Annual State of Indian Nations
of the 13th Annual State of Indian Nations as prepared for delivery
by President Brian Cladoosby of the National Congress of American
Indians on January 22, 2015.
President Brian Cladoosby delivers the State of Indian Nations in
My fellow tribal leaders, Members of Congress, members of the
Administration, friends and partners gathered here and watching from
I want to thank the Creator for this beautiful day, for allowing me
the privilege of representing Indian Country and for providing the
opportunity to honor our history and celebrate the promise of our
In this week when we remembered a great civil rights leader, the
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and when our President
delivered his annual State of the Union address, it is fitting that
we take this time to consider the transformation and change that is
under way in Indian Country. Today, Indian Country is leading.
Indian Country is innovating. Indian Country is growing. And the
state of Indian nations grows stronger by the day.
Tribal nations are steadily reclaiming our rightful place among the
American family of governments. And we are doing this, despite
antiquated ways of thinking about Native peoples and tribal
governments and outdated policies that belong to another century.
We are not where we want to be in our relationship with the federal
government, but we are also glad that we are not where we used to
Today, I bring a simple message from the tribes of the 21st Century:
We must tear down barriers to growth, simplify regulations that are
limiting opportunities, and acknowledge that tribes have the
capability as governments to oversee our own affairs. As we reach
out to the federal government as a partner, we must continue to
insist that the United States honors its trust responsibility to
Honoring its trust responsibility means recognizing Indian Country’s
legal authority to control its own destiny.
It means respecting Native peoples for who we are, not who others
think we are. And it means modernizing the trust relationship
between our nations.
These are things we can and must do, as a united Indian Country. We
are determined to create opportunities for success – within our
borders and beyond.
THIS IS A
REMARKABLE MOMENT FOR INDIAN COUNTRY
This is a remarkable moment in our shared history.
For the 566 federally recognized tribal nations and many state
recognized tribes, for the more than five million Native people
living in cities or on reservations across this land, these are the
days that our ancestors prayed for. We must seize the opportunity to
sustain our progress.
As the twenty-first President of the National Congress of American
Indians, I have been privileged to witness great progress over the
past few years, from our families to our tribal councils to Capitol
We worked with Republicans, Democrats, and Independents in Congress
to make Indian Country safer by reauthorizing the Violence Against
We made Indian Country healthier by working together to permanently
reauthorize the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.
We made Indian Country fairer by passing the Tribal General Welfare
Exclusion Act to ensure that Indian people aren’t unjustly taxed for
benefits they receive from their own tribal governments.
In the last six years, we have seen Congress and the Administration
work together to pass an unprecedented number of bipartisan bills
that will improve opportunities for our peoples.
Last month, I was proud to join hundreds of tribal leaders from
across the nation as we participated in the sixth annual Tribal
Nations Summit with President Obama.
And, of course, 2014 was also the year that we were privileged to
have President Obama visit one of our tribal homelands. The
President told me his trip to the Standing Rock Sioux Indian
Reservation had a profound impact. He urged his cabinet to follow
his lead and make visiting Indian Country a priority.
Today, I want to make a personal invitation to Speaker Boehner,
Leader Pelosi, Majority Leader McConnell, and Minority Leader Reid –
as well as every Member of Congress: Come to Indian Country this
Just today, several Members of Congress, a Cabinet Secretary, and
representatives of the Administration are visiting the Navajo
Let’s make that visit the beginning of a year of unprecedented
engagement between tribal nations and our federal partners.
A PERSONAL HERO OF MINE: BILLY FRANK, JR.
Among all the gains in recent years, we’ve also suffered some
losses. Close to my heart and to many across Indian Country was the
loss of my friend and mentor, a Native American hero, an American
hero Billy Frank Jr.
Billy, like me, was from the Pacific Northwest. His people, the
Nisqually nation, are fishing people, like my people.
At age 14, he was arrested for exercising his treaty rights by
fishing in the Nisqually River.
As Billy put it, he wasn’t a policy guy. He was a getting arrested
guy. Over the years, he was arrested more than 50 times. That’s one
of Billy’s accomplishments that I have yet to achieve.
