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NCAI president: ‘Doors once closed are starting to open’

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) hosted its annual “State of Indian Nations” address Feb. 14. The virtual event featured remarks by the organization’s president, Fawn Sharp (Quinault), and was opened for the first time by the co-presidents of its youth commission – Jessica Lambert (Choctaw Nation/Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians) and Simon Friday (Organized Village of Kake).

Lambert and Friday spoke about issues they said are important to tribal youth – the need for education reform in American schools; more resources and Indigenous knowledge to combat climate change; and a greater focus on mental health challenges and suicide prevention.

Sharp, who has been president since 2019, gave her remarks as the Covid-19 pandemic enters its second year – a pandemic that has disproportionately hit Indian Country in infection rates and deaths.

Fawn Sharp is president of NCAI. (Image via NCAI)

“The strain on our communities, our people and our leadership, has kept us physically apart – when our power as [Tribal] Nations comes from gathering together – and precisely at the time we need that connection the most,” Sharp said.

Sharp noted that since the start of the pandemic, the Indian Health Service (IHS) received more than $6 billion to combat it. Many tribal communities have since reported vaccination rates that are higher than the general public.

The IHS investment is part of more than $45 billion that has been committed to Indian Country through recent federal economic relief packages – including $13 billion in new infrastructure bill. The access to such a level of funding has never been seen before among the nation’s 574 federally recognized tribes.

“The inclusion of Tribal Nations in the political and public discourse over the past year has never been higher – and it’s the decades of collective advocacy, education and outreach that have set the stage for the moment we are now in,” Sharp said.

That moment, Sharp said, includes more tribal consultation and a historic number of Native Americans appointed to positions in the Biden administration – six so far. The most historic appointment has been that of Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo). Haaland has been credited raising the bar in a variety of ways on how the federal government should be working with tribes.

“Doors that were once closed are starting to open,” Sharp said. “Doors that we open have become more welcoming in ways that neither we nor our ancestors have ever witnessed.”

Sharp said the work continues in 2022, including to bridge Indian Country’s digital divide – a lack of broadband access among many tribes – and the continuation of ending the era of offensive Native American mascots and names.

Legislation important to NCAI this year includes the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and passage of the Native American Voting Rights Act (NAVRA). Two other bills currently moving through Congress include the Urban Indian Health Confer Act, which would provide advanced appropriations for IHS; and the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policy Act, which would establish a formal commission to investigate and document past assimilation practices.

“We’ve seen many promises fulfilled over the last year; we have seen strides where once there were baby steps … If this year has shown us anything for certain, it’s that it’s never too late to mend broken promises,” Sharp said.

To watch the entire address, click here.

Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at