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Who Does NCAI Represent?

This past Thursday, Jefferson Keel, President of the National Congress of American Indians, delivered the 11th Annual State of the Indian Nations Address.

Mr. Keel gave a standard political speech. I’m sure it appeased wealthy tribes and mainstreamed Natives. However, I found myself asking what Indian country the NCAI represents, because I hardly recognized the one he described.

Yes, Indian country is strong- thanks to the tenacity and fortitude of our people. Still, that strength should not mitigate the dire straits some tribes still find themselves in, nor is it an excuse not to posit real solutions for the most serious issues we face.

In the Northern Plains, there was a blizzard last week. Reservation schools closed, but reopened their doors as soon as possible. When discussing the reasoning behind opening schools despite bad weather, an administrator said a major motivation for keeping their doors open is because they know that for some of the children, the meals they get at school will be the only nutritious food they get all day.

That is the reality for many Native families, especially those living on reservations. While it’s terrific that Mr. Keel’s tribe contributes billions of dollars to their local economy, there are thousands of Natives in this country who are struggling just to survive —and it’s not that they aren’t trying to do better. There are still a lot of barriers preventing Natives from escaping poverty. Unemployment remains to be a major factor, and those who are able to find work often do so for pennies.

As a science instructor at a tribal college I witnessed my students’ struggle to find transportation and childcare on the reservation. A number of times I gave students rides to and from class myself. I also allowed single parents to hold their infants during lecture. There’s housing shortages too. When my husband and I first got married, we lived with his Uncle, in a two bedroom house, along with eight other relatives. Our living situation was common, and still is. Indian country is also in the midst of a diabetes epidemic. For many Natives, healthcare is sorely inadequate. The Native population is growing, so these problems will only get worse if we choose to ignore them.

Substance abuse still runs rampant in Native communities too, and its effects are far reaching. We face staggering rates of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and suicide. We lack the resources required to fight this systemic dysfunction, do we need to fight for the resources we need to combat them, Mr. Keel?

Mr. Keel did touch on the issue of safety, but framed it within the context of tribal sovereignty. In my opinion, to speak of using Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) to bolster tribal sovereignty was an egregious error that plays right into the hands of right-wing Republicans who seek to defeat both. Native provisions in VAWA have been under attack by Republicans who hold that such a device unreasonably expands tribal jurisdiction. While a slight increase in tribal jurisdiction is one result of the provisions for Natives that VAWA now contains, its main purpose is to protect Native women from non-Native abusers and rapists, not give tribal leaders more leverage. A case involving ICWA is set to go before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. ICWA was enacted to "protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families." (25 U.S.C. § 1902) Whereas tribal sovereignty gives teeth to both ICWA and Native provisions in VAWA, it is not the ultimate objective of either.

NCAI was established to fight the federal government’s assimilation and termination policies, but I thought the tone of Mr. Keel’s speech didn’t reflect that. Most disturbing to me was Mr. Keel’s take on energy.

He said, “Our nations have enormous potential. Tribal lands boast almost 25 percent of America’s on-shore oil and gas resources, and one-third of the West’s low-sulfur coal. And yet, they represent less than 5 percent of current national energy production. Why? Because of leasing restrictions.”

While I realize that not every Native person practices their cultural values, I can assure the NCAI that hundreds of thousands of Natives in Indian country still do, and turning the lands where our ancestors lie in eternal repose into a toxic desert just to extract oil and gas in order to inflate tribal leaders’ bottom lines flies in the face of every traditional teaching our grandparents instilled in us.

As a Native woman, I’m proud of Indian country’s success stories, but if we continue to ignore the harsh realities many tribes face, we won’t last. Further, it’s a mistake to emulate the western class system, where the rich individual fails to acknowledge the struggles of their poorer brothers and sisters.

The National Congress of American Indians stands at a fork in the road, where they risk vanishing into useless obscurity, as bootlickers who beg for scraps from the Master’s table, or they could take a stand and recommit themselves to representing Indian people, asserting the people’s needs, finding solutions to people problems and moving the people forward.

Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton and Mdewakanton Dakota, Hunkpapa Lakota) is a writer, blogger, ethnoscientist, Tribal Judge for the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, and the Tribal Colleges Liaison Manager for the University of North Dakota (UND) and North Dakota State University (NDSU) via North Dakota EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research). Her first horror novella will be released in 2013. Follow her on Twitter.