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President Fawn Sharp’s State of Indian Nations Address

By: Max Spivak

On February 10, 2020, in Washington, D.C., Fawn Sharp (Quinault), the 23rd President of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), delivered the State of Indian Nations Address. President Sharp, who is also the current President of the Quinault Indian Nation in Taholah, Washington, is the third woman to be NCAI President and the first to deliver the Address. After a brief welcoming note on behalf of the 574 federally-recognized[1] and dozens of state-recognized tribal nations, President Sharp outlined her duties as the leader of NCAI: (1) “to share Indian Country’s story of perseverance and resurgence with the world”; (2) “to convey with absolute clarity Indian Country’s expectations of the United States government”; and (3) “to cast a light on the immense power and proven wisdom of tribal nations governing their own lands and affairs, solving difficult challenges, and forging brighter futures on their own terms.”

President Sharp named several Quinault matriarchs who led the way and strengthened her journey: Beatrice Black, a well-known basket weaver; Elizabeth Cole, who was, among other leadership roles, the former Director of the Quinault Housing Authority; Hazel Tekie Rosander, a respected elder; Tiny Capoeman; and Ramona Bennett, a former Puyallup Nation Chairwoman and elder.[2]

President Sharp also referenced her strength as drawn from the Creator; from the advice of fellow tribal leaders; from “spiritual nourishment and life lessons of the Canoe Journeys”; from “the inspiration, passion, and ingenuity of brilliant Native youth;” and from the ancestral teachings of elders. She noted that the State of Indian Nations Address is for all Americans, not just tribal leaders and citizens, but especially for those “disenfranchised and rendered hopeless by racial injustice, economic inequality, and the rapid decay of [the] American political system.” To find answers for such grand concerns, President Sharp offered that one shall not look any further than tribal nations. With that, she proclaimed the “undeniable truth [that] the State of Indian Nations is strong!” 

President Sharp then stated that self-governance is the greatest Indigenous core value as it relates to tribal nations’ inalienable right to “steward and draw nourishment from [the] traditional homelands”; “cultivate the extraordinary potential of [the] youth”; “develop thriving economies that provide opportunity for all of [the] people”; and “manage [their] own affairs and control [their] own destinies.” President Sharp noted that many Americans and many policymakers do not understand tribal nations’ unique political status and rights, but that with mechanisms like the State of Indian Nations Address, more Americans can learn the truth about Indian Country and turn to tribal nations for inspiration, direction, and solutions to common challenges. 

President Sharp invoked the ideas and practices of tribal sovereignty and self-determination. She highlighted that the threats to such principles come from “every branch and every corner of the federal and state governments.” She said that the threats “stem from an ignorance—or hostility toward—the unique political status of tribal nations as a vital part of the original American family of governments, and the federal government’s everlasting trust and treaty obligations to tribal nations.”

President Sharp highlighted positive developments including the “Esther Martinez Native American Languages Program Reauthorization Act and the FUTURE Act which permanently extends mandatory funding for tribal colleges, universities, and related academic institutions.” But, she continued, there are major difficulties still facing Native communities, like the gaps in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) wherein Congress refuses “to expand tribal authority to administer justice for victims of sexual violence, child abuse, stalking, and human trafficking . . .” Moreover, she referenced “the current Administration’s wanton interference with tribal nations’ right to restore [their] traditional homelands, which has created an arbitrary system of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ among tribal nations seeking to place land into trust.” She discussed the assaults on the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) by special interest groups and a recent federal court ruling placing the “vital law in real jeopardy.” President Sharp called the competition among tribal nations for federal grant programs “a gross violation of the federal government’s trust and treaty responsibilities,” and expressed disappointment that despite years of NCAI efforts, “Congress left Indian Country completely out of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.” 

President Sharp laid out four more instances of Congress’ failure to pass legislation: that (1) “reaffirms the inherent right of tribal governments to regulate labor”; (2) “permanently reauthorize[s] the remarkably effective Special Diabetes Program for Indians”; (3) reauthorizes the Native American Housing and Self Determination Act to curb Indian Country’s severe housing shortages”; and (4) “takes long-overdue steps to curtail the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women epidemic that is ravaging so many [Native] communities and families.” 

Near the end of her comprehensive review, President Sharp posited that the “rapidly accelerating impacts of climate change” are the most destructive outcomes of the Trump Administration and Congress’ failure to act. Importantly, however, President Sharp ensured that her address did not end a negative note, and she listed several innovations and accomplishments from around Indian Country: the Pueblo of Isleta’s partnership with New Mexico to reduce arrest and incarceration rates among Pueblo youth; the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma’s “Miami Awakening” program which “is bringing back the tribe’s language from the brink of extinction”; and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe of Idaho’s “Education Pipeline” approach “which has dramatically decreased the Tribe’s high school dropout rate and increased the percentage of tribal members pursuing college degrees.” 

