Tester delivers the State of Indian Nations Congressional response

On Thursday, January 30, Senator Tester delivered the Congressional response to the National Congress of American Indians ‘State of Indian Nations’ address:

“Thank you for inviting me here today. It’s an honor to give the Congressional response.

Living in Montana, you’re never too far from Indian Country. But I live closer than most. Right down the road from my farm in Big Sandy is the Rocky Boys Reservation, home to about 3,500 members of the Chippewa-Cree Tribe.

I grew up playing sports against my Native American neighbors. I later worked with them in the Montana Senate, where I became acutely aware of the challenges in Indian Country.

And I proudly represent Indian Country in the United States Senate today.

Before I go further, I want to thank Native Americans for serving in our military at such high levels. Native Americans serve in our nation’s military at a higher rate than any other ethnic group, and for that – among many other reasons – you have my ever-lasting respect.

Standing up for Indian Country is a responsibility I never take lightly. That’s because, as President Cladoosby said, Indian Country is vibrant and dynamic. But it also has many challenges.

Challenges that present opportunities.

Opportunities to empower tribes. To improve the quality of life across Indian Country. And to build a foundation that will strengthen Indian Country for our kids and grandkids.

President Cladoosby is pushing to empower tribes to make their own decisions and to form a real partnership that helps tribes reach their full potential.

I couldn’t agree more. If you’ve heard me speak before, you know I like to share the wisdom of my old friend, the late Carl Venne. Carl was the Chairman of Montana’s Crow Tribe.

Carl said, “We’re a proud people. I don’t want to ask you for money. I simply want you to give me the tools I need to succeed, and then get out of the way.”

That’s what I heard today. Self-determination and local control is good for everyone. Empowering tribes is good for tribes, good for tribal members, and good for our nation-to-nation relationship.

I firmly believe that we must work with Indian Country in order to best support Indian Country. Dictating policy from Washington doesn’t work. Neither does layer upon layer of burdensome regulations or overlapping jurisdictions.

Folks in government use the phrase “streamline” far too often. But in Indian Country, streamlining is exactly what we need. Whether it’s education, health care, housing, or energy – red tape is impeding needed progress.

Progress that will give each of us – but especially our kids and grandkids – more opportunities to succeed. It will tell them that if they work hard and follow the right path, they will see the results and live healthier and more satisfying lives.

As a former teacher, I know that a good education can lead to a successful life.

But you don’t have to be a teacher to understand the far-reaching benefits of a good education. That includes early childhood education, elementary and secondary school, and a meaningful college degree.

Education is the foundation for sound life choices that increase economic security and help us climb the ladder of success.

It teaches us the basic skills we need to run a business or to serve our community.

It helps us weigh two choices and choose the smarter path.

But education’s greatest value is how it expands our worldview and prepares us to take on the challenges we face every day.

I will continue to seek more ways to improve tribal schools and tribal colleges. The recent cuts to Native schools from the overall budget and the sequester should never have happened. Because when we don’t invest in our kids, they can’t invest in their futures.

We’ve failed to live up to our trust responsibilities. We’ve failed to give our kids the tools they need to succeed.

That failure recently extended to Native health care. October’s disastrous government shutdown forced tribal health officials to scramble to treat patients. That’s unacceptable – and it can’t happen again.

That’s why I’ve introduced bipartisan legislation to fund IHS a year ahead of time. My bill will let the IHS plan for the future and avoid last-minute budget cuts like those caused by sequestration.

Health care should not be subject to the last-minute whims of politicians.

And when it comes to health care, I also encourage all of you to keep learning about the Affordable Care Act.

This law takes an important step forward by permanently reauthorizing the Indian Healthcare Improvement Act. Its biggest plus for Indian Country, however, may be how it encourages folks to get preventative care.

By encouraging regular check-ups, more tribal members will stay out of emergency rooms, where care is far more expensive. It will also keep families healthier, improving their quality of life and letting them focus on their job, or their education.

The law also helps tribal health programs stretch their dollars even further with increased access to third-party billing.

This sort of innovation has let tribes like the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes on the Flathead Reservation leverage third-party billing to build a state-of-the-art health care facility.

When this new facility opens this summer, it will serve their people with the pride and dignity they deserve, and it was completely funded by revenues from third-party billing.

We need more victories for Indian Country.

Victories like this year’s reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act that will better protect Native American women.

And victories like reform of the Stafford Act to allow tribes to work directly with FEMA to declare disasters.

The Stafford Act reform represents the kind of nation-to-nation partnership you expect.

You are resilient and will always fight the good fight. But that’s the rub: you shouldn’t have to.

The federal government must treat tribes as trusted allies and honor the contracts and treaties we agreed to. It must live up to its trust responsibilities, but then step aside and let tribes take the reins and determine your fate.

And as the government lives up to its trust responsibilities, we must make sure tribes live up to the responsibilities entrusted in them.

Doing so will empower the next generation of Indian leaders, and I will do my part.

I will continue to work to make sure a Native child can get a good education.

To make sure families are safe, have access to basic services, and can find good jobs.

And to remove the red tape that too often blocks job creation, responsible energy development and prevents you from deciding your own destiny.

We won’t get it done tomorrow, but working together we will strengthen and improve the quality of life in Indian Country.

I know we’ll get it done because I see hope and opportunity every time I visit Montana’s Indian Country.

Whether I’m walking in the shadows of Glacier National Park at Blackfeet, inspecting a water project at Fort Peck, or visiting Carl Venne’s old stomping grounds in Crow, I meet with men, women and children all fighting for their communities.

They don’t have it easy. They have lots of barriers to overcome. But they’re not making excuses.

They’re fighting to overcome those barriers. To make a difference for their communities. And to leave a legacy for our future generations.

I’m proud to fight the good fight with you. I’ll keep pushing common-sense legislation that empowers Indian Country and honors our commitment – and our partnership – to you.

Thank you very much. It’s an honor to visit with you.”