And those arrests laid the groundwork for an historic judicial
ruling, later affirmed by the Supreme Court, which acknowledged that
our treaties reserved our right to fish where we had for
After all, our rights as sovereign nations were not granted by the
Constitution. They existed before there was a Constitution.
WE GOT HERE: THE BRIEF HISTORY OF OUR TRUST RELATIONSHIP
Now, if you don’t know who Billy Frank was, you’re not alone. The
history that he lived—that our people have lived—is a history that’s
not often taught in schools.
But it is essential to understanding the connection between our
nations, the trust that defines our partnership, and the
responsibility that is entrusted to all federal officials
—especially Members of Congress.
That’s why, as long as I knew him, Billy had the same message: Tell
your story, tell your story, tell your story. Billy knew that no one
could tell our story better than we can.
So for those who don’t know, let me tell you the story of our trust
If the story has a theme, it’s a story of pride and resilience
book-ended by self-determination on either end.
There are many people who believe that when Europeans got to this
land, and moved west, they simply claimed empty Indian land for
themselves. But that’s not true.
When my grandfather and Billy’s grandfather were young, the U.S.
government signed more than 400 treaties.
In fact, it was 160 years ago today that my dad’s great-grandfather,
Kel-kahl-tsoot, signed the Point Elliott Treaty, between the
Swinomish tribe and the United States. My dad proudly carries on
that name. Dad is 81 years old and – like his namesake – he inspires
me every day.
Tribal nations like ours accepted a smaller land base. In exchange,
the federal government made three basic promises: To guard our right
to govern ourselves. To enable tribal governments to deliver
essential services. And, to help manage our remaining lands and
resources in our best interests.
These treaties are older than many U.S. state constitutions. In
fact, the Point Elliott Treaty preceded the existence of the State
of Washington by three and a half decades. All of our treaties
continue to stand as the “supreme law of the land.”
Every Member of Congress and federal official is responsible for
carrying out that trust, whether a Member has a tribe in their
district or not. Part of their job description is to make sure that
the United States of America honors its commitments and lives up to
After all, this trust: it’s not a handout, it’s a contract. It’s a
commitment. And it’s their duty to honor it.
INVITE YOU TO SEE: TRIBAL NATIONS ARE LEADING AND INNOVATING
So, why do I mention this history now?
The nation-to-nation relationship between the United States of
America and Indian Country has reached a crossroads.
Many tribes today are on the forefront of innovative, 21st century
governance. Don’t take my word for it. As I mentioned earlier, I
invite you to come and see for yourselves:
Come to the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, where you will see homes as old as
700 years being rehabilitated. The name of the pueblo says it all:
Place of the Strong People.
Come to Shaktoolik, Alaska, where you will meet the first
cavity-free elementary classes. It is the direct result of the
dental health therapist workforce – the first-of its kind
in-the-nation. To date, 40,000 people have been treated at 30
percent of the cost. Now, other states are studying how they can
replicate the success in Alaska.
Come to Lummi Nation, where you’ll see the first tribally developed
and operated commercial wetland mitigation bank in the United States
– more than 2,000 acres that are creating income streams for the
tribal government while preserving fishing streams for salmon and
Many tribes are engines of economic growth, not just for Native
people, but for non-Native people, too. In fact, there are nearly a
quarter million Native-owned businesses across the United States.
The five tribes in Idaho contribute more than $850 million to the
state’s economy, and have increased statewide employment by more
than 10,000 jobs.
The eleven tribal nations in Minnesota have collectively contributed
more than $2.7 billion to the local economy while employing 41,000
Native and non-Native Minnesotans.
These are more than Native American success stories. They are
American success stories. And we’re ready to write many more in the
years to come.
Of course, there is much more work to be done. Too many of Indian
Country’s reservations and communities are a long way from
prosperity. Too many tribal communities are still plagued by: high
unemployment rates; high dropout rates; rampant drug and alcohol
abuse; and an appalling suicide epidemic.
Together, we believe we can overcome these challenges.
