Congressional Response to NCAI's "State of Indian Nations"
*** As Prepared for Delivery ***
President Keel has introduced me but I stand before you this morning with a special recognition. It was less than a week ago when I was back home in the state that I was adopted into the Tlingit tribe. I was adopted by the Deisheetaan clan and given a new name –
Aan shaawátk'i. In English this Tlingit Raven name means “Lady of the Land.”
As one who has been blessed to have been born and raised in my state to be welcomed into the Tlingit tribe and to be given a name of this honor…that is really quite something for me.
I am honored and humbled to present a congressional response to President Keel’s State of the Indian Nations address.
It has been a bit over eight years since I first came to the United States Senate. I am proud to represent Alaska – the state with the greatest per capita population of Native people of any state in the union. I have served on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs since my very first day in the United States Senate. I hope to continue to serve on the committee for many years to come.
President Keel certainly got it right in reflecting on the success of Indian Country in advancing its agenda before Congress in our 2009-2010 session. However, it is also important to note that the seeds of these victories were planted many years before we harvested the success of our labors.
It took more than a decade of work by NCAI, the National Indian Health Board and the National Steering Committee to get the Indian Health Care Improvement Act to the President’s desk.
The Tribal Law and Order Act was first introduced in 2008, during my tenure as Vice Chair of the Indian Affairs Committee. I was proud to be Senator Dorgan’s lead Republican cosponsor of the bill. It was signed into law in 2010.
For a number of years, the members and staff of the Indian Affairs Committee had been exploring options to resolve the Cobell lawsuit. The settlement was finally approved in 2010.
Looking back a few more years, we were successful in reauthorizing NAHASDA. We also came together to honor the legacy of Esther Martinez as we reauthorized the Native American Languages Act.
Even in the most partisan of Senate environments it is fair to characterize the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs as one of the most productive committees in the entire Senate. The secret to our success is that we work together, across party lines, all of the time, for the benefit of Native people.
That is not only a testament to the strong leaders who have guided the committee. People like Dan Inouye, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, John McCain and Byron Dorgan. It is also a testament to the expertise, the dedication and the teamwork of the individuals who have served on the staff of the Indian Affairs Committee.
It is extremely gratifying to learn that the new leadership in the House of Representatives is paying increasing attention to the needs of American Indians and Alaska Natives as well. By now you have heard that the House Resources Committee has reconstituted its Subcommittee on American Indian and Alaska Native Affairs. And I’m pleased that the subcommittee will be chaired by my friend and colleague -- Don Young of Alaska.
Don is ardent supporter of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act and a long time supporter of the Native Hawaiian recognition bill. He is an individual who understands and defends the economic development opportunities created by Indian gaming and the important government contracting preferences afforded to American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians under the 8(a) program. Congressman Young will be a strong partner in the years to come and I wish him the greatest success in his new leadership role.
While we have accomplished a great deal in last several years, there is still much work to be done. In spite of all of our successes, Native people continue to die from diabetes nearly two times more than other Americans. Deaths from vehicle crashes two times higher. A Native person is twice as likely as another American to be the victim of an aggravated assault.
Our Native people lead the nation in rates of unemployment and lag behind in all measures of family income. Fifteen percent live in overcrowded homes, 14 percent have no access to electricity, and 12 percent live in homes without plumbing. Even as the President promises to bring broadband Internet to every corner of the Nation in the next five years, it is noteworthy that nearly one third of Native homes have no access to telephone service available today.
We have much work to do. We will work hard to get it done. But we will undertake this work in a period of great financial stress for our Nation. On Tuesday evening, the President spoke of freezing total federal spending for the next five years. Some of my colleagues are talking about more stringent caps. Spend no more than we did in 2008 or perhaps 2006.
A key question is how will this affect funding levels for federal Indian programs. I understand that this is a cause of great anxiety throughout Indian Country. Indian programs remain among the most underfunded programs in the entire federal government. In spite of the administration’s efforts to improve funding for the Indian Health Service, the funding gaps are still significant. The same can be said for nearly every other federal Indian program.
In an era in which the federal spending pie is shrinking, competition for a slice of the pie will be fierce. But our resolve to fight for the funding levels must remain high. We cannot be deterred in our fight to achieve the funding levels our Native people deserve. Funding levels that are proportionate to the challenges we face in Indian Country. Funding levels that aren’t eaten up by inflation.
