State of Indian Nations Address:
“Sovereign Indian Nations
at the Dawn of a New Era”
9th Annual State of Indian Nations Address
Remarks by Jefferson Keel, President, National Congress of
American Indians (NCAI)
Thursday, January 27, 2011, 10:30 AM ET
Knight Studios, Washington, DC
Introduction: Toward a More Perfect Union
My fellow tribal and American citizens, members of the
National Congress of American Indians, members of the
Administration and the 112th Congress of the United States,
and those listening or watching today from around the
country and the world: I stand here, honored, to deliver to
you, the State of Indian Nations address.
After an exceptional year of bipartisan achievements to
strengthen Indian Country, I am pleased to report that the
state of Indian nations is strong, and driven by a new
We stand at the beginning of a new era for Indian Country,
and for tribal relations with the United States.
Previous eras were defined by what the federal government
chose to do: the Indian removal period when tribes were
forcibly removed to reservations, the allotment era, the
reorganization and termination of tribes, even the recent
promise of the self-determination era.
But this new era is defined by what we, as Indian nations,
choose to do for ourselves. I am honored to be joined this
morning by many Indian leaders who have worked hard to
prepare our nations for this moment. We are poised to be
full partners in the American economy, and in America
We expect that in years to come—in seven generations—our
children’s children will look back and say, “This was the
moment when the future of Indian Country changed forever.”
Call it the Era of Recognition. Call it the Era of
Responsibilities Met, or of Promises Kept.
Whatever it is called, it brings us closer than ever to the
true Constitutional relationship between the United States
and Indian nations.
It brings us closer to what the Constitution calls a “more
Today, I issue an invitation—to tribal leaders, to Indian
people, to our partners in Congress and the Administration,
and to all Americans—to join together in building this new
The New Era
Why is this new era possible only now, instead of before?
Recent years have brought a new foundation, the
self-determination era has brought a promising partnership
between tribes and the federal government. We have
demonstrated our capacity as self-determined governments
that contribute to a stronger America. We have worked hard
to reach this point.
But that alone is not enough to realize the promise of this
Barriers remain—and we are eager to work with our federal
partners to remove those barriers to the economic potential
of our nations.
There is another reason we are just now seeing this
opportunity for a new era.
The state of the economy has played a role. These difficult
times have made self-reliance into a necessity.
Today the country is entering more than a time of difficult
budget choices. As the federal government contemplates
fundamental changes in the priorities of government, Indian
Country offers a bold opportunity.
Investing in self-reliant Indian nations is not only the
Constitutional and morally right thing to do, Indian nations
offer a great untapped source of economic opportunity for
This is a great moment, when doing the right thing is also
the smart thing to do.
The Promise of the Constitution
I was encouraged when the House of Representatives read
aloud the U.S. Constitution earlier this month. America’s
founders recognized the inherent sovereignty of Indian
tribes and the special relationship between tribes and the
federal government, and they affirmed it by putting it into
words in our Constitution.
Like all American people, we are afforded basic
Constitutional rights. Moreover, we carry a special
recognition, that tribes are inherently nations with in a
nation, that tribes as stated in Article 1, Section 8, are
in the company of “foreign nations” and “the several
These basic rights, these inherent rights, are what we seek
together to bring to all American people: “justice,…domestic
tranquility,…general welfare, and…the blessings of liberty
to ourselves and our posterity.”
The preamble to the Constitution speaks of a more perfect
union. The new era for Indian nations is a profound step
toward that more perfect union.
The Achievements of 2010
I stated earlier that there has been much progress to make
this new era possible. I’d like to review some of those
successes from 2010.
The passage and enactment of the Tribal Law and Order Act,
and the Indian Health Care Improvement Act were monumental.
We thank those on both sides of the aisle who crafted
legislation that holds the promise of safer, healthier and
more economically productive Native communities.
But this work is not complete. Words are one thing, but
actions are another. We call for these initiatives to be
fully funded and fully implemented.
