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National organizations preach tight messages

WASHINGTON - At their major February conferences, two national Indian organizations preached the importance of staying on-message as they sent their delegates to Capitol Hill for advocacy meetings with lawmakers and staff.

Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, provided an overview of the legislative cycle at the NCAI Tribal Nations Legislative Summit on Feb. 26. Congress has changed dramatically following the November 2006 elections, she said, and the 2008 presidential primary season will start earlier than ever before.

''So what does that mean to us, as tribes? First of all, it means that business is going to happen early, and we're going to have to get our stuff done early. That means that we have to stay very focused in this environment where there's a lot of other bigger picture things going on, and that we are going to have a smaller window to be able to get forward with our issues. ... If we don't get our bills introduced early, if we don't get our stuff on their agenda early, our issues on their agenda early, we might as well kiss that window goodbye.''

Budget-wise, she added, with a war going on and the majority Democrats determined to demonstrate fiscal responsibility, it will be tough for anybody to get everything they want. Prioritizing is a necessity, she said, and that too requires a tight focus on message.

As an example, NCAI sounded the message throughout its conference that reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act is its top legislative priority.

Weeks earlier, on Feb. 12, the National Indian Education Association convened its 10th Annual Legislative Summit. Tommy Lewis, superintendent of schools for the Navajo Nation, addressed the delegates in similar terms, on the subject of the reauthorization process for President Bush's No Child Left Behind education program:

''We have to do our very best to bring forth issues and concerns regarding NCLB as we experienced it the last five years. First time around, I'm sure we weren't fully informed, we weren't prepared, we didn't participate and we were stuck with the law. And we learned quite a bit. We all have our own stories ... through that experience, I hope that we can be very careful in coordinating our efforts, in coming together on specific issues and concerns as Indian people.

''We could be our worst enemies as Indian people. We don't want to go to Congress and federal agencies with all kinds of issues and leave them with all of that to decipher and sum up what we're really saying. I'm hoping that we, as Indian people, would be careful in coming together, through some kind of a coordinated effort, some way that we could communicate our concerns in a respectful way that could be registered. ...

''So my message is to seek your support and open mind to realize that we have this window of opportunity to really pinpoint issues, mandates, requests, in a manner that it will have an impact on Congress. ... I'm afraid if we don't coordinate all of this effort of various [organizational and tribal] officials, congressmen are going to come to realize that there's too much for them to decipher. It is best for us to come together, spell out those things, and speak with one voice as Native people to Congress, so that it's a strong message as to how we want NCLB to be in our favor in this next reauthorization period."