Relatively speaking, funding for federal Indian programs is small in the overall scheme of the federal budget. Yet in times of deficit, Congress fights hardest over which of the small items to fund. You will need to fight hard to keep what you have. Even harder to get what you need. Here’s a thought on how to get there.
There was a common theme in the campaigns of many who challenged incumbent members of the House and Senate. That theme was that the federal government should spend only where the Constitution provides the Congress with clear authority to do so. Spend only on things that the framers intended to be federal responsibilities. Several of the new Senators and many of the new Republican members of the House of Representatives ran on this platform.
As every student of federal Indian policy knows, the wellbeing of America’s Native people is a uniquely federal responsibility. A federal responsibility and only a federal responsibility. A federal responsibility – not a State responsibility.
The federal Indian programs that we fight hardest to fund were created to fulfill the trust responsibility between this Nation and its first people. Authority to fund these programs derives from three distinct provisions of the Constitution – the Indian Commerce Clause, the Treaty Clause and the Property Clause. This is not “nice to have” spending. That is “must have” spending to fulfill the trust responsibility founded in the Constitution.
So as you visit the offices of my colleagues this year, I invite you to keep your copy of the Constitution handy and bookmark the provisions I’ve discussed.
I would like to mention a few personal priorities for the 112th Congress. Just as we came together several years ago to fight the high rates of diabetes that plague our Native communities, we must come together now to attack the high rate of suicide that plagues American Indian and Alaska Native youth. Indian youth have the highest rate of suicide among all ethnic groups in the United States.
While the Alaska Indian Health Service region has historically suffered from higher rates of youth suicide than the other Indian health service regions, the Aberdeen and Tucson Indian Health Service regions are not far behind. Each lost Native life is a tragedy in its own right. We must do all that we can to prevent every incident of suicide.
We will not be alone in our quest to bring these unacceptable rates of Indian youth suicide under control. On February 28th, the Aspen Institute will announce the launch of its new Center for Native American Youth under the leadership of our friend, Senator Byron Dorgan. This new program is the centerpiece of Senator Dorgan’s legacy to the well being of our Native people. The center will be committed to improving the overall health, safety and well being of Native youth and notably the prevention of youth suicide. I look forward to working with Senator Dorgan on identifying those strategies that have made a difference in preventing suicide among our Native youth and formulating new strategies toward this end.
With energy prices rising again, it is important that we once again focus on the relationship between energy costs and the economic sustainability of our Native communities. Indian land contains an estimated ten percent of all energy resources in the United States. Yet energy resources on Native lands are vastly underdeveloped.
I am one who believes that America needs an “all of the above energy policy.” Oil, gas, coal, alternatives and renewables. And all of the above means that we must include Indian Country in our national energy policy. We must support our Native people in their efforts to develop energy resources on Native lands, whether for use in Native communities or to generate income to support our tribal governments and tribal enterprises. I hope that we will all work together to make this a reality.
And finally, we need to continue our efforts to ensure that American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians continue to have access to the SBA’s 8(a) government contracting program. This program has been a significant economic engine for Alaska Native Corporations, for Native Hawaiian entities and for the growing number of tribes that are taking advantage of it. I think it will be an increasingly important economic opportunity for our tribes in the years to come, providing that Congress does not pull up the ladder. Let’s work together to make sure this does not happen.
In closing, let me express my appreciation to NCAI for all that it does every day for the betterment of our Native people. NCAI is a powerful voice on Capitol Hill for the interests of our Native people. NCAI is involved in many important efforts but let me take this opportunity to highlight one of them – Native Vote.
Native vote is a national non-partisan effort to encourage Native people to take control of their destiny by registering to vote and turning out each November. Native vote does not endorse particular candidates. But it provides a strong incentive for candidates at every level to take the concerns of their Native constituents seriously.
If ever you wonder whether Native vote works, look no further than Lisa Murkowski. My success in running the history making write-in campaign that I ran last November would not have been possible if Alaska’s Native people did not turn out at the polls. I deeply appreciate the trust that Alaska’s Native people have placed in me.
I appreciate the support and the love that I’ve received from Native people over the past eight years. I pledge to keep the interests of our Native people in the forefront of my mind as I continue my work in the United States Senate over the next six years. I look forward to working with you in the coming years to improve the condition of America’s first peoples. Thank you and good morning.