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Cathy Robbins Thinking Aloud

State of the American Indians Nations, A Speech

The staff of the National Congress of American Indians gather at the organization’s new headquarters, the Embassy of Tribal Nations, in the heart of the diplomatic enclave in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of the National Congress of American Indians.

Since 2003, every year, the president of the National Congress of American Indians presents the State of Indian Nations. The message is timed precisely - just a few days after the State of the Union address from the president of the United States - and it reaffirms the sovereign status of nearly 600 tribes and nations.

In the State of the Union message, the president reports on the condition of the country and sets out his vision and agenda for dealing with issues and problems. The U.S. Constitution mandates a regular report from the president to Congress, and since 1790, since George Washington produced the first such report, an American President has delivered a State of the Union either in writing or in a talk. The message is not simply a report. It has come to represent the relationship between the executive and the legislative branches in a sovereign nation.

American Indian sovereignty is as old as the Constitution, but over the centuries it has eroded and nearly perished, as European and American conquerors rolled over Indian Country. Native Americans resisted across the continent and many tribes disappeared in the ensuing wars. For instance, in California, the Spaniards had estimated the California Indian population at 300,000 in 1769; recent studies suggest it might have been closer to a million. By 1845, disease, starvation, war, slavery, and murder had wiped out half of them. In just one decade — during the Gold Rush — the population dropped to 50,000. By 1900, it was only 16,500. But many others survived to carry on the fight for sovereignty―the right to exist on their own terms, in their homelands and in the cosmos.

Over the decades, guided by the Constitution, treaties signed with tribes, and custom, the Federal government has recognized 566 tribes. The organized political struggle for greater sovereignty began in 1911, when a group of Native Americans met in Ohio to establish the Society of American Indians. In 1919, 75 leaders of southern California tribes founded the Federation of Mission Indians, The group adopted the slogan “Human Rights and Home Rule.”

As private and public policies ate at Native lands and resource, the struggle for sovereignty picked up. A new brand of activists, including returning World War II veterans, emerged. (One-third of the eligible American Indian population had served in World
War II, three times the national rate.) The campaign for “rights” and “sovereignty” coalesced, prompted by termination and relocation. Fifty tribal leaders met in Denver, CO in 1944 to establish the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the oldest national native organization. With more than 250 tribes and member, NCAI is the largest to represent recognized Indian nations.

NCAI’s mission to protect sovereignty and cultural values is unchanged since 1944. On Jan. 31, 2003, just a few days after the U.S. president’s State of the Union message, NCAI President Tex Hall delivered the first ever State of the Indian Nations address. Speaking at the National Press Club, Hall framed the discussion in the same stark terms as Hale had: “Tribes are governments, not non-profit organizations, not interest groups, not an ethnic minority. We are one of only three sovereigns listed in the U.S. Constitution, alongside the federal and state governments.” Broadcast nationally on C-Span, that first State of the Nations address signalled that things had changed; Indians were flexing more political muscle. NCAI presidents have delivered annual addresses since then.

The founding of NCAI was a milestone of the post-war period. In the 1960s, American Indians took other, highly visible actions like the occupation of Alcatraz from 1969 to 1971. The American Indian Movement (AIM) occupied the community of Wounded Knee, SD in 1973. Other organizations, notably the Native American Rights Fund, represent Native interests in the courts. Finally, in 2009 NCAI opened a new headquarters, which it calls an “embassy of tribal nations,” near Dupont Circle, in the diplomatic center of Washington, D.C.

From the U.S. Constitution to the Embassy of Tribal Nations, American Indian sovereignty is still not secure, but the State of Indian Nations is a speech to listen to every year.
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