This post is the first in Northwest Area Foundation’s (NWAF) Giving Voice series. The content originally appeared on the NWAF website and has been re-posted here with their permission.
By Kevin Walker
President and CEO
Northwest Area Foundation
“Call us Invisible Americans.”
That’s what Darrell Robes Kipp, a Northwest Area Foundation board member, says when people ask him for help with terminology. Is the right term for his people “American Indians,” “Native Americans,” “First Nations,” or what? “Call us Invisible Americans,” he likes to reply, because Native people are so often absent from official statistics and from the national discourse.
The Obama White House has hosted annual Tribal Nations Conferences at which he meets on a government-to-government basis with the leaders of the 566 federally recognized Tribes. He has expressed hope that his presidency will be a “turning point…when we began to build a strong middle class in Indian Country,” and his first-term accomplishments were historic. Among the highlights were two landmark legal settlements. The $3.4 billion settlement in Cobell vs. Salazar brought resolution to a 14-year legal battle based on decades of U.S. government mismanagement of Native trust funds. The $760 million settlement in the case of Keepseagle vs. Vilsack brought a degree of closure to generations of discrimination against Native farmers and ranchers by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
It is also noteworthy that the Boys and Girls Club of the Northern Cheyenne Nation in Montana received a Promise Neighborhoods planning grant through the Department of Education, and several reservation communities have been funded through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Sustainable Communities program. In a speech in December, the President specifically singled out our colleague Nick Tilsen of Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota as an example of the dynamism of Indian Country. These are exciting developments.
So – Invisible no more? Let’s not claim victory just yet. There are negatives as well. As crime rates on reservations have surged, federal spending on law enforcement in Indian Country has declined. And of course, crime is not the only scourge afflicting reservation communities. Deep poverty is often a fact of life. Of the 20 poorest counties in the United States, 10 – and four of the poorest five – include Indian reservations. In urban areas, the Native population is often the poorest and most challenged demographic group. Every on-ramp to prosperity in this country – public safety, quality education, decent housing, job opportunities, and mainstream financial services – remains unjustly difficult for Native people to access.
The President knows these things, and his first term indicates he’s interested in fostering real change. In fact, the record suggests the Obama administration shares the Northwest Area Foundation’s view that the future of Indian Country is not a problem to be solved, but an opportunity to be nurtured. When we look to Indian Country, we see:
• Thousands of Native professionals who are now teachers, bankers, construction workers, and lawyers, as well as doctors and nurses in urban and rural communities.
• Native Americans serving in our armed forces at the highest per capita rate of any population group in the country.
• A generation of young people whose talent waiting to be unleashed.
• Natural resources that could be developed in sustainable ways to strengthen reservation communities.
• Underdeveloped economies that can blossom if new opportunity structures can be created.
These profound assets are also part of the story of Indian Country. Those of us dedicated to advancing prosperity in Native America have an obligation to leverage this administration’s good intentions and make the next four years count. In that spirit, I’ve spent some time in the run-up to Inauguration Day asking Native friends and colleagues what they would like to see from the second Obama administration. Here’s some of what I heard:
Kevin Killer is a young leader from the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. He runs the Native Youth Leadership Alliance (NYLA) and serves in the South Dakota legislature. Kevin writes, “I am hopeful President Obama’s administration will increase funding tribal colleges, specifically towards workforce and eco-energy programs. Tribal colleges are already leading in eco-innovation such as clean energy in the Dakotas and natural resource management in the Northwest. A great example of this is 24-year old Salish Kootenai College student and NYLA Fellow Burdette Birdinground, who helped create a portable kiln to utilize wood waste (slash piles) by converting it into biochar which is also a great soil fertilizer. These new and emerging fields have the potential to revitalize as well as build rural and reservation economies into world-class research areas. Native communities in the U.S. have the longest histories with the natural resources in our country. Investing in young leaders at tribal colleges will ensure this cultural capital is preserved and carried forward in this new economy.”
Cheryl Crazy Bull, president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund, also stresses the vital importance of tribal colleges, but she places support for these institutions within a broader context of lifelong educational opportunity. Dr. Crazy Bull lists three priorities: “1.) Adequate programming support for innovative and sustained approaches to early childhood and primary school-age children’s health, literacy, and education – I am deeply alarmed at the extent to which our youngest citizens are not receiving the type of loving care and support that is so much a part of the traditional family life that our people had. We knew that to prepare our youngest children to thrive and prosper meant caring for their physical, emotional and spiritual health. 2.) Adolescent programming that focuses on transitioning young people from childhood into young adulthood – the Lakota had four stages of life – infancy, youth, young adulthood and old age. We had deliberate approaches to teaching our youth how to be good adults and much of that has been lost. 3.) Education funding that ensures access to secondary and post-secondary education for all – we still don’t have adequate resources to fully fund students to pursue their educations. Plus for the tribal colleges inadequate operational support threatens our continued operations.”
Nichole Maher is president and CEO of the Northwest Health Foundation. She became a good friend and trusted partner of the Northwest Area Foundation during her years as executive director of NAYA, the Native Youth and Family Center in Portland, Oregon. Nichole points out, “We have not seen any significant gains for Indian Country around poverty or educational indicators for several decades. This administration has the unique chance to reframe Native issues as an opportunity to create better outcomes for the United States and to view our children and communities as an opportunity.” She also notes with enthusiasm that at the most recent White House Tribal Nations Conference, the President acknowledged that the Federal government must pay attention to Native people on and off the reservation. “This is significant,” Nichole says “because it recognizes the changing demographics of Indian Country and the reality that if we want to improve overall outcomes for Native people, then we must have comprehensive strategies that support on and off reservation Native communities. With more than half of Native Americans now living in urban communities, this is exciting and timely.”
I would add one more thought to this list. Like many Americans, I hope and expect that comprehensive immigration reform will be enacted on President Obama’s watch. As he uses the power of his office to advance that urgent priority, I would like to hear messaging from the White House that goes beyond the cliché that “we are a nation of immigrants.” In truth, we are a nation where immigrants have, from the beginning, interacted with indigenous Tribal nations. There were millions of people here when the first European settlers arrived – and there remain millions of Native people in urban, rural and reservation communities all over the continent. Their ongoing struggle for self-determination and prosperity is central to the American experience, as are the aspirations and contributions of immigrants. The President should pursue a better policy framework for the newest Americans while also – deliberately and explicitly – expanding opportunities for Native Americans as well.
Those are big ideas – and they should be. After all, as Lyndon Johnson famously said, “What the hell is the Presidency for?” The question before us is whether a leader to whom Native people are not invisible can work with them to make real progress. Barack Obama has the opportunity to be remembered as the man who resoundingly affirmed, “Yes we can!” – and then expanded access to opportunities for all Americans, including those who should be invisible no more.