IS BASED ON RESPECT
Of course, trust itself is based on respect. Part of modernizing our
trust relationship means modernizing the way Native people are
respected, and our civil rights are upheld.
For this reason, I want to address an issue the National Congress of
American Indians has worked on for almost 50 years. I want to talk
about the stereotypes and degradation that Native peoples continue
to be subjected to in our society.
In particular, I want to talk about the name of the Washington DC
Allow me to read from the pages of a Minnesota newspaper published
one September day in 1863: “The State reward for dead Indians has
been increased to $200 for every red-skin sent to Purgatory. This
sum is more than the dead bodies of all the Indians east of the Red
River are worth.”
History is clear on what that vile word meant: it was the scalped
head of an American Indian man, woman, or child that trappers and
hunters sold, like bear fur, for money.
Let me be very clear: the single-most offensive name that you can
call an American Indian is “Redskin.”
Today, a majority of people agree. In a recent national survey 83
percent of Americans said they wouldn’t use the R-word to a Native
American’s face. And they’re right.
We know the team owner stands on the wrong side of history. He has
dug in his heels and refuses to change. But why do you do it, Fed
Ex? You point with pride to your policy of diversity and
inclusiveness. Yet, your name is on the stadium. How do you defend
perpetuating exactly the kind of racism that 40 percent of your
workforce has faced in one form or another?
And why do you do it, Coca-Cola? For generations, you have been the
company that taught the world to sing. Why do you defend a name that
teaches the young generation to hate?
And why do you do it Verizon . . . or Best Buy . . . or HP . . . or
United Airlines? Many of us associate your companies with great
American success stories! But doesn’t your defense of this name
harken back to the worst of America’s failures?
American Indians are appropriately honored as soldiers and teachers,
students and first responders, CEOs and community leaders. There is
no honor in the name of that team.
It’s long past time that Washingtonians begin to see their fellow
Native citizens through the eyes of respect and not as mascots for a
football business that doesn’t even have a fraction of the
resilience, pride, or strength of character of any tribal nation.
To those who say there are other issues that Indian Country should
focus on, my response is simple: this issue is no different than any
issue we work on every day at the National Congress of American
As we have since 1944, we will stand for the rights of Native
peoples in every corner of our society, whether it’s under the
bright lights of the NFL or in the voting booths of South Dakota.
This isn’t a partisan issue. This isn’t an issue of political
correctness. We’re not trying to make news or make noise. We’re
trying to make progress. We’re standing up, with partners like the
Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP, the
National Council of La Raza and the Fritz Pollard Alliance. We’re
standing with tribes and Native organizations, religious leaders and
journalists, school students and former NFL stars and we’re calling
on all fair-minded Americans to stand with us.
IT IS TIME
TO MODERNIZE OUR TRUST RELATIONSHIP
To sustain our progress, and build on it, we must rid ourselves of
the old ways of thinking about our relationship.
We must modernize our trust relationship. The next step in
strengthening that relationship is for the federal government to
trust tribes to determine their own future.
This is about more than tribes having a seat at the table where
decisions are made. This is about having policies and processes that
treat tribal nations as partners in governing.
While we have a unique relationship with the federal government that
will never end, it is time that our relationship reflects the true
meaning of the word “trust.”
The federal government needs to recognize tribal governments as true
partners in supporting the citizens of our nations. It needs to
update its laws and regulations to reflect that partnership—one
based on deference and support, not paternalism and control.
Whether policy related to the Keystone Pipeline or renewable energy,
health care or education, privacy rights or immigration, too often
policymakers fail to surround themselves with people who understand
tribal perspectives or seek input from tribal leaders and citizens.
We don’t want the federal government to solve our problems or
dictate our future. We want to solve our own problems. We want to
build our own future. We strongly believe that the greatest source
of solutions that work for Indian Country is Indian Country itself.
In fact, we are already charting this future. The Native vote is
influencing important elections, electing Republicans, Democrats,
and Independents who stand with Indian Country and uphold the trust
A growing number of Native people hold elective office. I’d like to
take a moment to congratulate my good friend, an Alaska Native, and
a former NCAI board member: Alaska’s new Lieutenant Governor Byron
Byron not only embodies his Tlingit culture – but also the idea that
Native issues aren’t partisan issues.
