The State of Indian Country: Global Tribes?

Two days after President Obama's State of the Union address on Tuesday, the president of the National Congress of American Indians held his own address about how tribes across the country are faring. Host Michel Martin speaks with Jacqueline Pata, the group's executive director, to learn more about this year's priorities for Indian Country.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, Pope Benedict the XVI stunned the world when he announced his resignation earlier this week. It turns out he is not the only high-profile Catholic set to leave a powerful post. In a few minutes, we'll bring you a conversation with John Carr. He's the top policy advisor for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. We'll find out why the Washington Post has called him the Karl Rove of Catholic politics. We'll talk with him about that and other issues in the church. That's our Faith Matters segment.

But first, if you turned on your television Tuesday night, then you heard the familiar sound of the president's state of the union address.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and we can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is stronger.

MARTIN: But if you were in Washington, D.C. yesterday, you could have heard another state of address that sounded just a little different.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF INDIAN NATIONS ADDRESS)

JEFFERSON KEEL: Though we've walked dark roads and overcome great challenges and tragedies, our future holds great promise. Today, Indian country is strong.

MARTIN: That was Jefferson Keel, the president of the National Congress of American Indians. He delivered the State of Indian Nations Address yesterday in Washington, D.C.

We wanted to talk more about that, so Jacqueline Pata was kind enough to join us. She's the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. She's a member of the Raven/Sockeye clan of the Tlingit tribe.

Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

JACQUELINE PATA: Thank you.

MARTIN: I think many people might be surprised to hear that there is a state of Indian nations address. How long has this been given, and why is it important?

PATA: I think we've been doing it for, like, seven years now. And it was really important for us, when I first came to NCAI, is to be able to educate the public, but also to educate those policy decision-makers in D.C.

MARTIN: President Obama talked a lot about the state of the economy and the economic conditions that a lot of Americans are experiencing right now. One has to assume that Indian country has the same kinds of variations. I mean, there's a lot of, you know, poverty in some areas. There's a lot of booming opportunities in others. What was President Keel's message about the state of Indian country's economy, overall?

PATA: I think the message, overall, is that we are a good federal investment, first of all. But, secondly, given the same kind of self-determination that other communities have, Indian country can rise to the challenge, and that we have resiliency. We have made decisions. There is tribes that have progressed, like his very own tribe, the Chickasaw Nation, and have really grown in being an economic boon in their community. They have a lot of jobs in their communities. They have a lot of businesses in their communities. They make a difference in their region.

And we still have, though, in Indian country, those severe challenges. And so...

MARTIN: Well, for example, the poverty rate in Indian country, overall - and, you know, recognizing again that there's tremendous diversity. There are more than, what, 500, you know, recognized...

PATA: Five hundred and sixty-six federally recognized tribes.

MARTIN: Federally recognized tribes. So there's got to be a lot of sort of diversity there. But overall, the poverty rate in Indian country remains higher than the national average - according to the Census Bureau, nearly 30 percent in 2011.

So did President Keel, in his address, offer specific programs or ideas to address that?

PATA: Yes, because he wanted, first of all, sequestration - you know, federal government investment in Indian country through the treaty responsibilities - to be able to make sure that our federal governments continue to operate, our schools can still operate, our health care systems can still operate, our law enforcement officers can still be in place. All of those are critical to having a continuing community that is ready to be able to help grow in their economic environment. So that's a critical framework.

But then he also addressed things such as future prosperity with - dealing with telecommunications, being able to make sure that Indian countries are included as this country grows in its global economic environment, making sure that we're at the table when we talk about important policies, such as immigration. All of those things will affect our communities, as well as other communities.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with Jacqueline Pata. She's the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. Yesterday, that group delivered the State of Indian Nations Address in Washington, D.C.

One of the other issues that's been very much a topic of conversation in Washington is the Violence Against Women Act. The Senate passed a reauthorization. The House has yet to act this. But it turns out that this act is of particular importance to Indian country, and President Keel talked about that in his speech. I just want to play a short clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF INDIAN NATIONS ADDRESS)

KEEL: Today, one in three native women will be raped in her lifetime. Almost four in 10 will be beaten and abused by a domestic partner. The death rate of native women on some reservations is 10 times the national average.

MARTIN: You know, these are some shocking statistics, and President Keel urged the House to pass this, to follow the Senate's lead and to pass this reauthorization. Why is this particular piece of legislation so important to Indian country?

PATA: Well, it's important because the last piece of legislation brought us programs, but it still didn't address the gap. And the gap is being to able to investigate and prosecute non-natives choosing to live in our communities that violate our women and our children.

And what ends up happening is perpetrators in our communities - non-native perpetrators in our communities - can continue to beat and to abuse our women, because our law enforcement officers don't have the authority to do anything about it.

MARTIN: Why aren't non-native legal authorities addressing this problem? You're saying that these are often non-native perpetrators. Is it that there's a jurisdiction problem, that there's nobody in charge, in essence?

PATA: There is a jurisdiction problem, because tribes can only have jurisdiction over their own tribal members, or other tribal members living in their communities. Right now, this act is only about those who choose to live in our communities by having some long-term relationship with a native woman, or work in our communities on a long term basis, but have made that decision that we would be able to take immediate action, to be able to investigate and to be able to prosecute them in our tribal courts.

MARTIN: Along this whole question of borders that we're talking about here, President Keel, in his State of Indian Nations Address, included a reference to immigration. He said tribes have faced immigration for over 500 years, and we know it has its challenges. Now, I assume he was being tongue-in-cheek, but I did want to ask if you feel that Indian country has some specific guidance or insights to offer as this country is now grappling with immigration once again.

PATA: Well, I think not everybody knows that there are 40 tribes who border one border or the other, and many of those tribes have tribal members on both sides of the borders. And so, for example, Tohono O'odham in Arizona, they have members on both sides. And so any imminent immigration policy really makes a difference for us, but also, we are the guardians of those borders, and we also have some of the negative effects of immigration, drug-trafficking coming in, and we have to be able to be, once again, first responders on the ground. So it's important for us to be at the table.

Most importantly, I think, we just want to recognize that, you know, the services and the programs, there needs to be equity - first Americans, and new Americans. We need to be at the table together.

MARTIN: Jacqueline Pata is the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. She's a member of the Raven/Sockeye clan of the Tlingit tribe, and she joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Thank you so much for joining us.

PATA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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