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Tribes welcome greater sovereignty, but say they still have a long way to go

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WASHINGTON – Indian Country made huge strides toward flexing its sovereign authority during President Barack Obama’s first term but it still has a long way to go, the president of the National Congress of American Indians said Thursday.

President Jefferson Keel, in his annual State of Indian Nations address, touted the economic and political strength of Native nations but said further action is needed to assure tribal autonomy.

“Today, more tribes are managing resources instead of managing poverty programs,” Keel said. “I am convinced, now more than ever, that we must protect and strengthen tribal sovereignty.”

But Keel had high praise for Obama, who he said has taken more interest in Native issues than any president before him. The State of Indian Nations address is traditionally given two days after the president’s State of the Union address.

“He made significant commitments to Indian Country when he became president and he’s kept his word,” Keel said. “In President Obama and his administration we have a partner who understands what we’ve always known to be true: That Indian nations are best governed by Indian people.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Clara Pratte, the executive director of the Navajo Nation Washington Office, who was one of several dozen on hand for Keel’s address at the Newseum in Washington. She compared the exercise of sovereignty with a muscle that needs to be flexed from time to time.

Pratte said the Navajo Nation was one of the first tribes to use its own police officers and it has one of the most looked-to tribal courts in the country. But she agreed that more needs to be done.

“The basic right of a sovereign government is to govern,” she said. “Tribal nations aren’t an afterthought – we’re serious about sovereignty, we’re serious about taxation, we’re serious about exercising criminal jurisdiction.”

Keel hailed the recent passage of the Superstorm Sandy relief bill, which gave Native nations the ability to appeal directly to the president for emergency disaster relief.

He also pointed to a United Nations declaration that Native Americans are “entitled to free, prior, and informed consent” on government decisions that affect them.

But those are only partial victories, Keel said. He specifically mentioned the Violence Against Women Act, which passed the Senate this week and is pending in the House. The Senate bill includes language that would give tribes the power to prosecute non-Indians in domestic and sexual violence cases.

Tribal courts already prosecute many Native men for violent crimes against women, Keel said. But when the crime involves a suspect who is not a tribe member, the victims have to go to the federal courts for justice.

“No other government would stand for this violation of sovereignty or continued injustice,” he said. “No other government has to.”

Keel also called for greater tribal involvement in crafting of immigration policies. Almost 40 tribes are located on or near U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada, giving tribal governments jurisdiction over much of the border, Keel said.

“These issues directly impact the lives of our citizens … and tribal nations must be at the table as the federal government considers commonsense immigration reform,” he said.

Keel said he would also like for Native nations to be able to collect and manage their own taxes and to lease lands to energy companies so that they can become more economically independent.

“We are not a special-interest group,” Keel said. “Our nations have been here a long time. We were a people before ‘We the People.’ We signed treaties. We engaged in commerce. We shaped American democracy.”