The power of the Native vote shows that when we base our work on the
principle that our voice can and must be heard, we can work together
to tear down the barriers to growth for tribal economies. We can
give the next generation a better chance to work hard – and see that
work pay off.
To that end, I see three important ways we can modernize the trust
relationship: simplifying and streamlining government regulations .
. . improving education . . . and focusing the talents of tribal
nations to create economic growth.
SIMPLIFY AND STREAMLINE GOVERNMENT REGULATIONS
Let me start where Ronald Reagan started—with simplifying
Part of our frustration today is similar to the frustration felt by
state governments forced to live under regulations that were written
for another age and time.
I often speak about how my tribe lost a major contract with a large
retailer. It happened because the federal government sat on our
application for nearly two years, until the economy crashed and the
retailer pulled out of the deal.
Many tribal leaders have a similar story. The fact is that the
federal agencies that oversee Indian Country are not equipped to
deal with all of the decisions necessary to build an economy in the
Congress and the Administration need to find ways to help bring
federal agencies out of the 19th Century and into the 21st Century.
We need them to be partners for growth and not barriers to growth.
Take access to capital. The ability to issue tax-exempt bonds to
fund construction projects is the bread and butter of every modern
state and local government. Yet, this economic development tool is
not available to tribes. The IRS only allows tribes to use
tax-exempt bonds to fund “essential government functions,” like
sewer systems. It is time for the federal government to update its
tax code to reflect its recognition of the equal status of tribal
The same goes for adoption. State courts say that a parent who
adopts a child with special needs is eligible to receive a tax
credit to help with care. Yet, if a parent lives on a reservation
and adopts a child with special needs, they don’t get a tax credit.
It’s not an oversight – it’s bad policy. It’s outrageous and
discriminatory, and it needs to change.
Or take law enforcement. Despite an act of Congress, the FBI
continues to effectively deny tribal police access to the same
National Crime Information Center database that they make available
to state, local, and even some campus police. What does that mean?
It means that if a protection order is issued in a domestic violence
case, the tribal court often cannot enter that order into the
federal database. It means that protection might not follow the
survivor off the reservation. It needs to change.
The same goes for the Census of governments. Every five years,
70,000 government entities are surveyed, right down to local sewer
districts. But tribal governments have never been included in this
process. So, when we appeal for federal resources, we do so without
any of the data that every other government uses to receive funding.
And take an especially close look at technology. The rural broadband
development project regularly reviews technology access in rural
America. Yet, the last technology census of tribal nations took
place before Google, Twitter, or smart phones even existed. The best
data we do have indicates an ongoing digital divide. While 73
percent of Americans have access to broadband, in Indian Country,
it’s only 10 percent.
In spite of these barriers, tribes are maintaining their place as
the first American innovators. Just last week, President Obama
highlighted a public-private partnership that brought high- speed
Internet access to the Choctaw Nation. In a community where access
was once non- existent, today the tribal council has a new tool to
engage citizens. The Choctaw School of Language is offering distance
education courses. And, the Broken Bow School District serves over
1,000 students using smart boards, iPads, online lesson plans, and
tools that increase parent engagement.
We need a comprehensive and updated study of our technology needs to
advance more common sense initiatives like this one to increase our
participation in the Digital Age.
Of course, there are more legislative and administrative solutions
within reach than I can discuss here. But I want to focus on two
important areas where bipartisan solutions exist: education and
No resource is more important to the continued success and growth of
tribal nations and the United States than our children. Education is
a treaty right.
The greatest way to invest in this precious natural resource is to
provide a high-quality, culturally-appropriate education. One that
benefits all Native children and gives Native students the same
chance to succeed as their non-Native peers.
For Indian Country, it all goes back to trust, flexibility, and
Focusing on tribal control of schools promises to improve outcomes
for our students. And creating greater accountability for public
schools on reservation lands will ensure that Native students
receive the quality education that they need.
