Skip to main content

Busy week for NCAI

WASHINGTON - In a week that was like a month of Sundays on a social
calendar of celebrations, festivities, discussion groups, congressional
hearings and great occasions of state and culture, the National Congress of
American Indians was as busy as anyone ... that is, anyone outside the
walls of the National Museum of the American Indian.

The two organizations teamed up to present a succession of public events
during NMAI's grand opening week, Sept. 21 - 26, with well over 10,000
Native people in the city and national exposure guaranteed for the
Smithsonian Institution's latest museum. Jacqueline Johnson, NCAI executive
director, termed the week "a once in a lifetime opportunity for tribes to
celebrate cultures and bring Indian issues to the forefront of the American
conscience ... We hope the general public can see the reality of tribal
nations as the thriving governments and successful communities with
flourishing cultures and traditions that we are today."

From almost a dozen NCAI-sponsored political rallies, congressional
briefings, media luncheons and - not to forget - social exchanges of song,
dance and other traditions, the following speakers were among many who
stood out on assorted themes.

Billy Frank Jr., the Nisqually fishing rights leader - a legend in his own
time really for the long assertion of tribal sovereignty that led to the
Boldt court decision in favor of Northwest tribal treaty rights - said
great change has taken place since the first treaty signings, when white
men wanted treaties only in order to clarify property rights. "They took
our treaties to the bank," as Frank put it. But now, he added, for the
United States or any state government to succeed - "Indians have got to be
at the table."

Anthony Pico, chairman of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians in
California, called on American schools to "teach the basic civic lesson
that there are three sovereigns in the United States" - the federal
government, the state governments and tribal governments. In the future
this shouldn't come as "shocking, threatening" knowledge to full-grown
adults; it should be recognized from now on as constitutional, the
understanding of the framers and the inheritance of the nation. Tribal
sovereignty itself is an evolving process, he said. On many sovereignty
issues, "My head says compromise," but then it gets difficult.

A political position is not always sufficient unto itself for Pico, even
when the subject is sovereignty. "We are all on a social, political and
spiritual road."

John R. McCoy, general manager for Quil Ceda Village (headquarters for
infrastructure of the Tulalip Business Park) of the Tulalip Tribes and a
representative in the Washington state legislature, called tribes "the
best-kept secret in the United States ... whenever a tribe is successful,
the area around them is successful."

But to succeed economically, tribes must assert control over their own
infrastructure through business zoning, contractual arrangements, economic
and educational incentives, construction and permitting, inventory and
supply and other features of effective bureaucracy. "We have to have our
own pipelines ... We're actually handcuffed by the BIA."

Scroll to Continue

Read More

McCoy urged tribes to continue innovating with sovereignty to create
business conditions that encourage success and social betterments. "We need
to keep pushing the envelope. It's really fun out here on the edge, it
really is ... So come on out and join us, we're having fun exercising
tribal sovereignty."

Tex Hall, chairman of Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota and NCAI
president, emphasized the importance of improving public safety in Indian
communities, especially for women, "abused in far greater rates than any
other group in the United States" - and nine out of 10 times in rape and
assault cases, according to Department of Justice statistics, by non-Indian
men.

Hall related that inter-tribal DUI codes are under development in the
Northern Plains. That way, an Indian non-tribal member who is arrested for
driving under the influence of alcohol can be detained on the reservation
where s/he is a present menace.

Charles Wilkinson, a longtime attorney and legal scholar on Native issues
and author of several well-received books including "Fire on the Plateau",
provided a stirring rundown of the remarkable changes in Indian country
over the past 40 years. He began by reminiscing about the days when most
tribes had one employee or two, and almost none had more than 10. "What has
happened since then is one of the most important things in modern American
history since World War II."

In all of what follows, Wilkinson was quite aware that tribes have sought
sure processes of improvement, not perfection. Much then remains to be done
on all counts. But the improvements have been dramatic.

Today more than 70 tribes have more than 300 employees engaged in tribal
government functions - that is, outside of casino operations. Many other
tribes have a multitude of employees in government. "Tribes have become
full-service governments."

Establishing infrastructure - roads, legal instruments, contractual
relations, water and sewer lines, education and human capital, research and
resource management - is the essential step toward prosperity on many
reservations. But in establishing the infrastructure of stable prosperity,
Wilkinson said, "There is no longer any doubt that the most important
instrument ... will be sovereign tribes."

As a result of this emphasis on the sovereign involvement of tribes in the
issues that touch them first, income is up on reservations, and
unemployment is down from 50 percent on many reservations to the mid-20s.
Seventy timber tribes have taken over their timber operations, and
Northwest tribes are saving the Pacific salmon by developing cadres of
tribal biologists. The 32 tribal colleges are beginning to engage in
reservation-specific research.

As for Congress, Wilkinson said, "It has been faithful to its obligations
... to be sure that reservations are homelands."