If only the federal government would hold up their end of the agreements with tribal nations, President Sharp lamented. As such, she, on behalf of Indian Country, issued “a new standard of accountability to the federal government to uphold tribal sovereignty and treaty rights in all of the ways for which it has been—and always will be—legally and morally responsible.” She called for truth and reconciliation with full acknowledgement of the United States’ past transgressions, tribal governmental parity in every policy decision, and “implementing and not actively impairing legislation that empowers tribal self-determination and self-governance.” Directing such action at the several policymakers at the address, President Sharp offered explicit examples of what living up to such an accountability standard looks like: appropriating funds to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and Indian Health Service (IHS) before delays or disruptions in the Congressional budget process; a federal land policy based on free, prior, and informed consent of tribal governments for projects impacting land, communities, resources, and ceremonies; protecting sacred sites from exploitation and desecration; expanding tribal authority under VAWA to protect Native women; and combatting opposition to ICWA. 

She continued listing routes for accountability by the U.S. government: “fixing the land-into-trust debate by finally passing a clean Carcieri fix”; “recommitting to the Paris Accord and restoring science to its proper place at the heart of its environmental policy”; “empower[ing] the role of tribal nations in domestic and global climate action . . . from the Nuiqsut in Alaska to the Menominee in Wisconsin to the Karuk in California, Indian Country is crafting ingenious approaches rooted in time-honored ecological knowledge that can guide climate action around the world.” Ending the list, President Sharp highlighted the 2020 Census and demanded that the standard of accountability require “a full count of Native people in this year’s Census no matter where they live and how they choose to participate” and protect Native people against voter suppression. Not only are these demands, she declared, these are what’s deserved!

Closing the meaningful address, President Sharp shared a final message for tribal leaders and all Native people across the land: empowerment comes from the care and efforts taken to tell stories of “strife, resilience, agency, ingenuity, and prosperity to all those who listen… Strength comes from thinking and acting in unity regarding the things that matter most.” With unity, Native people “are an unstoppable force capable of overcoming [their] greatest challenges and achieving [their] greatest and unimaginable futures and aspirations.” 

President Sharp’s address was powerful and eloquent. She provided a thorough assessment of current affairs throughout Indian Country, and she discussed various topics for everyone to contemplate—Native and non-Native alike. The State of Indian Nations Address is informative and encouraging. President Sharp’s call to action for lawmakers will hopefully be heeded in upcoming legislative and judicial considerations. A transcript of the State of Indian Nations Address can be found here

Max Spivak is a 2L at the University of New Mexico School of Law. Originally from west Los Angeles (Tongva land), Max’s academic and professional interests include environmental and cultural preservation, peacebuilding, and pro-poor economics. Max has worked with the Southwest Women’s Law Center, DNA–People’s Legal Services, the Department of Defense, and Invariant Group. 


[1] Indian Entities Recognized by and Eligible To Receive Services From the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs, 85 Fed. Reg. 5,462–67 (Jan. 30, 2020) (correcting and changing names, editing the notice’s format, and adding the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Montana to the list as the 574th federally-recognized tribe).

[2] Background information about these matriarchs came from Kevin Abourezk, ‘A tremendous opportunity’: New Leader of National Congress of American Indians focuses on tribal sovereignty, Indianz.com (Nov. 7, 2019), https://www.indianz.com/News/2019/11/07/a-tremendous-opportunity-new-leader-of-n.asp; Frank Hopper, State Attorney General announces free, prior and informed consent policy with Washington Tribes, Indian Country Today (May 21, 2019), https://newsmaven.io/indiancountrytoday/news/state-attorney-general-announces-free-prior-and-informed-consent-policy-with-washington-tribes-tCS6UGajiEuGVf-Z3JVQgQMinding the rules, making them work, The Seattle Times (Dec. 5, 1996), https://special.seattletimes.com/o/news/local/tribalhousing/partfive/quinault.html; U.S. Gov’t Printing Office, 77-465, Report on Tribal Government, Task Force Two: Tribal Government, Final Report to the American Indian Policy Review Commission 157 (1976); Alexandra Harmon, Reclaiming the Reservation: Histories of Indian Sovereignty Suppressed and Renewed 127 (July 12, 2019).

By Tribal Law Journal Blog

The Tribal Law Journal was established in fall 1998 for the purpose of promoting indigenous self-determination by facilitating discussion of the internal law of the world’s indigenous nations. The internal law of indigenous nations encompasses traditional law, western law adopted by indigenous nations, and a blend of western and indigenous law. Underscoring this purpose is the recognition that traditional law is a source of law.

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