ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – American Indians have won some key victories on Capitol Hill this year and should capitalize on them to start solving some of the problems that have plagued tribal communities for decades, said the leader of the oldest and largest Indian organization in the nation.
Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said tribal leaders should keep the momentum going following success such as the Tribal Law and Order Act, recently signed into law by President Barack Obama, and the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, reauthorized as part of the larger health care reform passed by Congress.
He also cited a $680 million settlement the government has offered to American Indians who were denied farm loans to settle a 1999 lawsuit.
"We have to realize we have an opportunity to really make a difference in Indian Country right now," said Keel, who also serves as the lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma.
Keel and other leaders from throughout Indian Country are gathering in Albuquerque this week for the organization's annual conference. They will be focused on raising awareness among Congress' new members of the challenges faced by tribal communities.
"I hope we can sit down and develop a strategy that will enable us to not only talk about those issues but carry them forward, to visit with our congressmen and our local law enforcement and other agencies and our communities so they can help us really step forward and alleviate some of our frustrations," Keel said.
The National Congress of American Indians was founded in 1944 in response to assimilation policies being imposed on tribes by the federal government. Today, the group monitors federal policy and court actions and coordinates efforts to inform federal decisions that affect tribal interests.
Issues on the agenda for the weeklong conference include law enforcement, violence against women, teen suicide, drug abuse, education, health care, energy development and water rights.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson will be among those addressing the conference.
It was Dorgan who championed the Tribal Law and Order Act, which aims to give tribes more authority to combat crime on their reservations.
The act makes federal law enforcement agencies more accountable by having them collect data on crimes committed in Indian Country, and by requiring the U.S. Department of Justice to maintain criminal data on cases that U.S. attorneys decline to prosecute for various reasons, including a lack of evidence. Some say federal officials decline to prosecute more than 50 percent of violent crimes on reservations.
In another key victory this year, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act was made permanent. The law clears the way for more preventative health care, boosts mental health resources and addresses recruiting and retaining physicians and other care providers throughout Indian Country.
Tribal leaders have many questions about how both laws will be implemented, but Keel said one of the major challenges will be finding the resources for implementation given the federal government's budget woes and a general desire among Americans and some members of Congress to rein in spending.
Keel also acknowledged that voters' feelings toward Congress and the Obama administration were "pretty negative" leading up to the midterm elections.
"For Indian Country, we're not partisan," he said. "The issues that face us are Indian issues, and they affect our tribal governments and our tribal communities so we have to work with Congress. We have friends on both sides of the aisle, friends that are Republican as well as Democrat."
Politics and financial hurdles aside, Keel said American Indians are resilient.
"I've said it before, and I truly believe this, that our people are suffering but their spirit is not broken. They are a very proud people," Keel said. "It's very humbling for me to go and talk to some of these people who are expecting their tribal and national leaders to help them find a way to overcome some of these problems. It's up to us to do the very best that we can to make a difference."
National Congress of American Indians, http://www.ncai.org/