On the grounds of the U.S. Capitol in Washington Wednesday, and just a day after the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall, Native American leaders called on members of Congress to address the urgent issues facing Native American people. The rally was organized by the Native American Indian Congress, the largest and oldest Native American organization and brought together tribal leaders, and state and federal elected officials. The health crisis affecting American Indians topped their agenda.
Native Americans are plagued with the highest rates of Type 2 diabetes in the world, a mortality rate from alcohol that is more than five times greater than the general population's and a suicide rate that is almost twice as high.
Laws and treaties with Indian tribes require the U.S. government to provide health care to Native Americans.
On this day, committees in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate would discuss reauthorization of the 1992 Indian Health Care Improvement Act.
Native Americans called on Congress not only to commit the funds, but to update the bill to reflect changing Indian health needs. U.S. Senators and Congressmen stepped up to the microphone to urge support for the legislation. Jay Inslee, a Democrat from Washington State, also urged the tens of thousands of Native Americans in Washington this week to take a single message back home.
"The message I hope you take home to your communities is we now have a history of Native Americans on the mall, but now we need your future in the Capitol," he said. "And we need you this November to demonstrate a future to make sure that this Capitol hears your voices loudly in the ballot box."
Tex Hall, President of the National Congress of American Indians, echoed that message. He said the U.S. government must comply with its treaty obligations. And he said Native Americans need to take the political energy on display in Washington this week and build on it.
"Take those numbers that this city has never seen before and take it here," said Mr. Hall. "Take it to the [Capitol] Hill to make sure the Indian Health Care Improvement Act gets passed. That it gets re-authorized. Four years have passed and we haven't re-authorized the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. We need that done. Transportation, welfare assistance, all of the legislation that is pending, we need to get those things passed. We need your voices. Our power is in our unity. Our power is in all of us from all over the United States of America to join together to make that happen."
Haunani Apoliona represents native Hawaiians for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. She is also a leader in the movement to seek federal recognition of native Hawaiians. "The road is not easy," she said. "The journey is long. But we as Hawaiian people are ready. We want to thank you for that support, spiritually, politically and to our families. The native voice counts. Every voice we have counts. And every voice means every vote. So, we will do our share in Hawaii. Let's do our share across the nation."
For the Native Americans gathered at this rally on Capitol Hill, unity was a dominant theme. One impassioned Native American from Southern California told the crowd that the Native vote is a "powerful weapon carried on modern quivers." Our future, he said, "depends on whether we shoot carefully."