We were encouraged by the recent settlements of the Cobell
litigation over the mismanagement of Indian lands, and the
Keepseagle settlement for discrimination against Indian
farmers. Indian tribes have supported these overdue
settlements because they will help us turn the page on the
wrongs of the past and direct our energies toward securing a
Finally, we welcome the United States’ adoption of the
United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous
Peoples. This formally affirms our fundamental human rights.
It is a great step forward in respect and recognition of
Indigenous peoples throughout the world.
This very morning the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence
Against Women is visiting tribal nations to investigate the
challenges facing tribal justice systems.
Together, these achievements set the stage for a new era in
Indian Country. This is a moment of opportunity, and we must
look to the future to realize its promise.
Opportunity and Unrealized Potential
The resilience and spirit that carried our people to this
day is what will carry us to our next great moment. Our
cultures are resolute and diverse. We see every challenge
as an opportunity.
Indian nations face great challenges, but we hold great
High unemployment is new to most Americans, but Native
people have felt it for decades, often four to five times
the unemployment rate of the country as a whole. But at long
last, this new era represents a way forward.
One opportunity for tribal nations is energy development.
Our deep relationship to the land and our reverence for the
earth’s natural resources provide a clear course for our
Tribes care for approximately ten percent of America’s
energy resources, including renewable energy, worth nearly a
trillion dollars in revenue.
And yet, only a handful of tribes have been able to
successfully utilize these resources. In fact the 49
bureaucratic steps that deter energy development on Indian
lands stifled the ability of the Three Affiliated Tribes of
the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota to access
their considerable oil reserves, while oil rigs formed a
ring outside reservation boundaries. It took direct action
by the Interior Department to streamline this process for
the Three Affiliated Tribes. We call on the Congress to
apply this kind of concerted effort to unleash the potential
of Indian energy resources throughout the nation.
Realizing the potential of energy resources offers immense
promise for tribal communities, and the United States as a
whole. To achieve the goals of energy independence and
economic growth, the focus must turn to the potential in
Just last week, Energy Secretary Chu offered a promising
jump-start to such investment. He announced $10 million in
support for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects
in Indian Country.
Tribal energy development will mean long-term economic
development, and in turn the United States will become
stronger. That is an investment worth making.
This is a good development and it is part of the solution to
realizing our potential, but it is not the entire answer.
On this and other issues, barriers stand in the way of
progress for Indian Country and our entire nation.
Sometimes it’s bureaucracy. Sometimes it’s a lack of access
to financing and federal programs. We call for tribes to
receive the same treatment under the law as state and local
governments on tax and financial matters. It is time for
these barriers to be lifted.
The situation is similar for electronic communication, which
is the backbone of the new information economy. Across the
nation, broadband is available to 95 percent of Americans.
But in tribal communities, it’s only 10 percent. Broadband
is the pipeline to progress, and we need investment, but
first we need an end to barriers that stand in the way of
As with energy, the result will be growth, jobs and
opportunity—because our potential is already there. We’ve
already seen what such investment can do. The Confederated
Tribes of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation operate a
telecommunications company that is using federal funds, plus
grant and loan packages, to expand broadband. So far they
are reaching 1,000 square miles of a reservation. They are
connecting nearly 2000 people, 18 businesses and the tribal
government, plus schools, health care facilities, and police
and fire departments. This kind of investment is the
foundation for progress throughout Indian Country.
Broadband is just one aspect of our infrastructure needs. In
fact, there has never been sufficient federal or private
investment to spur growth, or fund adequate services in this
There is also huge potential to invest in our youth. We seek
investments in after school programs, quality education from
pre-K through college, and job training programs. We have
many bright students, yet many of our Indian schools lack
the curriculum or proper tools that enable them to compete
for scholarships and other opportunities.
