SPOKANE, Wash. ? Since well before recorded history, American Indian tribes gathered along the banks of the Spokane River to confer on inter-tribal issues. In this spirit, the 58th annual National Congress of the American Indian (NCAI) convened in this scenic and suddenly snowy northwestern town and got down to the nitty-gritty work of self-preservation.
The hot-button topic became the mishandling of American Indian trust accounts, the reorganization of the BIA without proper consultation, which includes a second Interior Department office dealing with trust reform.
The timing of a reorganization plan for the BIA in trust management couldn't have been better. It came just prior to the convention, and in time to collect ideas and topics for convention floor and caucus discussions. And while the convention delegates were at it, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee introduced a resolution to reject changes in the BIA and the addition of the trust management office, which was overwhelmingly approved by the NCAI delegates.
More than 3,000 representatives of virtually all the nation's American Indian tribes gathered Nov. 26 to set policy, listen to speakers and pass information along on the issues generally affecting American Indians in the halls of power.
Though the issue of trust responsibility resonated throughout the halls of the Spokane Convention Center from the get-go, those assembled listened to a parade of speeches from several prominent politicians Monday morning. They did not include originally billed speakers, Senators Dan Inouye, D-Hawaii, who canceled because of illness, and Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., who canceled after weather delays in Denver.
But the delegates all wanted to hear good news about the most recent changes in the BIA organization and news about when or if consultations would be held. Tribal leaders across the country turned in unfavorable comments about the latest move by Secretary of Interior Gale Norton to reorganize the BIA and trust management. Any government official coming to the convention did so with courage.
Interior Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles endured an icy reception and a hail of questions about trust reform. He emphasized consultation, cooperation and communication as a theme imposed by Interior Secretary Gale Norton for her plan to create a new office in Interior to deal with the problem of trust account mismanagement.
Griles said it wasn't the Bush administration's fault, in fact he said administrations have inherited the problem for more than a century. He said the new Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management would focus on trust reform, performance and program management, beneficiary services and trust asset and investment strategy development.
'We will reform trust management. We will get the job done,' Griles said.
The delegates were interested in when the consultation process would start and they were assured that early December be the kick-off for sessions beginning in Albuquerque.
Land use and acquisition is and has always been a sticking point between tribes, local governments and the federal government. The loss of land, especially land designated as sacred or culturally viable for many tribes is an ongoing battle in courtrooms and corporate boardrooms and in the halls of Congress.
Mike Jackson, president of Fort Yuma Quechan Tribe, said his tribe is in a situation attempting to preserve and protect ancient running trails, sleeping circles, petroglyphs and artifacts from the onslaught of a proposed gold mine. He said it was safe with the Clinton administration, but the Bush administration recently overturned a Clinton administration rule to prevent the mining.
'That's where we stand today. They say the land we fought for is not sacred. This battle is not over, because our people ? especially our elders ? will not give up,' Jackson said. He came to the NCAI convention to solicit support from all the tribes present.
From gaming to health care, American Indian people are subject to the will of Congress. The NCAI annual gathering is also a forum to plan a strategic program to combat any negative impact Congress might impose or support and encourage legislation that will positively support Indian country.
National Indian Gaming Association President Ernie Stevens Jr. said the actions of the current and past Justice Department were acts of aggression 'we can no longer tolerate.'
He made reference to the past asset seizure of the Santee Sioux Tribe of Nebraska. 'We have to be educated. We have to be united. We have to be good to each other to hold on to our success,' he said.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the first morning was the announcement from NCAI President Sue Masten that she would not seek re-election. An emotional Masten thanked the crowd, who gave her a standing ovation, before taking a parting shot at the Bush administration for the trust boondoggle and praising tribal self-governance initiatives.
In particular, Masten blasted the decision by the Department of Interior to create a new office devoted to straightening out the trust accounts without consulting the nation's tribes.
Masten also warned that the 'digital divide' could not be bridged in Indian country until proper infrastructure is in place.
'Third world conditions still exist for many of us,' Masten said. 'We need telephones and electric lights before we can connect with the Internet.'
In the best George Washington tradition, Masten used her farewell address to warn against divisiveness and emphasized the value of unity.
Masten's departure was dramatized by her early exit because of a death in her family. Without Masten running for the first time in four years, rumors quickly spread that there were two candidates for the position, the highest elected position in Indian country. The candidates were Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota and Brian Wallace, chairman of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada.
With no-shows Inouye and Campbell, both members of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, the spotlight fell on freshman Senator Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. Cantwell defeated Sen. Slade Gorton ? largely reviled in Indian country ? last year and was treated to probably the easiest standing ovation of the session.
'I will be a different voice on tribal sovereignty,' Cantwell said to wild applause.
Her theme was 'reflecting our tradition in a modern world,' where she addressed the needs, via several pieces of proposed legislation designed to give Indian tribes better access to health care and ways to implement infrastructure to apply a broad band Internet access to tribal governments.
But it was Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., who fired the first shot of the session at the federal government's mishandling of the trust fund accounts and the Bush administration's lack of consultation.
Inslee also decried the odious process to which tribes are subjected when attempting to make land acquisitions. He said the whole process needs re-writing.
Additionally Inslee said the United States government has a 'moral responsibility to the nation's Indian tribes as laid out in several centuries of treaties.
'Uncle Sam must increase support for contract services and efforts by the federal government to intrude between tribes and states over tax collection.'
Washington Gov. Gary Locke acknowledged the often contentious past relationship between American Indian tribes and the government of the Evergreen state and promised to begin a new era in tribal state relations.
Locke, whose office includes an Indian Affairs Department, touted the tourism study designed to help tribes develop guidelines for establishing a tribal tourism industry. Like the other speakers, he spoke of the need to create new economic opportunities through technology.
'It is my goal to extend prosperity to Indian country,' Locke said.