Maria Cantwell

National Conference of American Indians - Nov. 26, 2001

Maria Cantwell
November 26, 2001
National Conference of American Indians
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Thank you to the Veterans who are here today, for their courageous service to our nation. I am pleased to be here today with so many friends, and am honored to have been invited here to speak before the National Congress of American Indians.

I also want to welcome you to my home state of Washington, home to 28 tribes who have provided leadership throughout the northwest and North America on issues important to Native Americans.

The last time an NCAI annual session was held in the Northwest was 1981, and this is a good time to remember some of those great voices from the past and the present who have made their mark on the individuals and the tribes represented in this room, the citizens of this country, and people around the world: voices like Mel Tonasket of the Colville, Joe DeLaCruz of the Quinault, and Billy Frank, Jr. of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

The theme of this year's conference is "Reflecting Our Traditions in a Contemporary World" and I can't think of a better venue for such a topic than the city of Spokane, home to the Spokane Falls. Our State motto "Alki" means bye and bye and looks to the hope of the future, that's why we are here today to talk about that future.

The Falls are rich with Native American history and tradition and have long been a central gathering spot for American Indians, drawing tribes together from throughout the Northwest for trade, fishing, and social activity.

At the same time, Spokane is also in a region that is at the forefront of the most advanced technological innovations of the modern era. This spot literally embodies the intersection of American Indian traditions and the contemporary world.

In the rich tradition of the Falls, the NCAI is gathering here today, with more than 250 tribes to talk about important economic, cultural, and political issues.

This is my first opportunity to meet with such a broad cross-section of American Indians since my recent appointment to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, and I feel particularly fortunate to be here today as a member of a committee with such great colleagues as Sen. Dan Inouye and Ben Nighthorse Campbell - who have led the fight in the Senate for Native Americans.

As you know, Senator Inouye is now Chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and has been an advocate for Native Americans in Congress since 1959, when he became the first U.S. Representative from Hawaii and the first American of Japanese descent ever elected to Congress.

Senator Campbell, now Vice Chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, became the first American Indian ever to chair the committee. He is 1 of 44 Chiefs of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, and is currently the only American Indian in the U.S. Senate.

We are blessed to have such eloquent voices in the Senate, and I consider myself very lucky to have such great men as friends and colleagues in the Senate.

NCAI has a broad agenda that it has advocated before Congress, including a host of critical issues for Native Americans. On health care for example, NCAI has spoken eloquently about the needs of American Indians and about equal access to health care.

In 1999, per capita health spending for the Indian Health Service population was $1,351 compared to $3,808 for the U.S. citizen at large, and the fact is that the population served by IHS has a higher incidence of illness and premature mortality than rest of the U.S. population.

The fact is, there is a federal responsibility to provide health care to American Indians, we must reauthorize the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.

If we are committed to keeping people healthy, we should also be committed to their safety.

According to the Department of Justice, American Indians are more than twice as likely as other Americans to be victims of violent crime.

Although we must also address the roots of crime, enforcement also has an important role to play. In the past, I have called for increased federal focus and commitment to dealing with this problem, and will keep the heat on the Department of Justice until it takes concrete action. With federal support and improved cooperation among tribal, state, and local governments, we can make a serious dent in crime rates.

If we are committed to health and safety, we also should provide education and economic opportunity.

We are falling behind on some of the basic education infrastructure services for American Indians. The Bureau of Indian Affairs currently estimates the backlog in education facility repairs at $942 million. That is just unacceptable.

Per student funding at tribal colleges is roughly one-half that for non-tribal community colleges. I am working with my colleagues to provide an additional $3.5 million funding for tribal colleges ' basic science laboratories and computer equipment resources to help bridge this gap.

We are beginning to make progress. Earlier this year, the Senate passed legislation I submitted with Senator Enzi from Wyoming, which provides federal technology grants to schools - including BIA schools - to acquire resources, train teachers and develop curriculum.

These technology grants will help link schools with high speed Internet connections and bring interactive education to all students and helps students learn and retain move information. I passionately believe that widespread access to the broadband Internet is an essential component of providing educational and economic opportunity.

Good economic policy must include providing Indian Country Broadband access. The importance of expanding broadband access to progressive education and economic policy is illustrated by what I think is one of the most amazing aspects of American Indian culture: the Moccasin Telegraph.

The Moccasin Telegraph is a rich tradition. It is truly remarkable to see the transmission of news and information, history and traditions, all by word of mouth, and with incredible speed and accuracy.

Today, there are many web sites and news services that embody the spirit of the Moccasin Telegraph but which use telecommunications as the transmission vehicle.

The Internet represents a New Moccasin communication system which offers hope because in this "Information Age" access to news and information, education and job training opportunities are keys to economic and political empowerment.

But we have tough work ahead of us: Federal Communications Commission data shows that only half of the tribes in the state of Washington have phone connections for more than 80% of their residential households.

The lack of dial tone is an economic problem.

It costs tribal members jobs and opportunity. It limits health care and emergency services. It weakens the education of children. It hinders the creation of sustainable communities and neighborhoods.

The biggest challenge of connecting households and schools to the broadband Internet is literally in the last mile: connecting them with the fiber optic backbone which connects the U.S. from coast to coast, border to border.

We need to make sure the lifeblood of information flows from this main artery to the veins and capillaries of our small towns, reservations, and rural areas.

The health of our economy depends on it.

I promise that I will travel down this road with tribal leaders who are looking for the resources to develop new connections, and together we will build on the tradition of the Moccasin Telegraph.

I also believe we need to work closer together on energy issues.

I believe that just as the Federal government has a responsibility to provide services to American Indians, it also has a responsibility to recognize the importance of tribal governments.

American Indians have a long and proud history, and

I know that the relationship between tribal governments and the United States government is of central importance to all of you.

For example, there are a variety of energy-related issues that need to be addressed. As a member of both of the relevant Senate committees, I think we need a comprehensive Indian energy program at the Department of Energy and its goal should be to drive environmentally friendly economic development. This is of particular importance to tribes here in Washington State, since we are blessed with a wealth of renewable resources, including underdeveloped wind and geothermal resources.

Energy is not the only area where the U.S. Government needs to recognize tribes as governments. Whether we're talking about court decisions and Congressional action on tribal self-government or Land Trust Management, one thing is clear: the United States Government must respect the sovereignty of tribes and has a moral obligation to improve the welfare of Native Americans throughout the nation.

It has been a pleasure to be here last night and this morning with this great group, and as I leave here today, I have tremendous confidence that your voices will tell the story of American Indian history and tradition and your collective strength will ensure your agenda for the contemporary world is accomplished. The measure of a man's character is not only what he gets from his ancestors but what he leaves his descendants.

We need to give our descendants great health care, great education and the right to economic opportunity.

Thank you very much, and have a wonderful conference.