Washington • The federal tax overhaul passed in December is "completely unacceptable" to Native Americans, just another example of what can happen when tribes are not included in federal decision-making, a tribal leader said Monday.
National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel said in the annual State of Indian Nations address that the government-to-government relationship between tribes and Washington is even more important now, as the federal government pushes more control toward the states.
"Congress is thinking about shifting more authority and more funding to the states on the theory that states can more efficiently spend their funds — we too believe in local decision making, we've been doing it for thousand of years," Keel said.
"We want to be engaged in all aspects of federal policy, and we have a right to be a huge participant in these matters," he said in his speech.
Despite ongoing problems with relations between governments, Keel said the state of Indian Country is "strong, resilient and everlasting," pointing to benefits that tribes bring to American agriculture and infrastructure, among other areas.
Franklin Pablo Sr., a Gila River Indian Community Council member who attended the address Monday, agreed with Keel that "overall, Indian nations are strong" but that more needs to be done.
"I hope senators and congressmen were listening, because we need that unity — to have a collaboration between tribal and federal sides," Pablo said. The address kicks off four days of NCAI meetings, which Pablo called "a place where we come to make things stronger, for all Indian to address some of these issues."
The issues range from tax reform to domestic violence, from rural broadband to farm policy, Keel said.
He cited statistics that show tribal agriculture is a $3.2 billion industry that supports nearly 72,000 jobs, an industry that could be "significantly damaged" should farm and infrastructure bills pass without consulting with Indian Country.
"In Arizona, Native businesses generate hundreds of millions of tax dollars and pay $1.9 billion in wages to thousands of both Native and non-Native employees," said Keel, who identified the state as one of many whose "tribes who serve as economic engines across this country."
"Native businesses don't pull up stakes, even when market conditions change. We root our businesses in our local communities — for good," he said. "You want to 'buy American'? Then do business with Indian Country."
Keel said that tribal concerns were "completely absent" in the tax overhaul passed in December. As a result, the bill gave tax benefits and tax-exempt bonds to state and local governments that he said leave tribal government at a disadvantage.
"This inequity significantly handicaps tribal authority to provide much-needed government revenue for tribal programs and infrastructure and prevents economic growth on tribal lands," Keel said. "Tax reform is a unique opportunity for Congress to promote tribal sovereignty, self-determination and self-sufficiency."
Keel said the federal-tribal relationship must "always be maintained and respected," arguing that state interference only limits tribal governance.
"It's time to respect our unique political status as real nations with capable governments, as enshrined in real treaties and the Constitution of the United States," Keel said.
Rory Wheeler, a representative for Mesa-based United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY), said tribes need a voice because they face many of the same problems as other Americans.
"As an emergency medical technician for my tribe, something I have noticed more and more in youth is the disastrous effects of the opioid epidemic," said Wheeler, a member of the Seneca tribe. "While I am based in New York, the opioid crisis is a problem I have heard effects almost all tribes — even those based across the country, like Arizona."
Wheeler said tribal sovereignty is important — and it's important for the next generation to continue the fight.
"What a lot of Indian youth need right now is motivation and a sense of identity," he said. "When the federal government recognizes us as sovereign nations who have a legitimate voice in what happens in our lands, the youth began to feel like they can actually have a voice in those lands too."
Keel said tribes are not asking for special treatment.
"All we want is a level playing field," Keel said. "We have inherent rights. Not only were we born with them — we have earned them. The right to be recognized as equal governments. The right to be seated at the table where key decisions are made."