NCAI President Jefferson Keel to Native youth: ‘Be yourself’ |

NCAI President Jefferson Keel to Native youth: ‘Be yourself’

First Nation’s Focus
Jefferson Keel (Chickasaw Nation) is president of the National Congress of American Indians. He sat down recently with First Nation's Focus to discuss tribal issues in Nevada and across the country.
Photo: Bethany Sam

RENO, Nev. — Earlier this year, First Nation’s Focus Innovator Bethany Sam (Sioux, Paiute, Washoe) sat down with Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, to discuss issues germane to the Native American community in Nevada and across the country as a whole.

Keel (Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma) answered several questions during the Q-and-A session from the Nugget Casino & Resort in Sparks, during NCAI’s mid-year conference. The conference also served as the first-ever meeting of the recently formed NCAI Climate Action Task Force. Below is a sampling of some of his answers.

Question: What do you see as major economic development opportunities in Native communities in Nevada and across the greater West as a whole?

Keel: I’ll be honest, I’m not as familiar with Nevada as I should be. But, any time we talk about cultural resources or economic development activities, tribes that have resources, that have lands … they need to be included in the discussions with the state and other authorities on how to develop those lands — whether it be anything from oil, water or any other type or resources that could be used as an economic development tool.

But there’s other businesses. Indian gaming is now a $30-billion-a-year … industry across the country, and I know that Nevada is a gaming state, there are a lot of casinos here … the tribes need to be involved in them, the tribes ought to have an opportunity to have their own casinos and have the economic gain from that. They can then reinvest those dollars back in their own community. The economic development from tribal communities, those dollars stay in the communities and are reinvested in their people. … Gaming is one way that will allow you to develop a cash flow to develop other types of diversification efforts.

Question: Climate change is a very important topic impacting the entire world. What does (the Climate Action Task Force) hope to accomplish and how can Nevada and Western tribes help take part in the overall discussion to save our planet?

Keel: The task for itself is designed to be able to engage with all of the other efforts that are going on across the country. In Alaska for instance, we have villages that are simply sinking because of climate change. We now have at least an acknowledgment by federal leaders that climate change is real, is happening, and we want to be able to facilitate those discussions, and then we can become a mechanism whereby we get Indian nations across the country to engage in these efforts.

The efforts to stave off the effects of climate change are sometimes really expensive. You look at tribes where waterways are being affected, in some part of the country the waterways are dying up, we have drought, we have all of these things that are happening, and tribal leaders need to be engaged and find some type of solution where we can work together to come up with some ways that can beneficial to all.

Question: This year’s NCAI mid-year conference theme was “Tribes Taking Action.” How can tribes take action to help NCAI?

Keel: We want the country to know, everyone to know, that we don’t simply come and talk and then do nothing. We pass resolutions that sometimes it seems like they go nowhere. We want to make sure that tribes across the country, tribal leaders understand that the efforts that we’re doing today, we’re going to move those to the administration, to Congress and take action on those to make sure they continue their journey. We want to take action on the things that we can. There are things that we can effect change with, and that’s what we really want to do.

Question: Lastly, any advice to give to Native youth?

Keel: Be yourself. Understand who you are, and never forget who you are and where you come from. Your cultural beliefs are so important. Always understand that there was someone who made a sacrifice for you somewhere along the line in some way. Just remember that you can make a difference. You will be the difference.

Go to to learn more about the National Congress of American Indians, the mission of which to educate the general public about Native American and tribal governments, and to protect tribal sovereignty in the U.S.


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