Kolby KickingWoman
Indian Country Today

In a year unlike any other, Indian Country has and continues to rise to the occasion.

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, National Congress of American Indians President Fawn Sharp, Quinault Indian Nation, said the state of Indian nations is “standing strong.”

Sharp, giving the speech from her home in Washington state, noted that things are still anything but normal roughly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic that has taken 500,000 lives in the U.S.

She continued to say that the virus has taken a large toll on Indian Country.

“Tribal elders, leaders, language speakers, fathers, mothers, grandparents, siblings, and children – taken by a virus that has disproportionately impacted Indian Country, laying bare the ultimate price of the federal government’s longstanding neglect of its trust and treaty obligations to tribal nations,” Sharp said before calling for a moment of silence to honor those lost.

Throughout the speech, a common theme emerged that Indian Country is forging a courageous future and recognizing a shared Native truth.

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Part of that truth is that the United States has failed, and continues to fail, to meet and uphold promises made to tribes in exchange for land, she said. Sharp cited the “chronic underfunding” of trust and treaty obligations, governmental interference with tribal jurisdiction and the lack of “free, prior, and informed consent.”

“The list, sadly, goes on and on,” Sharp said.

Although, that is not to say that progress isn’t being made. A slew of actions from the outset of the Biden administration have been encouraging.

From the historic nomination of New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, Laguna and Jemez Pueblos, to be secretary of the Interior to the U.S. rejoining the Paris Climate Accord to the revocation of the Keystone XL pipeline permit; positive steps have been made.

(Related: Interior nominee Deb Haaland vows 'balance' on energy, climate)

While these actions were praised, Sharp referred to them as just the beginning and there is plenty of work left to be done.

“These steps – while significant – must be first steps in an ongoing and deliberate, bilateral process,” Sharp said. “There is much hard work the federal government must do – and much that it needs to undo – if it is to help tribal nations create the courageous future we seek. There is no time to waste.”

On the eve of Haaland’s confirmation hearing, NCAI 1st Vice President Aaron Payment, Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, said he is going to be keeping tabs on which senators do not support her nomination.

The way he sees it, there is no reason she shouldn’t be confirmed, and that she is more than qualified for the position.

“If you know and if you’ve tracked Debra Haaland’s career trajectory, you know that everything that has happened in her life has led to this moment,” Payment said. “It’s history in the making.”

There is little doubt the eyes throughout Indian Country will be on her hearing Tuesday morning.

As it relates to tribal consultation, Sharp called for the codification of Biden’s executive order and to make it legally enforceable instead of allowing federal agencies to avoid consultation through the Federal Advisory Committee Act.

(Related: Joe Biden: ‘Tribal sovereignty will be a cornerstone’)

There were a number of issues that Indian Country have called to be addressed for years. Including a Carcieri fix, the permanent retirement of Native-themed mascots and more inclusion for tribal solutions to help combat climate change.

As the nation is at an inflection point when it comes to racial equity and justice, Sharp said it all starts with education.

She called on governments, from the local to federal level, to implement a comprehensive curriculum about tribes.

“All Americans need to be taught – from a young age – who tribal nations and peoples are today, how we have persevered in the face of policies designed to extinguish or assimilate us, and why they have a civic responsibility – as Americans – to respect and uphold the inherent sovereign right of tribal nations to live as our Creator intended.”

Giving the congressional response was Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who is the new ranking member on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. It was the third time she has been selected for the response.

Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski delivered the 2021 congressional response to NCAI's State of Indian Nations. (Photo via screen grab)

Speaking from Washington, Murkowski began with a land acknowledgement and said she finds working on Native issues refreshing because working on tribal policy matters are more often than not bipartisan issues.

She compared it to the State of the Union, where the difference is more visible when members of Congress stand to applaud or remain seated when the President speaks on specific policies, depending on party affiliation.

“With tribal issues, it's a relief when we are not Republicans or Democrats or from one part of the country or another, but united to work together,” Murkowski said. “We know that we don't always get there on every issue. We don't always agree, but it is always worth the effort.”

Murkowski recognizes the challenges and needs facing not only Indian Country but the nation as a whole. Similar to Sharp, it wasn’t all bad news. The senior Alaska senator spoke about the passage of Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act as two major pieces of legislation signed into law.

The manner in which Murkowski spoke about the bipartisan nature of issues in Indian Country resonated with Sharp. Coming from the state with the most federally-recognized tribes, Sharp was appreciative of the senator’s understanding of tribal sovereignty.

“We need to have members of congress in leadership positions that truly get and understand that sovereignty means a tribal nation should freely exercise its ability to make decisions for their own people, unfettered by anyone else,” Sharp said during a press conference after the speech. “She gets that.”

Ultimately, in order to achieve the goals and future laid out throughout the speech, it must be done together.

“We need the federal government to join us on that journey, not stand in our way,” Sharp said.

In closing, the organization’s president made it clear that Indian Country can and will create the future it’s looking for.

“Divided, we can be ignored. United, we will not be denied,” Sharp said. “United, we will create that courageous future we seek.”

The speech can be played back here

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Kolby KickingWoman, Blackfeet/A'aniih is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is from the great state of Montana and currently reports for the Washington Bureau. For hot sports takes and too many Lakers tweets, follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - kkickingwoman@indiancountrytoday.com

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