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Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians Discuss Common Issues at Mid-Year Conference

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Worley, Idaho—Nearly 500 tribal members gathered at the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort for the mid-year meeting of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians (ATNI), representing 57 tribal governments from Oregon, Idaho, Washington, western Montana, Alaska, northern California and Nevada.

The May 15-18 conference kicked off with a scramble golf tournament and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe's welcoming reception. Over the following four days, ATNI's numerous committees discussed issues and resolutions revolving around the conference theme: “We need one another in these crucial years on Indian affairs; we must plan jointly in the spirit of unity and divine guidance.” The words were initially voiced 60 years ago by Joseph Garry, the first American Indian elected to the Idaho House and Senate. Garry served as president of ATNI for eight years and the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) for six years during the 1950s.

While welcoming members, Coeur d’Alene Chairman Chief Allan reflected on ATNI's significant progress over its 58 years of existence. Founded in 1953, ATNI is the oldest regional tribal advocacy group in the country. “We were holding conferences in cities and hotels, but now we host them in our own facilities," Allan said. "That’s really important because at the end of the day who knows better about Indian country than ourselves. We’ve had people come in and talk to us but at the end of the day we control our own destiny.”

The event featured keynote speaker Raul Labrador, Idaho freshman congressman, who commented that the federal government “doesn’t understand what you’re living through" in regards to the high unemployment rate and lack of funding delegated for programs in Indian Country. Then he restored confidence that Congress' new members can provide a much-needed change in perspective.

Donna Erwin, Muscogee Creek, acting principal in the Interior's Office of Historical Trust Accounting, commended the accomplishments in Indian Trust, such as: “For the first time in history, the Indian Trust Financial Statements for Fiscal Year 2010 contained no material weaknesses or significant deficiencies.”

Mary Jane Oatman Wak Wak, Nez Perce, president of the National Indian Education Association (NIEA), said, “Children must be Indian country’s national priority,” and added, “If you are not a member of the NIE(A), you should become members.” She pointed out that NIEA supports traditional native cultures and values and works to enable learners to become contributing members of their communities. “NIE(A) is moving in a new direction. We have invested in research and have one of Indian Country’s best researchers. We need to invest in what is working.”

Afternoons were devoted to concurrent committee meetings on such items as health, law and justice, natural resources and land, trust reform, culture and elders, telecommunications and energy, education, economic development, and others.

Former congresswoman the Honorable Elizabeth Furse, founder of The Institute for Tribal Government—part of the Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University, had numerous suggestions for tribes in dealing with Washington, D.C. She urged tribes to make it very clear to their congressmen that they are a government and that the relationship is a government-to-government relationship, “One nation to another nation. That relationship is a very solemn relationship. I would urge you to develop a one page that says what the constitution says (about treaty rights), your tribe’s location, how many members you have, and what you want your congressman to do.”

ATNI leaders also updated attendees on the state of the Yakama Nation after the February 12 tragic fire engulfed White Swan, a reservation community on the Yakama Indian Reservation in south central Washington. It displaced over 100 people and many lost everything when fires flared so rapidly that nothing could be salvaged. ATNI set up a fund to help rebuild these homes and lives. Donations to date total approximately $550,000.

A handful of the 17 American Indian leaders from tribes across the country, who were invited to Turkey a few months ago, spoke of the experience and their appreciation for the opportunity and the hospitality. Mike Finley, chairman of the Colville Tribe, reported “a sense of belonging more than anywhere outside of home.”

James Steele, Jr., council member with the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes in Montana added his praise. “It was the most awesome experience I’ve ever had. The best treatment I’ve ever had as a tribal leader.”

They reported a remarkable similarity in historical objects and blanket designs to the northwestern U.S. and a kinship the Turkish people feel toward Native Americans. Finley added that economic opportunities with Turkey exist for import and export. Turkey also offers some of the best engineering schools in the world and the schools are aggressively trying to attract Native American students to study with full scholarships and even a monthly stipend.

Rounding out the event, Gonzaga men’s basketball coach Mark Few gave a speech, followed by University of Louisville basketball star Shoni Schimmel (Umatilla) and her mother Ceci on another day. Shoni and her mom recently starred in Off The Rez, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 26. The film tells the story of the Schimmel family’s controversial decision to leave the reservation for Portland, Oregon, where Shoni’s mother Ceci was offered a job coaching a high school basketball team.