Our Republican and Democratic partners in Congress and the
Administration share a vision for a more effective education
system in America, and we encourage them to start in Indian
Country. Our children have been waiting for generations, and
today is always a good day to begin.
These are some of the things that Congress can do to free
the tribes to pursue self-reliance. There are other things
to do, too—things that won’t cost a penny.
Our largest assets – tribal lands – remain fragmented and
caught in a web of stifling BIA regulations and bureaucracy.
Current trust policy is neither effective nor appropriate,
and Congress must modernize the trust to reflect the role of
tribes as decision-makers in the management of our own
The Supreme Court’s decision in Carcieri is threatening the
ability of many tribes to restore their lands and build
economic development and jobs. This must be fixed.
With the Cobell settlement and the pending establishment of
the Indian Land Consolidation Fund, the federal government
has an opportunity to make foundational changes to the trust
that will improve administration and further
self-determination. We thank the Administration and
Secretary Salazar for their leadership on these issues, but
the work is not done.
We share the passion for self-reliance and more efficient
government brought by many new members of Congress. In many
instances, that is exactly what Native people need: a
government that respects our Constitutional sovereignty, a
government whose leaders want to cut the red tape that
blocks investment and prevents us from participating fully
in economic life. This new era must be characterized by
equal treatment of tribal nations with other governments —
the same rules, and the same opportunities for economic
The federal trust responsibility does not have a political
affiliation. At this momentous juncture, when a new era is
rising, it is critical for Congress and the Administration
to honor the special status of tribal nations – and our
citizens – solemn promises made in treaties, executive
orders, and acts of congress.
We urge Congress to sustain investments in tribal nations by
holding Indian programs harmless and providing much needed
funding for infrastructure, law enforcement, health care,
job creation, and education. For the strength of our
nations, and to achieve a more perfect union, now is not the
time to step back from investments in tribal communities
that hold promise for our entire nation.
The foundation is in place, but much work lies ahead. Tribal
nations are united with our federal partners by the great
ideals of democracy, equality and freedom.
There’s something else that unites us, too. This address
would not be complete without acknowledging the service of
nearly 24,000 American Indians and Alaska Natives in the
American armed forces. In that alone, the state of Indian
nations can be summed up in one word: proud.
As a veteran, I am keenly aware of this great commitment.
Just as hundreds of thousands of other Indian people, I have
stood for America as a citizen, I have stood for America as
a brother on the field of battle, and I stand now as a
warrior to defend the honor of our historic trust.
Since 2001, when our homeland was attacked, 77 of our people
have died fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and over 400
have been wounded. The bond between America and the Indian
nations is not in doubt. We remain united, and in a new era
we will build a more perfect union...together.
Toss a stone into the water and the ripples are felt far
In the same way, the decisions before us today will be felt
in tribal life for seven generations, and beyond.
Tribal governments understand that Washington is entering
more than a time of difficult budget choices. Congress and
the Administration are contemplating fundamental changes in
the priorities of government.
This is a challenge, but our nation-to-nation relationship
presents a unique responsibility and great opportunity—and
that is the gateway to a new era of opportunity and
Today we call on our federal partners to clear the way for
us to expand economic opportunity through entrepreneurism,
so that we might compete.
Clear the way for us to develop energy on our lands, build
commerce and create jobs, so that we might contribute to the
national economy, energy independence, and a larger
Clear the way for us to build public infrastructure for our
communities, so that our children might thrive and our
culture enrich all those around us.
Clear the way for us to build up our own communities.
When you invest in Indian Country, you will be astounded at
the economic strength we bring to America. It is time to
harness that power and realize the tremendous return on that
The United States and Indian nations are partners and
neighbors, bound by the Constitution, we are bound by our
great and shared commitment to liberty—and that includes
The Indian nations can do the work—if the federal government
will clear the way for us to exercise our liberty and thus
make a new era and a more perfect union.
The opportunity of that new era depends on governing wisely
God bless America and the Indian nations as we make this
great and promising journey together.
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