Leaders emphasize importance of exercising sovereignty at NCAI session

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CHANDLER, ARIZ. - Sovereignty was on the minds of tribal leaders during this year's National Congress of the American Indians' (NCAI) mid-year session, held at the Gila River Indian Community's posh Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa.

NCAI President Tex Hall felt the best way to protect autonomy is to exercise it effectively. He said tribes are facing many threats to sovereignty and referred to recent Supreme Court decisions that resulted in an erosion of tribal rights.

"Tribes all around the country are facing the same frustrations: the budget and appropriations process is leaving us with fewer and fewer resources with which to provide for our citizens. Many members of Congress do not have the understanding of Indian affairs to make informed decisions regarding Indian policy and the government-to-government process is not working as it should," said Hall.

Officials in attendance said they support tribes. Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano said in her remarks during the opening general assembly that she envisions a new model for tribal-state relations to develop during her tenure.

"Meaningful dialogue between tribal governments and the state of Arizona is a crucial component to our state's tribal policy," said Napolitano. "I have initiated a number of efforts to ensure tribal issues are addressed promptly and comprehensively and to ensure tribal leaders recognize that they have access to my office as well as state agencies."

Napolitano encouraged active voting in Indian country. "Indian nations have the strength to impact who is in office and that has a direct effect in tribal communities."

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., agreed with Napolitano. She discussed improving government-to-government relations through future elections and said placing lawmakers and judges in office open to tribal sovereignty and who understand tribal self-determination is vital to advancing federal and tribal relationships.

Trust reform and energy development were particularly hot topics in light of the BIA reorganization occurring without tribal consultation and the Bush administration's push to lessen America's dependence on foreign oil by tapping resources on Indian lands.

"Part of the difficulty of working on trust reform is that there's at least 75 moving parts at any one time," said John Dosset, general counsel to NCAI referring to BIA re-engineering. "There's always another issue coming down the tracks. You think you've got one issue wrestled down, then a related issue comes up."

He said there is a growing consensus as to what the roots of the trust reform problems are and what needs to be worked on, with a special focus on fractionation and land consolidation. Much of the Indian land is scattered throughout the country.

Dosset feels the probate process should be targeted in light of the nearly 5 million land owners projected to grow exponentially to 25 million land owners in the next few years.

"We'll never be able to create big enough computers to track everything," he said.

A federal buy-back program of heavily fractionated land is a solution being discussed.

"You won't get away from individual Indian ownership, but move more toward a status where you won't have 1,100 owners on one piece of land," said Dosset.

Prior to a closed-door session on resource development on Indian lands, Tex Hall remarked he felt energy development as an alternative to gaming revenue was fine as long as tribes are consulted. The BIA has taken the position that resource development is a viable alternative to gaming for tribes but is not weighing tribal concerns.

"It's the tribes' lands and it's the tribes' resources and minerals," said Hall. "There are some tribes that are pro-energy and they're the ones that should be at the table and the BIA should be setting up consultation with the tribes that are pro-energy. The tribes that are not pro-energy probably have environmental concerns and they should be consulted as well," he continued.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee recently approved an Indian energy package over the concerns of several tribes and environmental advocates. The bill includes a waiver of federal trust responsibility over tribal energy resources and the exemption of tribal lands from National Environmental Policy Act review.

Senator Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., introduced an amendment that would have stripped the legislation of most of its controversial provisions. The amendment was killed, however, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., inserted language appearing to preserve the Secretary of Interior's trust responsibilities. The bill would authorize tribes, on a voluntary basis, to enter into leases or rights-of-way for resource development without Interior approval, as long as it was executed in accordance with a tribal energy resource agreement. The bill is presently in debate.

Workshops during the session included such diverse topics as acquiring excess and surplus military land to governmental communications and managing cultural resources.