Address to National Congress of American Indians

President Garcia, Tribal Leaders, Elders and Friends.
Good morning. It is an honor and a pleasure to be with you once again and
to update you on my work on behalf of American Indian, Alaska Native and Native
Hawaiian peoples.
     I would also like to extend a special welcome to my friends from Alaska.
The Alaska Federation of Natives estimates that 21 percent of our State’s
population is Alaska Native. Alaska’s population is now about 670,000 people.
I understand that Alaska has a greater percentage of Native people when
compared with the State’s total population than any of the Lower 48 states. That is
a tremendous source of pride for me and for my fellow Alaskans.
While many of our Native people live in some 239 traditional villages, a
growing number of Native people live in Anchorage – our State’s largest city.
We call Anchorage the largest Native village in Alaska. Here are some of the
reasons why.
     The moment you get off the plane in Anchorage you are greeted by museum
quality displays of Alaska Native arts and crafts.
Native dance groups perform in Anchorage throughout the year.
Anchorage is home to the world class Alaska Native Medical Center – 100%
Native owned and operated – proof positive that self governance works.
It is also home to the Alaska Native Heritage Center which interprets our
Aleut, Indian and Eskimo cultures to thousands of visitors from around the world.
It is home to a full time 24 hour Native radio station – KNBA 90.3 FM.
And I know this has nothing to do with the site of the mid-year meeting, but
Alaska is home to our very own Jackie Johnson -- an Alaskan treasure in her own
     I’m not just telling you this just because I’m proud of Alaska. OK, may be I
am. Make no mistake about it – Alaskans are proud of Alaska.
I’m also telling this to invite you – and entice you – to come to Anchorage this
      If you have never been to Alaska June is the perfect time of year to get
acquainted. And if you’ve been there before you know how great ideas flow when
you are meeting in a beautiful and creative place.
     OK – the commercial’s over. And now to the congressional update.
This is the fifth consecutive year I’m serving on the Senate Indian Affairs
Committee. Yes I’m part of the minority, but as Chairman Dorgan points out time
and again, Indian issues are not only bi-partisan… they are non-partisan.
The 110th Congress is only about 8 weeks old but working together we’ve
already scored some important victories for Indian country.
• We turned back an attempt to prohibit tribes from participating in the
political process. We did this on a bipartisan basis and I’m proud to tell you
that both of Alaska’s Senators stuck with Indian country on this crucial vote.
• There was wording in the Senate version of the ethics bill that would have
made it difficult for tribes to hire former federal employees to deliver health
and social service programs. I worked with the leadership of our Indian
Affairs Committee to tweak that language so it works for tribes that have
chosen the road to self determination and self governance.
     Once again, I’ve joined with Senator Dorgan on legislation to address the
tragedy of youth suicide in our Native communities. The bill would make federal
funds available to deliver behavioral health services to our Native young people
using telemedicine technology. It would give young people who live in some of the
very most isolated places access to help when they need it most.
     Last year the Senate passed the bill but there wasn’t time for the House to
consider it. The Indian Affairs Committee has moved quickly to put the bill back
on the Senate calendar. That’s how important this bill is. I hope we will pass it
through the Senate early in this session and we can get it out of the House of
Representatives this year.
     We’ve not forgotten the need to reauthorize the Indian Health Care
Improvement Act. Thank you, Indian country, for your support of Alaska’s Dental
Health Aide Therapist Program last year. With your help we beat back efforts to
shut down this innovative program.
And we also need to find the money to fund the Esther Martinez Native
Language Act which was signed into law late last year. Those are some of my
priorities this year.
     I’m very excited about a new nonpartisan initiative by Senator Dorgan and
Senator Thomas to bring the committee out to Indian Country. Less than one week
after the committee held its organizational meeting, our leaders were on a plane for
the first of a series of listening sessions with tribal leaders. I understand these
listening sessions continued last week while I was in Alaska. I hope to be able to
participate in future sessions.
     This is an impressive start for the Indian Affairs Committee and I’m proud
to be part of it.
This Congress I am serving on another committee that is important to Indian
     That’s the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. I’m the first
Alaska Senator ever to serve on this committee. I am especially interested in the
committee’s health and education agendas.
     The HELP Committee, as you know, has jurisdiction over “No Child Left
Behind” and we have to make it work better in our Native communities.
We have to make it work in our Native communities and that takes effort.
In our Native communities education doesn’t just mean reading, writing, math and
science. Culture and Native preservation language are also important aims of our
educational system.
     The evidence presented to the Indian Affairs Committee strongly suggests
that Native children who are educated in harmony with their culture do better in
school, better at work, and better in life.
     Our Native children should not have to choose between an educational
experience that emphasizes culture and an educational experience that emphasizes
preparation for the job market.
     The educational experience needs to prepare our Native youth to lead their
Native communities and it needs to prepare our Native youth to fully participate in
the global economy.
      It needs to be an educational experience which strengthens the self-esteem of
our young people. School should be a source of enlightenment… not a source of
     I hope to use my position on the HELP committee to help make the “No
Child Left Behind” legislation work better in American Indian, Alaska Native and
Native Hawaiian communities. I look forward to receiving your suggestions on how
to do that.
     Finally, I want to put in a plug for your continued support of Senator
Akaka’s Native Hawaiian recognition legislation. NCAI’s support was so critical
last year when we came within a very few votes of stopping a filibuster. We had a
bipartisan majority in the Senate but we fell short of the 60 votes we needed. Let’s
continue to make justice for Native Hawaiians a priority in this 110th Congress.
When I joined the Indian Affairs Committee in 2003, I was honored that
Chief Ben Nighthorse Campbell took me under this wing. Time and time again,
Senator Campbell drummed into me that the Indian Affairs Committee is the one
committee of Congress that listens to Indian Country. This is one committee among
all in the Congress that is specifically charged with the responsibility of standing up
for our Native peoples. I’ve taken that to heart.
     I’m feeling very good about the energy level in the Indian Affairs Committee
this year. We need to maintain that high level of energy because it takes a lot of
energy to address the challenges in Indian country.
     Make no mistake about it – they are the same challenges whether you are on
Pine Ridge, Red Lake, Navajo, or in the Native Village of Savoonga out on St.
Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea.
In unity, there is strength. In unity, we will conquer those challenges. 
Have a great meeting. See you in Anchorage June 10-13.