State of Indian Nations is good, but could be better, speakers say

WASHINGTON — Tribal nations are seeing themselves represented more than ever before in the government, but they still need to make their voices heard more loudly at the ballot box, the president of the National Congress of American Indians said Feb. 12.

NCAI President Mark Macarro’s comments came as part of the annual State of Indian Nations address, that included comments from tribal youth and congressional response from Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska.

Macarro, making his first such address as president, called for more stable health care funding and improved resources for tribal police – but he repeatedly turned to the need for ballot access, mentioning the issue multiple times during a nearly 30-minute address.

He cited the proposed Native American Voting Rights Act, calling it “not just a bill that needs congressional approval, but a tool that empowers our political voice and the Native vote. Macarro pushed Congress for quick action, as he believes Native voters could play a pivotal role in this fall’s elections.

“In 2024, the power of the Native vote has the potential to swing elections and shape history, not just for Native people, but for everyone in the United States,” Macarro said.

The Native American Voting Rights Act, introduced in 2021, would have made polling locations more accessible to Native voters, expanded early in-person voting and created a Native American voting task force that would focus on increasing voter outreach and registration. But the bills died after failing to receive hearings in either the House or Senate.

Peltola, in a videotaped congressional response, called the bill a “badly needed piece of legislation.” But she said it has not been reintroduced in this Congress “because it does not have a Republican co-sponsor,” and its chances of passing without GOP support are low.

Ballot access was just one of the areas where Macarro pushed for congressional action, He urged lawmakers to change the funding formula for the Indian Health Service, saying it is “imperative” that the funding be “mandatory and permanent.”

“Our needs and rights must rise above partisan politics,” Macarro said. “This is a crucial policy that will prevent the loss of Native lives due to political gridlocks and government shutdowns.”

Macarro wasn’t the only speaker to demand that the federal government live up to its obligations to tribes: Caleb Dash, NCAI Youth Commission co-president and a member of the Salt River Pima–Maricopa Indian Community, called for increased funding across the board. He said tribes have been put “at the far end of the table” for too long.

“We must receive more funding from the federal government to support all our nations and efforts to build infrastructure that is vitally needed such as roads, hospitals, gas stations, schools, fire departments and so much more,” Dash said. “As Indigenous people we are neglected by the federal government.”

Dash also called on the federal government to formally apologize for its past wrongdoings.

“We ask the United States government to acknowledge on the record the genocide of our people … as they continued to attack our freedom and our nation and efforts to destroy our ways of life,” he said.

Macarro, however, took time to praise the Biden administration, saying he had set a “powerful precedent” of collaboration. He specifically mentioned an increase in Native representation in the federal government, led by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary.

“Under this presidency there are more Native Americans in the highest levels of government than ever before,” Macarro said. “This representation fosters a deeper understanding of our needs. Substantial efforts have been made to enhance government to government dialogue.”

Despite this, Macarro also called on the administration to push for more and better resources for Native law enforcement, saying “we see over-policing in our urban Indian communities and we see under-policing in our reservation lands.”

“Indian Country occupies 56 million acres of land with a combined force of 3,000 officers,” he said. “A reservation of 1 or 2 million acres is being patrolled by one or two officers. To contrast, the U.S. Capitol complex here in D.C. is 270 acres with more than 2,000 officers.”

Macarro believes that ultimately tribal requests should be met, arguing that most of them are a product of previous errors by state and federal governments.

“Indian Country’s needs are not entitlements. Indian Country’s needs are nonnegotiable, they are imperative and they must be met,” Macarro said.

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