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National Congress of American Indians convenes in Denver

Health care, law enforcement among top issues

DENVER - Sixty-four years have passed since the National Congress of American Indians was organized in the city of Denver, and the 2007 annual convention returned to the same location to continue the founders' vision in what NCAI officials labeled a historic event.

One of the first orders of business at the opening of the 64th NCAI national convention, held Nov. 11 - 16, was to honor the veterans. The first day of the convention took place on Veterans Day. Native veterans attending the convention participated in posting the colors.

Honoring the veterans was retired U.S. Marine Corps Col. Jay Vargas, veterans liaison for the Department of Veterans Affairs' Western region and a Medal of Honor recipient who grew up on the Navajo Nation in Winslow, Ariz. He also honored NCAI President Joe Garcia and the NCAI itself with an award given through an organization of Medal of Honor winners.

Throughout the week at each gathering of the general assembly, veterans were recognized for their service. American Indians serve in the Armed Forces in greater numbers than any other ethnic group in the United States.

The NCAI originated as the result of visions at the height of World War II when many American Indians were serving in the Pacific and European theaters of war and when code talkers, who have been specially honored in the past few years, served as well.

The national congress' early leaders had many issues to deal with in the 1940s - some of which are still present today - which prompted them to meet in 1944 in Denver to form the organization.

''NCAI began because of sovereignty. Our forefathers died for us and they taught us, and we are continuing their efforts,'' Garcia said.

''NCAI over the past has gained strength. We have been successful with an education outreach to the mainstream media and now we won't stand for negative media; we will educate them,'' Garcia said during his annual report.

''Indian country is strong and NCAI is strong.''

A top-priority issue that was discussed was the reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. All tribes and NCAI members have worked to convince Congress that the act needs to be reauthorized. NCAI has set as its goal approval of the bill by the end of the year.

On the second day of the convention, word came through Sen. Byron Dorgan's office that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the Senate version would not get to the floor of the Senate in 2007, according to Rachel Joseph, co-chair of the National Steering Committee for reauthorization of IHCIA.

NCAI organized a phone campaign to senators, and word came back to the convention ''to call off the dogs.'' The goal of the national congress continues to be reauthorization of the health care act this year.

The to-do list for Indian country is large. Garcia listed the Native Vote campaign, and improved relations between states and tribes, among a long list of goals.

Energy as an economic development tool is available to the tribes; Garcia said the tribes could help the country with energy production and conservation, but he warned ''don't let others use your land.''

Garcia's approach is to supply the neediest with free energy created by the tribes and still have energy left over to sell to power companies.

The new attempt at a BIA modernization or reorganization proposal is high on the list of goals set by NCAI. Garcia urged tribal leaders to not be passive on that issue.

''Be the driver of what the BIA will look like; drive the boat to define what it looks like. Let's take part.''

Other top priorities for Indian country and NCAI include improving law enforcement and reducing methamphetamine use on reservations.

Young people are also high on the agenda, and at this NCAI convention, the large turnout for the youth commission did not go unnoticed. Garcia, who was chosen by acclimation to lead NCAI for two more years, wants to develop a Native Children's agenda with the help of the youth commission.

The visions set down 64 years ago were much the same as today, according to Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of NCAI.

''What the tribal leaders said at the first meeting is relevant today. They had a vision about what they wanted NCAI to be,'' Johnson said.

She said the earlier leaders wanted to create a forum for strong political ideas and cultural values, to promote sovereignty and to advocate for tribal government and for the sharing of ideas between tribes.

''Today, to meet the vision, we come here,'' she said.

''They [the founders of NCAI] wanted a national tribal unity and today if we can't agree on what we want, we can't expect others to understand this congress,'' Johnson said.

In 1944, tribal leaders set out to make sure that every American Indian had the right to vote. Today, the NCAI sponsors the Native Vote campaign, which seeks to educate candidates and the public and register voters and encourage them to vote.

The very first item in the preamble of the NCAI is sovereignty.

''The leaders wanted to be able to tell Congress what they wanted and respond to legislation with an agent in Washington, D.C. NCAI is that agent,'' Johnson said. ''Never lose sight of that vision.''