, or the reality that our people living in urban centers across the country are being shot dead by police at a higher rate than any other group in the nation.

Even though the speech was filled with several witty comments and attempts at humor, it would have been far more beneficial for Native people on the plains to hear Cladoosby express support for the growing number of frontline environmental protectors who have pledged to protect the earth by direct action. As bureaucrats and politicians make stump speeches, real activists and community organizers are preparing to defend our homelands and our water from those who want to exploit them. These people deserve the public support of NCAI.

Although many of us in this part of the country are opposed to the continued use of Native-themed mascots, simply outlining NCAI’s previously stated position not only fell short of hitting the mark, but it also lacked credibility. A real statement against the Washington football mascot should have included wording chastising those tribes, some who are members of NCAI, who have accepted money from Dan Snyder’s Original American Foundation. That statement should make it clear that the OAS is not welcome in our communities.

On the Northern Plains our leaders are expected to take real stances on real issues. Maybe that is why we were left out of the speech.

The true state of Indian Nations on the Northern Plains can only be stated accurately when one has the courage to reach beyond the romanticism and grasp on to the pragmatic.

The reality of life on the Northern Plains is that far too many of our youth are taking their own lives. The reality is our languages are withering away as those dedicated to saving them search for funding to increase the number of and capacity of immersion schools. The reality is that our warriors are pledging to lay their lives on the line to protect our first medicine: water.

This is life on the Northern Plains and the real state of our nations. I hope that one day NCAI and President Cladoosby will take notice and speak of our realities.

Brandon Ecoffey is an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and a lifelong resident of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He earned his education at Dartmouth College where he majored in government and Native American Studies.