Building a strong, respected voice for indigenous peoples

This article is comprised of excerpts from a keynote address to the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples by Jacqueline Pata, Executive Director, National Congress of American Indians on June 7, 2011.

pdf The Full Speach Transcript pdf

Jacqueline Pata Online Opinion 24 June 2011


The National Congress of American Indians was founded in 1944 and is the oldest, largest and most representative Native organization in the United States. We are a membership organization that represents the broad interests of tribal governments throughout the country.

For 67 years, we have been working to inform the public and US Congress about the governmental rights of American Indians and Alaska Natives and the ability of tribes to exercise their sovereignty and engage in their own governmental policymaking.

Now I'm told the word "sovereignty" might be scary here in Australia. But when it comes down to it, sovereignty is really something we all aspire to each day - it's something we learn to exercise ourselves. We teach our kids to exercise sovereignty. We want them to grow up and to develop the capacity to responsibly, and effectively, make and enforce their own decisions. And for Indigenous nations, that's what sovereignty is - the ability of our communities to make and enforce our own decisions.

So I'll use the term "sovereignty" throughout my remarks today, but remember there are many paths to sovereignty. We have treaties in the United States, you don't. But that doesn't mean Indigenous communities can't make and enforce their own decisions. It is likely that many of you come from communities that are already exercising sovereignty, you just might not use that term to describe it.


From our founding in 1944, NCAI has stressed the need for unity and cooperation among tribal governments for the protection of their treaty and sovereign rights, and this national movement to halt termination succeeded.

The federal government was involved in starting NCAI but within two years the organization was led exclusively by tribal leaders. Our founders gave themselves the distance that was necessary to effectively advocate for tribes and work with our partners in the federal government.

Throughout our history there have been many who have doubted our ability to continue our important advocacy work, but generation after generation of Indian leaders have embraced the task of building a national, representative body to advance the priorities of Native people. Even when the tasks looked enormous, tribal leaders knew this work was too important. Failure has never been an option.


NCAI is guided by a national board of tribal leaders representing all regions of the country. NCAI's members - tribal governments - determine the policy agenda that the staff of NCAI work on each day. They provide this direction by formal resolutions and through informed, deliberative processes at three annual meetings and other events throughout the year.

Our three meetings serve as a gathering place for Indian Country. Our largest meeting each year, Annual Convention, is held at central locations within Indian Country on a rotating basis. As many as 3,000 tribal leaders join us at this meeting. It is our primary policymaking conference: tribal leaders meet in regional caucuses each day; they convene in 5 committees and 16 subcommittees to consider resolutions which are then debated and passed by the General Assembly of the conference. Every two years, we hold our elections at Annual Convention to determine our executive officers.

We also hold a Mid Year Conference at a location in Indian Country, with over 1,000 tribal leaders joining us; and, our Executive Council Winter Session hosts up to 800 tribal leaders at a meeting focused on legislative issues and held in Washington, DC.

Each meeting includes our Youth Commission, specifically designed to prepare the next generation for their important leadership roles for Indian Country in the coming years.

Our International Work

Our work in the international arena has grown substantially in the past few years. Some of that is explained by our newly opened Embassy of Tribal Nations.

We opened the Embassy in 2009. It grew from a long-time vision of NCAI's elected leaders who expressed a desire to establish a permanent homebase for tribal leaders in Washington, DC that emphasises, in the very name of our space, the importance of the nation-to-nation relationship between tribes and the federal government.

The importance of international collaboration was highlighted in December 2010 when President Obama announced the US decision to support the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. We look forward to working with the National Congress to utilise international agreements like the Declaration to hold our governments accountable, even when they are not supportive of our policy goals.


I hope you'll take two primary lessons away from my remarks this morning:

First, Institutions launched at difficult times can and do succeed.

NCAI was founded in a context where Native people were under attack from many sides. In the shadow of the termination era where the federal government was taking a unilateral approach to Native policy, our founders realised, perhaps for the first time, that there are some things that we as Native nations can only do together

I know that this is a difficult time in Australia. There are exciting opportunities but daunting challenges, and even some doubts about this institution itself.

Let me be very clear. A voice for Indigenous peoples is not an optional extra. A strong institution that can unify Indigenous communities and hold governments accountable is a critical component of meaningful self-determination.

So while some might see problems, I see the promise that has been proven by the almost 70 year history of the National Congress of American Indians. Like us, your National Congress can survive, thrive and have a meaningful impact at the local, national, and international level.

Second, Indigenous communities can be successful when we're in charge.

Tribes have proven our capacity to govern our communities more effectively than the federal government. It's time for governments - in Australia, the United States, and around the world - to work with Indigenous communities through meaningful consultation, define policy parameters, and empower those communities to manage and deliver services in ways that meet their needs.

Let's be clear - free, prior and informed consent is what we mean when we say consultation. It's not just a chat over a cup of tea once decisions have already been made in Washington or Canberra.

It can sometimes be easy to lose sight of the fact that governance - Indigenous institutions that are credible and strong voices for our people - is at the very foundation of other goals we share. Do you want to improve education outcomes? We need Indigenous people in charge. Do you want better public safety? We need Indigenous cops on the beat and Indigenous caseworkers working with our families.

Thank you again for the privilege to speak at this historic meeting. I look forward to a deepening partnership with the National Congress and trust the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples will take the steps necessary to become the strong and respected voice for Indigenous peoples that Australia's first peoples have been waiting for. We look forward to supporting you on this important journey.