The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA), and the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) all shared the same overlapping concerns in 2011 – the priory of seeking land restoration through a “clean Carcieri fix,” the four “e’s” – economic development, education, energy, and the environment – taxation issues, Internet gaming, and the perennial concern with protecting sovereignty. But a different tone entered the discourse in 2011 as leaders began to place a new emphasis on seeing and addressing issues and relationships from an Indian perspective – a perspective detailed in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
On January 27, NCAI President Jefferson Keel, Chickasaw Nation, delivered the State of the Indian Nations address in which he touched on the growing assertion of Indian rights – a theme that was restated in different contexts by both NIGA and USET leadership. “I’m pleased to report that the state of Indian nations is strong and driven by a new momentum. We stand at the beginning of a new era for Indian country and for tribal relations with the United States,” Keel said. “Previous eras were defined by what the federal government chose to do – the Indian removal period when tribes were forcibly removed from their homelands to reservations, the reorganization and termination eras, the allotment era, even the more recent promise of the self determination era. But this new era is defined by what we as Indian nations choose to do for ourselves.” Keel went on to suggest names for the new era: the Era of Recognition, the Era of Responsibilities 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,” he said.
Less than a week later, USET President Brian Patterson, Oneida Indian Nation, presented his vision to Indian Country Today Media Network of what the new relationship should be. The goal is to redefine and reshape the trust relationship between the U.S. and Indian nations based on the nations’ inherent sovereignty and equality so that the relationship works—as it should—for Indian people, Patterson said. The first step is to redefine the trust relationship from an Indian perspective, he said. “This current game is not our game,” Patterson said of the politic system that dominates Indian country. “We’re spending money and resources hand over fist on lawyers and lawsuits and what not, but it’s not our game and we’re losing it.”
Patterson talked about an important moment in his life when he realized the importance of language and the fact that the Indigenous Peoples of the U.S. are shaped and dominated by a language that’s not their own. “I realized I had been living my entire life under the context of terminology—domestic dependent nations—that’s used throughout this country, but it’s not our terminology or our definition,” Patterson said. The term “domestic dependent nations” not only defines the trust relationship between the federal government and the 565 federally acknowledged Indian nations on Turtle Island, it also demarcates the boundaries of Indian sovereignty and self determination, and prevents the nations from realizing their full potential, Patterson said.“This is no time to be timid in Indian country,” he said. “There’s a need to engage in a discussion about identifying areas of the failed trust responsibility, about building a platform that will allow Indian country to define self-determination and the trust relationship as we see best, as we see the value of it—and then advance it.” The work has already begun in partnership with the National Congress of American Indians, Patterson said. Will USET ultimately challenge Congress’ assumed plenary power over Indians? “Absolutely,” Patterson said.
In discussions over the hot button issue of proposals to legalize and control Internet gaming, NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr., Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin, spoke about the federal government’s obligation to protect the economic benefits and revenues that Indian gaming provides tribal governments to deliver services to their citizens. NIGA developed a series of guiding principles for federal Internet gaming legislation that would, among other things, provide positive economic benefits for Indian country. “This principle requires the United States to acknowledge its Constitutional, treaty and trust obligations to Indian tribes as well as the significant stake that tribal governments have in the existing gaming industry. To meet this principle, federal legislation legalizing Internet gaming must set-aside and dedicate funding to meet the significant unmet needs of tribal communities. . . .[T}ribal governments ceded and had taken hundreds of millions of acres of tribal homelands to help build this Nation. In return, the U.S. promised to provide for the education, health, safety and welfare of Indian people. These solemn promises have not been kept,” Stevens reminded the government at a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing November 17.
All three organizations continued efforts to get Congress to pass a “clean Carcieri fix” that would assert the Interior Secretary’s authority to take land into trust for all federally acknowledged Indian nations, “fixing” the disastrous U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Carcieri v. Salazar. Their efforts were unsuccessful as the third anniversary of the ruling approaches on February 24.
There were a few successes this year, including Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk’s announcement in November of what they called a “sweeping reform of federal surface leasing regulations for American Indian lands that will streamline the approval process for home ownership, expedite economic development and spur renewable energy development in Indian country” – a move that tribal organizations and nations had requested for decades. “The lease regulation reform was a step in the right direction,” said NCAI spokesman Thom Wallace. “It’s not seen as a final produce and work on energy legislation is something we continue to this day.”
In other issues, USET took the lead on developing an Intertribal Tax Initiative involving national and regional organizations working together “to defend and promote tribal sovereignty, nation-building and economic development.” The project’s short term and long term goals and proposed actions for 2012 are described here. And in August, NCAI took a principled stand against the proposed Keystone Pipeline project, issuing a resolution that said, in part that the pipeline “would threaten, among other things, water aquifers, water ways, cultural sites, agricultural lands, animal life, public drinking water sources and other resources vital to the peoples of the region in which the pipeline is proposed to be constructed.”
In October, dozens of tribal leaders gathered in Washington during Tribal Unity Impact Week – an event co-hosted by NCAI, USET and almost a dozen other organizations — to present a united front to Congress on an array of issues impacting Indian country. Part of the discussion involved exploring exactly what it means to be united. Keel said that, “Together we can make a difference; individually we will continue to struggle.” But Hiawatha Brown, a Narragansett Indian Tribe councilman, lamented that other tribes failed to support the Narragansett’s battle involving Carcieri until it was too late. “We had been fighting for years, but it is only in the last two that you all have come to support us,” he said. “Collectively, many of our tribal leaders have become complacent…. There are only about 150 people in this room. That’s pathetic!” he said, noting that there are more than 500 tribes throughout the country. With that, he called for prayer.