State of the Indian Nations Address Highlights Productive Year in Native American Policy

Photo and Story by Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC

The President of the country’s largest group representing Alaska Natives and American Indians says they have fresh momentum, and are at the dawn of a new era.

Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, gave the annual “State of the Indian Nations” address on Thursday, which traditionally comes on the heels of the U.S. President’s State of the Union speech.

Keel says last year was marked by huge leaps forward in policies that will help Native Americans, from passage of the Tribal Law and Order Act to the permanent reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, to the long-awaited settlement of the Cobell case over the federal government’s mishandling of billions of dollars in Indian trust funds.

Keel says the key now is making sure Indian Country actually sees the money for the new laws to make a difference.

“But this work is not complete,” Keel said. “We call for these actions to be fully funded, and fully implemented.”

Keel says tribes hold “unrealized potential” in areas like energy, since they’re stewards for 10 percent of the country’s energy resources, but only a handful of tribes have been able to use them.

He says they’re hampered by federal bureaucracy and lack of access to programs and funding.

Today we call on our federal partners to clear the way for us to expand economic opportunity through entrepreneurism, so that we might compete,” Keel said. “Clear the way for us to develop energy on our lands, build commerce and create jobs, so that we might contribute more to the economy of America.”

Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski gave the Congressional response this morning to Keel’s “State of Indian Nations” address, and warned tribal leaders that it will be a battle to get adequate funding for Alaska Native and American Indian programs in these tight budget times.

“And you’ll need to fight hard to keep what you have and even harder to get what you need,” Murkowski said.

Murkowski says there’s a reason to be concerned about getting adequate funding.

“I understand this is a cause of great anxiety throughout Indian country. Indian programs remain the most underfunded in the entire federal government,” Murkowski said. “And in spite of the Administration’s efforts to improve funding for Indian Health Service, the funding gaps we understand are quite significant.”

“The same can be said for nearly every other federal Indian program.”

President Obama called for a five-year freeze in domestic spending during his State of the Union address this week. And the new Republican majority in the House is vowing to drastically cut the budget. Their plan to defund or repeal the national health care law would also throw out the Indian Health Care Act.

Some new conservative House members ran on platforms of funding only what’s mandated by the Constitution. But Murkowski says the federal responsibility for the well being of Native people is in the Constitution, so she had a tip for tribal leaders.

“So my suggestion to you as you visit the offices of my colleagues this year, I invite you, keep your handy-dandy copy of the Constitution with you,” Murkowski said. “Bookmark the provisions that I’ve discussed.”

“I think that would be helpful as you point out those obligations there.”

Murkowski also touched on the epidemic of suicide in Native communities, and said it will take a community effort to fix it. Next month the former head of the Senate Indian Affairs committee, recently retired North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan, will open a new Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute.

Thursday, the new head of the Indian Affairs committee was named: Hawaii Democratic Senator Daniel Akaka. He attended this morning’s State of Indian Nations Address, and plans to get started on committee business this month.

Photo: National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel delivers the “State of Indian Nations” address at the Newseum in
Washington, D.C. Thursday. It was broadcast around the country and online. By his side is NCAI Executive Director Jacqueline Johnson
Pata, originally from Alaska and a member of the Tlingit Raven clan.