Jefferson Keel, President of the National Congress of American Indian and Lt. Governor for the Chickasaw Nation, is proud of how far Indian Country has come.

“Although gaming has become the lifeblood of many of our communities, it provides the cash flow to get into other types of business,” he said, during one of the first breakout sessions, Wednesday morning at RES 2013. “We see tribes that own banks, chocolate factories, manufacturing facilities. We see tribes that are getting into other types of development, like energy development. Those are thing that weren’t possible 20 or 30 years ago, but it is today. And that’s exciting.“

Still, Indian Country can be stronger.

If there’s a buzz so far at RES 2013, it’s a resounding call for unity. It’s coming across in the keynote addresses and the breakout sessions, it’s embodied in the theme of this year’s RES, Honoring Our Past – Defining Our Future, and it’s a major push for NCAIED President and CEO Gary Davis.

“It wasn’t just one tribe that achieved economic and cultural success at Cahokia,” Davis reminded attendees at the grand opening ceremonies on Tuesday. “It was multiple tribes … who understood that they could get more done together than we can apart.”

That understanding has yielded a resurgence of collaborative alliances across modern-day Indian Country. And on Wednesday, representatives from two of them – the United South and Eastern Tribes and the United Indian Tribes of Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas – participated in a panel discussion to share the benefits they’ve realized from cross cultural collaboration and teaming.

Brian Patterson is President of the United South and Eastern Tribes and Bear Clan Representative to the Oneida Indian Nation’s Men’s Council and Clan Mothers.

His coalition began in the late 1960s with the Eastern Band of Cherokees, the Mississippi Band of Choctaws, the Miccosukee Tribe and the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Their initial vision of “Strength in Unity” still permeates the mission today of what has evolved into the Nashville, Tennessee-based United South and Eastern Tribes. Today, the non-profit, inter-tribal organization represents 26 federally recognized member tribes at the regional and national level. It operates through various workgroups and committees and provides a forum for the exchange of ideas and information among Tribes, agencies and governments.

Patterson advises tribes wishing to form coalitions to get past the idea that business and politics don’t mesh well.

“Strong sovereign authority equates to strong sovereign economies,” he said. “We can find those sustainable strategies based on our heritage, our culture, our treaties. We need to realize we have that capacity.“

George Thurman, Principal Chief of the Sac and Fox Nation out of Oklahoma, said a still-forming alliance among tribes in Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas hasn’t been tested yet – but it has the potential to be powerful.

“In the three states there are 46 tribes; that’s 12 percent of all the tribes in the United States,” he said. “This could be one big regional group. It takes teamwork

If they all pull together, there’s no telling what they can do.”

Even as tribes push for regional allegiances, many are already thinking bigger. The panelists recognized audience member Sonny Skyhawk, Rosebud Sioux, who has recently been appointed as a cultural ambassador for the U.S. State Department. He is tasked with establishing relationships between United States tribes and indigenous peoples elsewhere in the world.

“This is something that our grandpas and grandpas many years ago could foresee: Our involvement with other cultures, with other indigenous groups,” he said. “I think what I’m about to do is continue to open the doors to Indian country, to the world basically, in trade, tourism, and establishing relationships with other countries.”

Skyhawk said his first assignments will be in the Western Hemisphere. In the coming months, he’ll be visiting Peru, Brazil, Mexico and Canada before venturing to the other side of the globe.