Note: This is Part II of the keynote address Charles Trimble presented at the
66th Annual Convention of the National Congress of American
Indians on October 14, 2009, in Palm Springs, California.
”NCAI: What it Represents” is the topic on which I was asked to speak. And I will try to address that now, with an important example:
Last year I read an article in Indian Country Today that the National Congress of American Indians passed a record number of resolutions in their 65th annual convention in Phoenix. I wrote a column about that phenomenon and I described the times in the 1970s that leaders of the American Indian Movement and other militant groups would often refer to NCAI as the “paper tiger,” because of the great number of resolutions passed in our annual conventions. Ours was a paper war, and theirs was an action war.
I recalled my own experience as NCAI Director and explained that in testimony before Congressional committees, in meetings with the departments, and in media conferences it always gave me the greatest confidence to tell them that the position I represented was the consensus of Indian tribes. That the issue was presented, debated in committee, and adopted in full convention assembled. No other organization could say that, although other organizations represented important Indian professional and political constituencies of their own.
The resolutions represent consensus of the vast majority of nations in Indian Country.
Tribal consensus is a powerful thing, not the stuff of paper tigers. As I think history has shown in the positive legislation, policy, and programs for which NCAI pressed, that the organization was very successful in representing the tribes and their interests.
The American Indian Policy Review Commission, chartered by Congress in 1975, mandated a review of all NCAI resolutions from its beginning in 1944. These are in our files, which are archived in the Smithsonian Institution. A summary review of those resolutions was done, and what this showed was the forward thinking of the tribes through this organization, and the consistency of their issues over the years. Sovereignty, treaties, trust, government-to-government relations, water rights, Alaska Native land rights, and individual Indian rights, citizenship and the right to vote, are not a new thing, discovered by younger generations in the 1970s. They were defined clearly at the outset, and have been the meat and purpose of NCAI over those many years.
What that study told was an important story, a beautiful story of Indian leadership and the persistence of their struggle.
So, the answer to the question is in the question itself: NCAI: What it Represents: It represents you, it is your voice being carried by your able staff, through personal appearances before committees and public audiences, over the airways of radio and television, and over the web of the internet. And they are saying what you told them to say, in the best medium they can devise to say it, and to the most important audiences, in the White House, in the Congress, and sometimes in the Courtroom.
I must add here NCAI’s importance as enhancer and facilitator for your government-to-government relations with the United States. This NCAI does, ever mindful that the relationship is between you, the Indian nations, and the US Government; not between NCAI and the government. But NCAI speaks only the consensus you have arrived at among yourselves. But I am also aware that the federal bureaucracy -- the BIA and HIS and other agencies -- has worked in the past to break your consensus by appealing to individual nations, and insinuating that NCAI is trying to usurp your sovereignty.
However, NCAI staff is not just a recording or your voice. There is another important function they perform, and this has been improved exponentially since the time I served as Executive Director. The staff now has greater resources that they have gained from the membership and from the private and public sectors. And they are very well organized.
NCAI is also then your eyes and ears, and your intelligence, as well as your voice. They are your eyes and ears because of their vigilance in Washington and throughout the country. They must work to foretell what is coming in the future, especially the threats to sovereignty and tribal and individual Indian rights. And they must keep you informed on those things, and prepared for any eventuality. They must package these problems and possibilities, and they must present them to you for your decision; the better their research and intelligence, the better your decisions.
And, finally, NCAI is a family of nations, drawn together by something more than sovereignty and common cause. It is the attitude of family that must be assumed to address some potential problems that I see almost every day when I boot up Indianz.com, and see headlines of new controversy and new conflict, much of it dealing with gaming.
As a family of nations, we can talk candidly about sovereignty, for example: What it is and what it can be? What its reality is and its substance? I recall a video by the Institute for Development of Indian Law back in the 1970s. In it, Ernie Stevens, Sr. wore a crown as he spoke. Pointing to the crown, he noted that it was only a symbol of sovereignty. Taking off the crown, and turning it on its side, he told that such was sovereignty in reality: an empty circle. The tribes need to fill that emptiness with their laws, their governance, their citizens’ rights, and their cultures. That is the substance of sovereignty.
And there is great dignity in sovereignty, and great discipline is needed for the preservation of our sovereignty. With the success of tribal casinos, some tribes have much newfound wealth. Although this is a good thing that accrues from the exercise of their sovereignty and rights, wealth often brings arrogance, over-confidence, carelessness, and greed for more wealth. And sometimes, pursuant to greed, the envelope of sovereignty can be pushed to the limits of its destruction.
These are things that can be broached, discussed, and perhaps even controlled in a family setting. The dignity and decorum of tribal sovereignty should be carefully nurtured in the public eye.
There can be another anti-tribal backlash, and this is more likely if economic stress from a lengthy recession causes white resentment of tribes’ growing wealth. And although our sovereignty will likely prevail ultimately, the fight can be very costly, in terms of policy, economies and rights of the tribes.
These are times of euphoria running throughout Indian Country, and our euphoria is indeed justified. With the combined outlays from the economic stimulus and the annual federal budget, we are seeing the largest funding ever for Indian country. We are seeing Native Americans being appointed to positions of influence and authority in the Interior and other departments and in the White House itself. We are also seeing new energy and focus in Indian affairs in the Congress. We are seeing the National Congress of American Indians more organized and more visible than ever in history, and more connected in the powerful offices of the Administration and the Congress.
But I would call attention to something Louis Farrakhan spoke to thousands of followers at the Nation of Islam’s annual Saviors’ Day convention; This is what he said: “Brother Barrack has enlivened black people to possibility, and we must not let that energy die. And we must not allow our people to live in a false world of euphoria that would give way to great despair if we don’t take on our shoulders the responsibility that God has placed on us to get up and do something for ourselves.”
“We must accept our responsibility to build our communities,” he said.
We in Indian Country have got to build our communities ourselves; nobody can do it for us. It is a message that must be taken seriously in the Indian communities. Farrakhan’s warning about the “false world of euphoria that would give way to great despair” is especially important to us.
NCAI can, in the family of nations setting work with the tribes to carry this message to their communities.
Again, I thank the National Congress for having me here, and giving me the great honor of addressing you. I do love this organization, and you are in my prayers always. God bless NCAI and may the organization live forever.
Charles Trimble, Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was a
principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970 and served as
Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-1978.
He is retired and lives in Omaha, Nebraska. He can be reached at
email@example.com. His website is iktomisweb.com.
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