The National Congress of American Indians is holding a hotly contested race for president with four candidates vying for the organization’s top spot during its 70th annual meeting that’s taking place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, October 13-18. Jefferson Keel, the current president, who has served the organization’s limit of two consecutive two-year terms, will step down this week when the new president is elected. Keel sat down with Indian Country Today Media Network at the Tulsa Convention Center for an exit interview.
You’ve been NCAI president for the past four years during a really dynamic time. What was the most difficult task or issue you faced during that time?
I think there were a number of things. Probably the most difficult of these, going back to the Cobell settlement because there were so many tribes and individual tribal members that were not necessarily in agreement with how that settlement was reached. It was a difficult time. Now once it was settled the other thing was I think everything moved rather slowly. The other thing is the Carcieri fix and the Patchak case – those things really have a harmful effect on Indian country. Probably the most difficult part was navigating the political waters of Washington, D.C., and trying to get bipartisan support for Indian issues. When you look at the partisan divisions in Congress right now, it doesn’t have anything to do with Indian country, yet Indian country suffers the most. Sequestration is probably the most harmful thing to happen to Indian country in years because it not only effects tribal governments and how funding comes in but the poorest of the poor are suffering because they’re denied services and things they need for survival – people!
And there are new issues surrounding sovereignty, right?
We’ve been fighting these sovereignty issues for years – that’s why NCAI was established – but every negative decision from the Supreme Court, every time Congress or the administration does something that is not in the best interest of Indian country, it’s harmful, it’s like an onion – it just takes another layer of sovereignty away. It’s been a divisive time and any time you have issues that divide Indian country. It’s hard.
What were the most successful tasks or issues you dealt with during your time as president?
The Violence Against Women Act, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act being made permanent, the Tribal Law and Order Act that allows us to protect our communities and prosecute crimes on our land, the HEARTH Act that allows tribes to establish their own leasing procedures and lease tribal land without waiting for the Interior Department to approve those things. But our work is not done. None of these acts is a magic wand that heals Indian country but they allow us to step forward. The U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was a major step forward; it’s something Indian country’s been working for years.
But wasn’t the rhetoric surrounding that weird? The president announced that the government was “lending its support” to the Declaration. What does lending your support mean – you can take it back?
There you go! That’s exactly what it means. President Obama has been a good friend to Indian country, but he’s part of the family now [referring to Obama’s adoption by the Crow Tribe in 2008 during the presidential campaign] and sometimes family members forget where they come from or forget who their family really is and we have to remind them.
But we’ve had some great successes in the last four years, but we have some challenges – we’ve got to make sure that these laws that have been passed are implemented properly. We’ve got to protect tribal budgets. We’re not a line item in the federal government. Our place in the family of governments even goes back to the U.S. Constitution. We need to hold the federal government accountable.
How do you do that?
Well, we do it through Congress, we do it through out tribal leaders continually educating members of Congress on what Indian people and tribal nations and tribal governments really are and what they really mean, and how all of these things [funding, etc.] are pre-paid with cessation of millions of acres of land and the natural resources that go along with that. So it’s an education process, but not just of Congress – we need to educate the American people. And then we need to get ready for the next elections. I think the American people are sick of a Congress that doesn’t do its job – I don’t care what party you’re from. We have friends in both parties, but if they’re not doing their job. … well, it’s time for us to get someone else.
I’m struck by the number of NCAI’s corporate sponsors – Bank of America, Walmart, Roche, and so on.
Once again, it’s because of the education we’re providing to the American public – who we are, what we really stand for, the moral commitment America has to our people and why our cause is such a reasonable cause. People respect strong leadership, they resent liars and users, and this organization has come a long way. We still have a long way to go but I’m just proud to be a small part of that. I’ve enjoyed the last four years. I’ve had a tremendous learning experience, I’ve been able to travel to every part of the country, even Alaska, I meet with tribal leaders and see who they are and how they operate and how they live.
Has it been a full time job for you?
No, but it’s a full time commitment. My full time job is I’m lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation and that’s really who I am. But this has allowed me to get out and do some things that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do.
So, what’s next for you?
Oh, I’ll go back to doing my real job being lieutenant governor of my tribe and helping make sure that my tribe moves forward. The health and welfare of the Chickasaw people is my first priority. That’s who I am.