In Brian Cladoosby’s term as president of the National Congress of American Indians, the organization has worked to end the era of harmful Native American mascots; partnered with other agencies and organizations on programs to give Native youth a stronger voice on issues their generation faces; worked with the Obama administration to implement key Native Nations provisions of the Violence Against Women Act; and advocated for climate change initiatives, improved emergency management, international indigenous rights, land restoration, natural resources protection, trust modernization, tax parity for Native Nations, voting rights, and better access to health care, housing, telecommunications, and transportation.
And, somehow, he still managed to maintain a low golf handicap.
"It has been the opportunity of a lifetime to represent this remarkable organization as president for the last two years," Cladoosby said. “Tribal governments across the country are undergoing a dramatic transformation. The last two years have demonstrated that when tribes come together as one, our potential is unlimited. We have made great strides, but our work continues."
Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Tribe, is seeking a second term as NCAI president. He made the announcement to NCAI delegates during the organization’s mid-year meeting in St. Paul, Minnesota July 6. The election will be in October in San Diego, during the NCAI’s 72nd annual convention.
“I intend to continue our focus on support for Native youth, improving Indian education, modernizing our trust relationship with the United States, enhancing our health care delivery mechanisms, building economic prosperity for all tribes, and most of all standing up for tribal sovereignty,” he said in a statement announcing his re-election campaign.
George Tiger, 2013 NCAI presidential candidate, is running for re-election as principal chief of the Muscogee Nation and will not run for NCAI president this year. “Brian is doing well,” he wrote in response to a query from ICTMN.
Cladoosby is known for his collaborative approach to dealing with issues, and for his sense of humor. On December 4, 2013 at the White House Tribal Nations Conference, he introduced President Obama as the first American Indian president, saying Obama “loves basketball. He has an Indian name. He knows what it's like to be poor. And he hasn't forgotten where he came from. And his theme song is 'Hail to the Chief.'"
He’s as at ease on the national stage as he is at Swinomish. On February 11 of this year, he and his wife, Nina, were guests at the state dinner for President Francois Hollande of France. Cladoosby’s evening wear included a woven cedar hat and cedar vest. "Tonight was a true reflection of the place of Native governments on the global stage,” Cladoosby said later. “The Tribal Nations of this country were honored and represented alongside foreign nations and the United States. I am so excited to … do whatever I can to advance the goals of tribes and Native peoples."
Cladoosby is also willing to make bold moves to advance the interests of Native peoples. The Washington State Legislature is one of six states that have turned down legislation that would allow for the training and licensing of dental health therapists, in order to make basic dental care more available and affordable in underserved communities.
In June, Cladoosby’s Swinomish Tribe became the first Native Nation in Washington State to implement the training and use of dental health therapists at Swinomish. Similar to nurse practitioners and physician assistants, dental health therapists are highly trained mid-level dental providers who expand the capacity of dentists by delivering a number of routine and preventive dental services, including fillings and simple extractions.
The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium introduced the first dental health therapist workforce in the United States more than 10 years ago; according to the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, dental health therapists there have made “safe, affordable, high-quality dental care available to more than 40,000 Alaska Native children and families, many of whom were never able to receive regular treatment before.” Dental health therapists began practicing in Minnesota in 2011 and in Maine in 2014.
Swinomish is sending one of its citizens to Alaska to train, and is working in partnership with the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to expand the use of dental health therapists in the Pacific Northwest.
“We as Indians have long faced an oral health crisis, and the crisis is only growing,” Cladoosby said in an announcement of the program. “But there just aren’t enough dentists in Indian country to address this crisis. The Swinomish dental clinic sees more than twice the number of patients per provider as the national average. That’s why we are expanding the Swinomish dental team through the proven solution of training and employing dental health aide therapists.”
State Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, said of Cladoosby, “His leading in the implementation of the [dental health aide therapist] program in Washington State – I am sure tribes around the country will watch Swinomish on how they do it and will follow suit.”
This year, Cladoosby also pushed for the U.S. Department of Justice to develop a seamless system by which tribal courts can enter domestic violence protection orders they issue into state and federal criminal databases.
That issue hits close to home for Tulalip Tribes Chairman Mel Sheldon. In October 2014, a Tulalip teenager shot five high-school classmates, killing four of them, before turning the gun on himself. The boy reportedly used a handgun his father had purchased, despite the father having a protection order issued against him in Tulalip court. The father passed a background check because the protection order hadn’t been entered into state and federal criminal databases.
The Associated Press reported in April that there isn’t a uniform way to enter information on tribal protection orders into state and federal databases; such reporting is not required by law; and some victims don't want protection orders registered with the state because they fear a notification to the perpetrator might make their address known.
NCAI called on the U.S. attorney general to review how criminal databases are accessed and work with governments of Native nations to develop a remedy. On this issue and others, Sheldon said, “Brian has really stepped up to the plate.”
Seattle lawyer Gabriel Galanda, Round Valley Indian Tribes, serves with Cladoosby on the board of Huy, a nonprofit that works for the economic, educational, rehabilitative and religious support of Native inmates in the United States.
“President Cladoosby has represented Coast Salish country by cultural example, like through treaty fishing and Canoe Journey,” Galanda wrote. “More broadly, he has shown a commitment to tribal culture for all of NCAI to emulate. For example, he serves on the Huy Board of Advisors with me, advocating for the religious freedoms of Native inmates. It is, therefore, no coincidence that NCAI has shown a strong commitment to the defense and protection of tribal sacred sites and practices on his watch.
“More personally, President Cladoosby has brought a rare charm and humor to national tribal politics, which has made him very effective in his diplomacy. President Cladoosby is without question one of the most dynamic Indian leaders of his era, both locally and nationally.”
Cladoosby has served for 31 years as a member of the Swinomish Tribe’s Senate and for 19 years as chairman. He and his wife Nina are active in the Seventh Day Adventist Church and have two adult daughters and two grandchildren.