State of Indian Nations
National Congress of American Indians President Fawn Sharp delivers the annual State of Indian Nations address Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. (Photo courtesy National Congress of American Indians)

WASHINGTON – The state of Indian nations is strong, but the federal government still needs to “come to terms with the right of tribal nations to chart their own course and their rightful place,” National Congress of American Indians President Fawn Sharp said Monday in the 19th annual State of Indian Nations address on Monday.

In wide-ranging remarks, Sharp pointed to long-running problems of disrespect for tribal sovereignty and of missing and murdered Indigenous women, in addition to new challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sharp said the federal response to the pandemic on tribal lands has been a problem. She criticized what she called the bungled coordination of state and Indian health departments, saying tribes need a “single federal office and point of contact” for vaccine help.

She said COVID-19 has hit Indigenous communities particularly hard and the federal government “simply must do better.”

“Tribal nations should also be able to obtain COVID-19 vaccine supply from both the Indian Health Service and the states, not one or the other,” Sharp said.

In the congressional response, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) acknowledged the challenges faced by Native Americans but also pointed to recent successes, including the passage of Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act. Those laws aim to strengthen the federal response to violence against Native Americans, particularly Indigenous women.

“Unfortunately, too many missing or murdered indigenous women have never received justice or resolution,” Murkowski said. “I agree with what tribal leaders have said that the MMIW crisis spans multiple policy domains, jurisdictions and regions. And so, the response must be multi-pronged.”

Optimism about Biden administration

Sharp acknowledged hopeful signs in the early days of the Biden administration. Those have included a presidential memo directing federal agencies to increase consultation with tribes and the nomination of Rep. Deb Haaland, (D-N.M.), to be the next secretary of Interior.

Sharp hailed Biden’s “historic nomination” of Congresswoman Deb Haaland as the first Native person to lead the Department of Interior, which impacts the daily lives of Native people more than any other federal department.

Haaland, an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna and a 35th-generation New Mexican, according to Sharp, has a “centuries-old connection to and reverence” for the land that would serve her well as secretary. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a confirmation hearing for Haaland Tuesday.

Sharp also welcomed the Biden administration’s decision to rejoin the Paris Climate Accords. She said that in the past four years the United States has been derelict in its duty to act on climate change and was relieved about Biden’s decision to reverse the Trump administration’s approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline through tribal lands.

‘We have the right as Sovereign Nations to say yes or no’

But Sharp also added that tribal governments “demand and deserve” to be treated as sovereign nations when the federal government is weighing projects that affect tribal communities, specifically citing a proposed copper mine at Oak Flat in southeastern Arizona.

“We demand and deserve a standard in which we come together as equal governmental partners working hand-in-hand to develop the laws and policies that advance the federal government’s trust and treaty obligations, or otherwise impact tribal nations and our citizens,” Sharp said.

“We have the right as Sovereign Nations to say yes or no and that right must be respected,” she added.

While Biden had ordered increased consultation with tribal governments, Sharp said that’s just a first step. She said the order must give tribes the power to consent to construction and other activities being done on Native lands.

“If the United States is truly committed to embracing our shared future with courage, it must formally acknowledge and reckon with the wrenching pain its failures continue to cause our tribal Nations and communities,” Sharp said.

(Editor’s note: This story was produced by Cronkite News, a reporting service of the Arizona State University Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, which is in a reporting partnership with Gaylord News from the University of Oklahoma.)