PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – Jefferson Keel, Lt. Governor of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, is the new president of the National Congress of American Indians.
Keel was elected during NCAI’s 66th Annual Convention in Palm Springs the week of Oct. 12. He has served as the organization’s first vice president since 2005.
“I want to congratulate Cedric Black Eagle, chairman of the Crow Nation, for his honorable service. In the middle of this election, there was a great sense of unity among all tribal leaders to advance tribal sovereignty and the welfare of all Indian people. Unity is the only way we will make progress, and I pledge to work together to seize the opportunities that are before all of the tribal nations.”
Keel, a retired U.S. Army officer with more than 20 years of active duty service, earned a bachelor’s degree from East Central University in Ada, Okla. and completed his Master of Science degree at Troy University in Alabama. He has experience in social services and tribal health programs. Keel is in his third elected term as lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation.
Black Eagle, whose Crow name “Shikiak-itche” means “Good Boy,” attended Little Big Horn College. He has worked as a mining cartographer for geologic, hydrologic, and ecologic mining and as a mining engineer; as residential electrician and development coordinator and executive director of the Apsaalooke Nation Housing Authority, and is a certified National Indian Housing Council housing manager.
Black Eagle’s family adopted President Barack Obama during the presidential campaign in the summer of 2008.
A newcomer to NCAI politics, Black Eagle was pleased with the approximately 28 percent of the vote he received.
“I had a lot of support.”
When the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association planned to send a Great Plains member to run for the NCAI presidency, the intention was to select Ron His Horse Is Thunder, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, but a tribal election got in the way, and “unfortunately, he didn’t win his election,” Black Eagle said.
The Great Plains tribal leaders nominated Black Eagle.
“I was going to be here to be on a panel for a water rights settlement then this election came up, so I quickly gathered my campaign group together and we headed over here.”
It was the first time Black Eagle ran for a position on the NCAI board. He will have plenty to keep him busy back home without the presidency.
The Crow Nation’s water rights settlement is approaching its final stages in the congressional process, Black Eagle said. The settlement will provide the Crow with 650,000 acre feet of water and a multitude of industrial and marketing uses, as well as a municipal water project.
The Crow Nation is also involved in a huge coal to liquid fuel energy project – the first in North America – that will also require water. The project will supply energy to the Crow people and the surplus will be sold on the national grid, Black Eagle said.
With all that work ahead, Black Eagle was philosophical about losing the NCAI election.
“Somebody was going to win and somebody was going to lose, and coming in here we knew we were the underdog. Jefferson Keel is now the president and I respect that. The issue that concerns a lot of the tribes I’ve talked to primarily is that NCAI is staff-driven and not the voice of the leadership that needs to be out there. It shouldn’t be that way. I think we can work with Jefferson Keel to make those changes. He understands it, he knows about it because he’s heard it.”
“NCAI is totally directed by the tribal leaders that sit on the board. The organization hires competent staff to implement the policy decisions set by the resolutions process. NCAI staff is expected to take the resolutions set forth by the membership and turn them into action, and that is what they do. NCAI staff works very closely with the tribal leadership from many tribes, and NCAI staff meets regularly with tribal leaders around every issue. We also conduct monthly board meetings where the board sets the current agenda and the staff takes direction from those meetings. NCAI’s annual meetings are a good example of the organization being policy driven by the membership, then the executive board,” Keel said.
Black Eagle said the Crow Nation has always “stood on its own in terms of its leadership goals” and will continue to do so, “but now we want to participate because what we do certainly affects the rest of Indian country and we want this organization to utilize the tribal leaders of Indian country to set policy.”
The Crow Nation is fortunate to have supportive senators, Black Eagle said.
“And I have a brother in the White House,” he added with a smile.
Black Eagle said he talks with Obama every chance he gets.
“Our relationship is personal between my mom and dad and his adoption into our family and into the tribe.”
At a recent White House visit, Black Eagle said he spoke with Obama “about the broken promises and treaties to the Indian people of this land, but he wants to keep his promise and he said he wanted to meet with the tribal leaders sometime in November and so this is happening on Nov. 5. He told me to bring my mom and dad and they’re going to play some kind of role in bringing the tribal leaders together.”