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Large tribes band together

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RAPID CITY, S.D. - Large, land-based tribes pulled together and created a coalition to drive a national agenda that reflects the needs of those organizations.

Elected tribal officials from Montana, North and South Dakota and Wyoming attended a historic meeting here and hammered out a detailed charter that will bind the tribes together. It will establish what tribal leaders claim to be a powerful organization that will turn the attention of national organizations and federal policy toward their needs rather than those of smaller, wealthy tribes.

"We can form a unified caucus and attend other meetings and stick together as land-based tribes. At the National Congress of American Indians, tribes with 30 people are talking for Indian country," said Gregg Bourland, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

"Let's get unified and go as a powerful force and people will look back at us with tremendous respect and a little fear. I'm tired of Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and us being treated as the red-headed stepchild," he said. "It's not right. If it weren't for us, there would be no Indian country. These tribes are speaking on behalf of us. They purport to know the pulse of Indian country.

"This will send a message to the NCAI and National Indian Health Board that the larger tribes are starting to unite.

The movement to organize large land-based tribes started more than a year ago with the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council. One of the stark awakenings was the fact that three members of large land-based tribes attended a meeting of the NCAI with 30 smaller tribes present and the subject of roads or other needs of the larger tribes did not even make it onto the agenda.

The issue is that large, land-based tribes have health needs not being met, while smaller tribes are better taken care of because of fewer members, the leaders said.

"We don't have a voice at the NCAI. It's time to join this group," said William Kindle, chairman of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

"I don't want to injure those little tribes either, but we need a voice at the national meetings."

The strength of the organization will lie in the fact that among the many tribes involved, or which are partly committed, the organization members control more than 70 percent of all the land base held in Indian country, Jonathon Windy Boy of the Montana/Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council said.

"And when we are being overlooked as far as appropriations, as far as a lot of the needs not being addressed in Indian country, although there are initiatives saying there will be, government-to-government process doesn't really address our need.

"A lot of times, with large land-based tribes, that's what happens and frustration starts to build up from tribal leaders in our area."

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Windy Boy said since the meetings about a new organization began, there has been a snowball effect and it moved along a lot faster than anticipated. "The response is so overwhelming, it shows this was long overdue."

He said the organization is necessary because the tribes are always under attack. "When we come together as this coalition, we are hoping we will become a lot stronger."

One of the historical events that can take place among the coalition tribes will be the ability to sign treaties with one another. Treaties, unlike those signed with the U.S. government, will bring about a cooperative agreement in the areas of trade and commerce and cooperation with shared needs.

Bourland told the group treaties between the tribes would be recognized by the federal government.

"Since 1871 there have been no treaties signed. The didn't say tribes couldn't treaty with each other. We need to exercise that muscle or it will weaken. Through this coalition we will get to know one another and exercise our sovereign powers."

The draft charter would bring all tribes together on an equal basis, providing one vote on the board for one tribe. Tribes that qualify will be large land-based tribes, most of which have treaties. However, the treaty is not the major qualifier. Long discussions during charter revision meetings dealt with these qualifications, which will be detailed in the yet to be written bylaws. A committee will approve membership.

The charter states the organization will, "Advocate and assist the continued development of the member tribes and nations through their individual strategic planning process at all levels of government-to-government relationships and to protect the inherent rights and sovereign status of each of the member tribes and nations."

Tribes will come primarily from the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains and the Navajo region. Tribes from other regions have expressed interest. Windy Boy said he would meet with the Navajo Nation to discuss the organization. The nation already offered the use of its Washington, D.C., office as a gathering and meeting place, tribal leaders said.

"We are in the planning stages and want to keep it at a minimum right now and once we get our foot off the ground, we want to make sure we have all our ducks in order before we set a long-term agenda," Windy Boy said.

Creation of this coalition is not anti anybody, said Gordon Belcourt of the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council. "It's based on a spiritual movement, it's not just a political agenda. It's not anti small tribes, it's not anti NCAI or anti NIHB, but it's an effort to bring a supplement to what's going on because the large, land-based tribes have been excluded from the table."

The coalition charter states that negotiations on any issue between the tribes and all governments should be handled on a government-to-government basis, including those non-Indian governments from the lowest level to the federal government. Another part of the charter specifies that tribal courts are courts of competent jurisdiction and should be used in cases of disagreements.

Tribes that join the coalition will send only elected officials to the quarterly meetings. How the coalition will be funded has not been decided.