We call on Congress to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary
Education Act this year. We call for the inclusion of tribal
provisions to encourage tribal-state partnerships, strengthen local
control of education, and begin to help every school deliver a
We also call on Congress to enact legislation that supports Native
language programs so education for our children is rooted in our
history and culture.
Together, we should also take a hard look at the Bureau of Indian
Education schools. Congress and the Administration can do more to
make sure the Native youth that attend these schools have
high-quality teachers modern technology and the facilities to
deliver excellent education.
Along the way, we must continue to seek innovative solutions. That
is why I applaud the President’s proposal to make the first two
years of tribal and community college free. It will finally make
K-through-14 education in America a reality. I look forward to
working with Congress and the Administration to make this and other
necessary investments in our youth, Native and non-Native.
After all, the relatively few dollars we spend on education today
will save many dollars in the generations to come. Education
destroys poverty and drug and alcohol abuse.
CREATE ECONOMIC GROWTH
Likewise, when it comes to economic growth, what’s good for First
Americans is good for all Americans.
But what can we do to power economic growth within tribes – growth
that has ripple effects far beyond their borders?
The answer centers around what tribal governments have proven we can
do when Indian Country has the flexibility to pursue ideas developed
at the local level.
When it comes to infrastructure, tribes need safe and
well-maintained transportation options and housing – just like the
rest of the country. And tribes need better information highways,
too – just to catch up with the rest of the country.
I urge Congress and the Administration to accelerate work that is
underway to partner with the private sector to expand broadband
connectivity in Indian Country.
When it comes to raising revenue, tribes need the authority to raise
tax revenue free from overlapping state taxation, and to create
incentives for business and jobs.
I urge Congress to take up significant tax reform this year – tax
reform that includes tribes and recognizes tribal sovereignty, so we
can better provide essential services and lay the groundwork for
I also urge Congress to pass Indian energy legislation like that
proposed by Chairman Barrasso. This legislation would provide tribes
with greater control and flexibility to develop their traditional
and renewable energy resources and would create careers and capital
in Indian Country.
And to further improve access to capital, I urge the Administration
to remove hurdles in the Bond Guarantee Program and ensure that
tribes are included in the New Markets Tax Credit Program.
With these tools in hand, tribes can more effectively meet local
demands with local solutions.
Today, I have reviewed the history of our trust relationship and
discussed the opportunities and challenges before us.
NCAI continues to work to convert the policy ideas that inspire and
guide tribal nations today into policy advice for the Administration
and Congress. Today, as in the past, we are releasing a report that
outlines our priorities for this year: “Promoting Self-Determination
and Modernizing the Trust Relationship.“ The report identifies
specific ways the United States can uphold these commitments.
I urge all Members of Congress to read it, review it with your
staff, use it as an occasion to continue the necessary conversation
about how our nations can move forward together.
CONSIDER WHAT OUR RELATIONSHIP CAN AND SHOULD LOOK LIKE
In the end, the relationship we have inherited, like any good
relationship, depends on two things: respect and trust.
Here, I have a replica wampum belt. Today, as they have for
generations, the nations of the Iroquois confederacy exchange belts
like this one as a sign of peace and friendship.
I carry this wampum belt today because it, too, is a sign of peace
and friendship. But it is much more than that. It also symbolizes
the inherent sovereignty of tribal nations, who from time immemorial
have made treaties among themselves, treaties with European nations
and treaties with the United States.
Many generations ago, we did not share a common language. But we did
share a relationship of mutual respect and admiration and a belief
that our futures would be closely intertwined.
In 1744, Canassatego, a representative from the Iroquois
confederacy, had a recommendation for colonists from Maryland,
Pennsylvania, and Virginia. He said, “Whatever befalls you, never
fall out with one another.”
The same wisdom applies to our nation-to-nation relationship today.
In the spirit of Billy Frank, Jr. and all those who shared the
vision of common progress and common prosperity.
May we work together, make progress together and build a bright
future for all Americans together.
When we uphold this trust, we uphold the promise that our nations
have always represented and the promise of brighter futures for
generations to come.
God bless the Tribal Nations and the National Congress of American
Indians. And God bless the United States of America.
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