National Congress of American Indians president Joe Garcia, of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, demonstrated that Indians are not afraid to reach for high symbolism to get their share of the economic and political pie. Before beginning his annual State of Indian Nations speech last week at the National Museum of the American Indian, Garcia helped bless and present the famous Pueblo Lincoln canes, kissing them reverently, as they were handed to him by Marcelino Aquino, the current governor of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo of New Mexico. Presented to the 19 Pueblos in 1863 by then President Abraham Lincoln, the silver headed canes represent the United States’ recognition of the Pueblos’ land rights, granted to them by the Spanish in 1659. The canes are still an important symbol of office in the pueblos, handed down to each succeeding governor.
In this case, they were a potent, almost stern reminder to President Obama, who often cites Lincoln as an inspiration, that tribal leaders expect him to walk his talk in dealings with Indian country.
During his often-emotional speech, the last of his tenure, Garcia declared the state of Indian nations to be more hopeful than they have ever been. He focused on four main areas.
— Establishing a place at the table in the country’s economic recovery. Garcia citied the high unemployment rates in Indian country, 22% overall versus the national average of around 7% (during the Great Depression U.S. unemployment was 25%). Garcia pointed out that that the federal government has a more than $50 billion backlog in tribal projects, including road, home, jails and school construction.
— Addressing the health care crisis in Indian country and the failure of the last Congress to authorize the American Indian Health Care Act. When the federal government fails to honor one of the earliest treaty provisions, Garcia stressed, American Indians have nowhere else to turn for health care.
–Increasing public safety, now almost non-existent on many reservations. Reservation citizens are twice as likely as the average U.S. citizen to fall victim to violent crime. Federal authorities decline to prosecute 65% of reservation crimes due to complex jurisdictional concerns.
— Providing educational opportunities in Indian country. Native Americans, of all ethnic groups, have the highest high school drop out rate in the country. (In the compromise version of the economic stimulus bill, there were deep funding cuts for education and Head Start programs.)
Although not mentioned in Garcia’s speech, trust reform is also a key issue for Native Americans, the NCAI’s 111th Congress Draft Legislative Priorities listing it as a first-year priority for the new Congress.
Trust reform was also on Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s mind when he addressed the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs last week. Keenly aware that his two predecessors were found to have been in contempt of court in the Cobell case, he acknowledged American Indians’ frustration with the government’s handling of the case. Salazar indicated his desire to bring the litigation to a conclusion but did not mention a timetable.
(Cobell v. Norton is a class-action lawsuit filed on June 10, 1996, in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., to force the federal government to account for billions of dollars belonging to approximately 500,000 American Indians and their heirs, and held in trust since the late 19th century.)
Salazar’s priority list for Indian country was amazingly similar to Garcia’s. During his first meeting with the Committee on Indian Affairs, Salazar promised that American Indians would have a place at the table in the Obama administration. In response to committee chairman Bryon Dorgan’s frustration with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which has not had a permanent leader in three years, Salazar assured him that a candidate has been chosen and is in the vetting process.
(As everyone in Indian country already knows, the candidate for the Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs is Larry Echohawk, a member of the Pawnee Nation and brother of John Echohawk, executive director of the Native American Rights Fund and a member of Obama’s Interior transition team. A law professor at Brigham Young University, Larry Echohawk seems to be weathering concerns among many tribal leaders that his previous opposition to Indian gaming makes him a poor candidate to represent Indian sovereignty.)
Secretary Salazar announced the appointment of Indian candidates for Solicitor of the Interior and the Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation. The vetting process is currently underway.
These have not been traditional posts for American Indians in past administrations; in fact, this will be the first time in history that American Indians have held these offices.
Salazar assured the committee, “It is important for me as Secretary of the Interior that the department’s leadership positions reflect the face of America.”
The Obama administration has also appointed Jodi Archambault Gillette, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, as deputy associate director in its intergovernmental affairs office.
Word on the street is that President Obama will appoint at least one more American Indian to a policy-making position within his administration.