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NCAI Conference has Case of Jitters

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Hall urges vote drive to ward off attacks

UNCASVILLE, Conn. - The nerve center of Indian country ran through the
Mohegan Sun for the four days of the NCAI mid-year session June 20 to 23,
and much of the time it seemed to be on edge.

With tribal interests under attack on several fronts, leaders spent much of
their time planning defense strategy for battlegrounds like the U.S.
Supreme Court and the National Labor Relations Board. The upcoming national
elections also inspired anxious discussion. Although the close division of
the electorate gave Indians a unique chance to decide control of the White
House and maybe Congress, it also gave urgency to the Get Out the Vote
drive championed by NCAI President Tex Hall and raised strong concern about
apparent efforts in South Dakota to keep reservation residents from
exercising their voting rights.

But the worries reflected a sense that Indian country now had growing power
and economic interests to protect. The heightened anxiety also produced new
efforts for mutual support.

The session opened on an international note as NCAI joined with the
Canadian Assembly of First Nations (AFN) in reaffirming a "Declaration of
Kinship and Cooperation." Hall signed the Declaration with AFN National
Chief Phil Fontaine, and the two conducted a pipe ceremony.

"We must stand together," said Hall, "to ensure that our shared future is
one in which Native nations the world over thrive as self-determining
peoples." Fontaine noted that the day of the signing, June 21, was Canadian
National Aboriginal Day and would henceforth be known as "National
Aboriginal Solidarity Day."

The session had a chance almost immediately to show solidarity with a
threatened tribe. During the June 21 afternoon General Assembly in the
cavernous Mohegan Sun Convention Center, delegates voted to interrupt
proceedings to pass an emergency resolution opposing the Western Shoshone
Claims Distribution Act, scheduled for a vote in the U.S. Congress that
evening. The resolution warned that the act would seal a fraudulent
settlement of land claims for much of Nevada. With a supporting speech from
the chairman of the TeMoak Band of the Western Shoshone, the NCAI called
instead for government-to-government negotiations instead of a forced
pay-off at a small fraction of the land's value. Hall warned that the
precedent could be used against tribes like the Lakota, who have refused
for decades to take money as compensation for the U.S. seizure of the Black
Hills of South Dakota, which the Lakota hold sacred.

As the program resumed, the Assembly heard an update on the Supreme Court
Project, which claimed a striking success in the U.S. v. Lara decision
upholding basic principles of tribal sovereignty. John Echohawk, executive
director of the Native American Rights Fund, and NCAI General Counsel John
Dossett explained the strategy of filing amicus curiae (friend of the
court) briefs, which appeared to influence the outcome. Coordination among
a large number of lawyers, they said, helped generate a supporting brief
from eight state attorneys general, a highly unusual alignment.

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Echohawk warned, however, that the Supreme Court was still closely divided
on tribal sovereignty. "One justice who was usually against us voted with
us," he said, "and one justice who was usually with us voted against us."
In a breakout discussion that evening, he and Dossett warned tribal leaders
to be very careful about taking cases to the court. "We are having better
success in the court," Dossett said, "because we are only bringing our
strongest cases."

This concern underlays intense discussion of the recent decision by the
National Labor Relations Board to take jurisdiction over tribal commercial
enterprises, even if located on reservations. A closed committee session
led by Gerald Levin, partner in the Holland and Knight law firm, discussed
the best appeals strategy. Private conversations speculated in great detail
on the politics of asking Congress to revise the National Labor Relations
Act, which some Republican leaders of the House Native American Caucus have
already proposed.

Election year politics also showed up in abundance. A number of delegates
wore John Kerry buttons passed out by the Native American outreach director
of the Massachusetts Senator's presidential campaign. U.S. Rep. Brad
Carson, D-Okla., showed up in person for a fund-raising reception for his
campaign for Oklahoma's open U.S. Senate seat.

Some absences were also conspicuous. Jennifer Farley from the White House
Office of Intergovernmental Affairs was invited to give an update to the
June 22 General Assembly but didn't show. The schedule for opening
ceremonies left time for welcomes from Connecticut's U.S. Senators
Christopher Dodd and Joseph Lieberman, both Democrats, as well as U.S. Rep.
Robert Simmons, the Republican representing southeastern Connecticut, but
none of them appeared.

David Anderson, Assistant Interior Secretary of Indian Affairs, did give a
substantial talk, however, opening the floor for a lively question and
answer period.

Looking beyond personalities, however, the session hammered home the
importance of NCAI's non-partisan Native Vote 2004 campaign. Two lengthy
workshops gave training on the principles of a voter drive and the
mechanics of carrying it out. In the general meeting, Assistant Attorney
General R. Alexander Acosta from the Justice Department's Civil Rights
Division, outlined plans to bring federal election monitors into counties
with large Native populations.

Hall repeated his goal of bringing one million of the 2.7 million eligible
Indian voters to the November elections.

"We have faced a series of attacks on our ways of life and the well-being
of our people in recent years," he said. "A quiet minority becomes an easy
target, and if we do not stand up, utilize our power and our voices, then
we will continue to be on the outside looking in."