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NCAI gathers in San Diego

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SAN DIEGO - Tribal leaders from across the country gathered Nov. 11 for the opening of the 59th annual convention of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). Issues including trust reform, health services, human rights and education were addressed in the opening days of the conference.

NCAI President Tex Hall, chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, called trust reform "the most important issue before us." He laid out five principles that must be addressed. First, the federal government must be held accountable for its trust responsibility. Second, tribal laws and self determination authorities must be protected. Third, other services, which are already grossly under funded, must not be negatively affected. Fourth, tribal management plans must be able to be individualized. And finally, there must be greater tribal involvement and consultation.

The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) has less than two months to propose a remedy for current polices that have deprived Indians of billions of dollars in trust assets over the past century. This is due in part, to pressure from a lawsuit brought against the Secretary of Interior in 1996 by a member of the Blackfoot Tribe of Montana, Eloise Cobell.

The case Cobell v. Norton (formerly Cobell v. Babbitt), is a class action suit seeking a historical accounting of balances contained in individual Indian money market accounts. The litigation is ongoing and the proposals for the accounting and reorganization plan for administration trust accounts are to be submitted to the court by Jan. 6, 2003.

An effort to bail out the agency in this year's Interior Appropriations bill by limiting liability for settlements was defeated in congress.

"Tribal leaders will not tolerate that kind of legislation," said Cobell, who coordinated opposition to the effort. "Accountability goes for you, too," she said was the clear message being sent to the federal government.

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The Supreme Court is also scheduled to hear two cases in December pertaining to breach of trust by the agency, involving the White Mountain Apache Tribe and the Navajo Nation.

Another critical problem, according to Hall, is health care in Indian country. He continued that the federal government must do a better job of supporting Native health care than it has in the past.

The federal government is allocating billions of dollars for homeland security in response to the terrorist activities to pay for everything from stockpiled vacancies to new ambulances, but the tribes are being excluded, delegates said.

Dr. Julia Davis, chair of the National Indian Health Board, said these funds are being used to bolster economies, but they are not making their way to Indian country. She said the war on terrorism and the sluggish economy have both distracted from Indian health care. "Tribes across the country need to come together as a single voice and tell Congress that we are a priority. We have contributed greatly to this nation and we want the federal government to honor its commitments to us."

Dr. Charles Grim, acting director of the Indian Health Service, a section of the DOI, told delegates that the funding should be able to help with local emergencies such as flu outbreaks, in addition to helping prepare for possible terrorist emergencies.

"As evidenced by the results of recent political elections, tribes can mobilize and speak with a common voice. Look at the close margins in these elections, and you know the country is divided. In this atmosphere, the saying that every vote counts takes on a whole new meaning. Tribes have seen the fruit of their labors on Election Day. Now we must harness this power on Capitol Hill," Davis said.