Joe Garcia, the new president of the National Congress of American Indians, delivered the State of Indian Nations address on Thursday, outlining "four great steps" to advance the tribal agenda in the coming year.
Garcia, the governor of Ohkway Owingeh in New Mexico, said Pueblo teachings about the four directions provide a framework for approaching and solving problems. He identified public safety, health care, education and the economy and settlement of the trust fund as the four main issues facing tribal people.
"Just as the four directions provide a map for the soul, the four great steps define the challenges we face as tribal governments -- the needs we must meet and overcome to improve the
lives of those of us of the Indian nations," Garcia said at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
In his first major speech as the recently elected president of the nation's largest inter-tribal organization, Garcia emphasized the trust responsibilities the federal government owes to American Indians and Alaska Natives. But he also said positive change will only come when tribes do the work themselves.
"The state of the Indian Nations is strong," he remarked in his half-hour address. "This is a plan for making it stronger."
Under public safety, Garcia cited homeland security, domestic violence and methamphetamine abuse as major concerns. He said tribal police departments need more resources to
stem the flow of drugs from other countries, to keep Native women safe and to fight the war against meth, which has reached epidemic levels in some communities, according to tribal leaders.
"The problem, simply stated, is this: We have the will and the abilities, but we lack the means," Garcia said. He called on Congress to authorize direct funding for tribes under the Homeland Security Act and to fully fund the Violence Against Women Act, which President Bush signed into law last month.
For health care, Garcia had one primary goal in mind: reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. The bill has languished in Congress for the past two years amid disputes with the Bush administration.
Meanwhile, tribal members are dying and suffering from diseases at extremely high rates, Garcia said. "Healthcare expenditures for Indian are less than half what America spends for federal prisoners," he said. During a question and answer session after the speech, Jackie Johnson, the executive director of NCAI, recited a list of Republican and Democratic lawmakers who support reauthorization of the act, first passed in 1976.
Education and the economy go hand in hand, said Garcia, a former school board chairman. With the education system in Indian Country far behind the rest of the nation, it's no surprise that reservation economies are in a poor state, he argued.
But by injecting tribal culture into the classrooms with the help of the No Child Left Behind Act, Garcia said achievement levels will improve. He cited a program in Alaska Native villages that led to better test scores and reduced dropout rates.
"And this didn't require blue-ribbon panels or years of research," he said, calling for Congress to fully fund the No Child Left Behind Act. "It helped as soon as it was begun: turning the unique position of the Indian Nations into an asset by making Indian children proud of where they come from."
Improving reservation economies also requires stronger tribal governments, more housing, adequate infrastructure, increased homeownership and balanced development of natural resources,"
he added. In tandem with the speech, NCAI released its fiscal year 2007 budget request for Indian programs. The Bush administration will announce its budget on Monday.
"The success of Indian Country in self-governing and managing their resources warrant continued federal investment in tribal self-determination," Garcia noted.
Finally, Garcia said resolution of the Cobell v. Norton trust fund lawsuit is long overdue. "This litigation is diverting money from other needs and creating an environment in the administration that makes it hard to move on to other issues," he said.
Garcia called for a fair and just settlement of the case. Last year, NCAI joined the Cobell plaintiffs and other tribal organizations in drafting 50 principles to guide trust reform, including a proposed payment of $27.5 billion for individual Indians.
A bill is pending in Congress to end the case but the settlement figure has been left blank. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee and the House Resources Committee will hold a joint hearing on March 1 to address the issue.
In response to a question, Garcia said he was confident that the agenda could be achieved. He urged cooperation and partnership with Congress and the executive branch, rather than conflict, in order to meet the goals he outlined.
Garcia briefly addressed other issues in response to other questions from members of the media. He said the Jack Abramoff scandal shouldn't divert attention away from the pressing needs facing tribes. "We've got to concentrate on those issues that are more important," he said.
But he also said tribes should continue to participate in the political process. "It's an opportunity for anyone and everyone," he said. "The tribes are sovereign governments," he added. "They are not
a special interest groups, they are not non-profit organizations ... and they are not individuals."
With fallout from the scandal spreading in Washington, some are pressing Congress to impose limits on how much tribes can give to federal candidates and political action committees. "The tribes should not be singled out and their rights and their sovereignty should not diminished by some law," Garcia said.
Later this month, Garcia will be leading NCAI as it hosts its annual winter session in Washington. The conference typically attracts prominent members of Congress and federal officials for discussions on the issues facing Indian Country.
National Congress of American Indians - http://www.ncai.org