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Great Plains leaders flex muscle, insist that NCAI include their agenda

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ST. PAUL, Minn. - Members of the Great Plains caucus of the National Congress of American Indians criticized the organization for not including the larger tribes in the national agenda and debate and minced no words with Sue Masten, NCAI president.

The problem, caucus members argue, is the fact issues pertinent to the larger land-based tribes are rarely if ever discussed because the tribes from both coasts dominate the NCAI agenda and their concerns are much different.

Some of the larger tribes, Standing Rock, Rosebud and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes were making plans to or already have pulled out of the NCAI, caucus members said.

Masten attended a late afternoon caucus meeting and listened to the tribal leaders' frustrations. She agreed with many points brought to the table by the mid-country leaders.

Masten said this was not the first time the issue had surfaced and she agreed there was cause for concern.

"We need to be strong. We need to be responsive to the needs of the tribes. We have the ear of the White House and Congress," she said.

Her advice was to advocate for the larger, mid-country tribal issues. And, should a new organization with the large-land based tribes be formed, she said she hoped it would become part of the NCAI so every tribe would be on the same page.

"I hear you, but it's the same speech you gave in Palm Springs," said Kurt Luger, executive director of the Great Plains Indian Gaming Association and a member of the caucus.

"We're going to help you understand. Everybody in our land-based treaty tribes, which is terrible we have to separate like that, but we are not the culprits in this game.

"It took a lot of political capital to get half of those (California) tribes recognized, and that was quite a few years ago. The problem is, you know what our choices are nowadays. Every time we turn around we get either the Sue Masten or Ron Allen policies. You are defining us as gaming tribes. You California tribes are defining us. We are not damn gaming tribes, we are treaty tribes. So are you.

"You California tribes are getting us into a bunch of damn trouble. Who are their number one backers - Labor Unions! If it came down to the AFL-CIO chairmen and Tex Hall, guess who's going to finish second. You guys brought that into our backyards," Luger said.

One of the complaints presented to Masten was the way some delegates to the NCAI bought their way into the position with money and "not much policy." The complaint was that during the NCAI election one year ago, delegates said if tribes voted for them they would stay in contact.

"Haven't seen one of them since then. They quit helping. Tried to buy their way into this organization and the (National Indian Gaming Association). That is the way we see it," Luger said.

Luger reminded Masten not to take the criticism personally, which she said she didn't. She admitted there were problems in her backyard with the California tribes. She is the chairwoman of the Yurok Tribe of California in northwestern California which does not have gaming and has a treaty with the U.S. government.

"I'm concerned about the small tribes in California. I'm concerned because they went from nothing to a lot of money in a short time and they didn't know who they were and that's the reality.

"... they were very effective ... and they have jeopardized our sovereignty, simply because they did not know and did not have the recourses and became wealthy all too quick," Masten said.

She added that the discussion within her tribal leadership about the preservation of sovereignty happens continually so that the Yurok tribe doesn't head for the wealth and forget the sovereign nature of its being.

Masten was invited to come to the Great Plains and meet with the tribes and learn about the issues common to the large land-based tribes. Caucus members reminded her she was invited but never came.

"The Pine Ridge is the poorest tribe in the country, and you are dealing with gaming tribes," Skip Longe, chairman of the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe of North Dakota, said.

Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes, said issues that involve consultation by the BIA, IHS and other federal agencies are important to the Great Plains tribes. He said communication to the NCAI - through the tribes and the representatives to the organization - will lay out important issues where the Great Plains tribes will not compromise.

"We will not compromise on issues if other areas have issues that jeopardize ours.

"We will not compromise on land into trust. We will not compromise on executive orders that diminish or will jeopardize our sovereignty and treaty. We want full consultation and full tribal participation, and if other areas have issues that could jeopardize that, we will want NCAI to be the vehicle to say let's all get to the table right now because somebody over in that part of the country is jeopardizing others and we don't want that to happen."

Great Plains tribal leaders want a better communication link between the tribes and the NCAI. Luger said at a recent meeting of the Great Plains tribes, 36 people did not respond when asked when the last NCAI legislative update was provided to them.

"But by God, we get the bulletin that says it's time to come to the annual meeting. How can that be?" All the elected officials in here are going to have to make tough choices. What can we do best for these large land-based tribes? You are forcing that choice on us," Luger said.

Masten said she wanted the assistance of the Great Plains tribes to "find out what the issues are and fix it. We want to work for all tribes and we can't afford for you to pull out. I am sincere about working with the Great Plains tribes."

For the past two years tribes from Montana, Wyoming and North and South Dakota have worked to create a coalition of large land-based tribes to better move the issues important to those tribes forward.

At the recent meeting in Rapid City, S.D., tribal leaders discussed the fact that road construction and repair, important issues for the larger tribes, did not make it to the NCAI agenda. Health care is a major issue for the larger Great Plains tribes where more of the smaller coast-based tribes do not have that as an issue. Tribal leaders at that meeting said they didn't have a voice within NCAI.

"Every once in a while these wealthy, newly organized tribes will have to continue writing the checks and get in the political back seat. We are getting our a-- kicked because of them. This region needs to be highlighted, because our treaties are going to be attacked and they are going to say, 'Hell, these aren't a bunch of Indians, these are a bunch of gaming tribes.'

"That's why we are good and ticked off," Luger said.

Luger emphasized his point by telling the group that the newly elected Republican governor of North Dakota will meet with Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson. Thompson is seen as anti-Indian in policy and negotiated that 28 percent of the slot machine net revenue be given to the state from the gaming tribes in new compact negotiations.

Masten agreed to a meeting with the Great Plains tribes, however, pinning down a date was difficult. But, she said, they will meet. She also will meet with representatives from the Zuni and Navajo tribes on much the same topics - larger and treaty tribes who want more representation with NCAI.

"We've got to take this to heart. I'm telling you, if people in your corner, and I'm talking regional and a few others, don't wake up, they will wake up without this outfit in their outfit," Luger told Masten.

"Nobody wants that. We were there when they needed us. There are tribes in the United States now that, because of the wealth position they find themselves in, they find themselves in a new responsibility as well and they need to carry themselves as such. We can't afford some of the mistakes that are going on out there, it's killing us," Luger said.