NCAI maps strategy for new political landscape

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MASHANTUCKET, Conn. - Facing a new political world with Republican control of the White House and Congress, more than 500 tribal leaders met to work out lobbying positions during a four-day mid-year session of the National Congress of American Indians.

"Proactive" was the word of the hour here at Foxwoods Casino Resort on issues like energy, education and land-into-trust. Some speakers expressed hope for good relations with the new regime, though some delegates privately remained skeptical.

"We are making strides with the new Congress," NCAI President Sue Masten told delegates. "We are making friends."

With the new administration's emphasis on local government, "We are stepping up our outreach to the state governors and attorney generals."

Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., the most prominent national politician to speak, emphasized a common outlook in the Republican policy of "self-determination."

Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, were invited but canceled at the last minute.

Carole Anne Heart, president of the National Indian Education Association, warned that the Bush administration's education budget threatened scholarship money for American Indian students.

"In Lakota country, a lot of the schools are really old," the Lakota-Dakota parent from the Standing Rock Reservation said. She urged continued pressure on the president to deliver on his promised investment in tribal school construction.

"When you go to Washington, remember education as an important issue," she said. Citing the president's campaign slogan, she said, "We need to convey that some of our children are left behind."

New land-into-trust regulations came to the forefront as well. "Absolutely," said Tex G. Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsa) and co-chairman of the NCAI Land Recovery Task Force. He said his group was seeking a one-to-one meeting with Secretary Norton in the next 60 days to support the final rule on land acquisition published Jan. 16 but suspended by the Bush White House right after the inauguration.

During a memorial session, several delegates pledged tribal and personal money to a fund to hire a full-time task force staff person to prepare for the meeting.

"Taking land into trust is a critical part of addressing tribes' need to build a longterm self-sustaining, independent community," Hall said.

On the same lines, the session launched a new Initiative for the Protection of Sacred Lands, endorsing the principle, "Sacred sites need to be protected for future generations so our children will understand their identity."

Energy issues also came to the fore as tribes braced to protect their interests in the president's new policy. "Tribes have borne a disproportionate share of the burden from energy development yet are among those who benefit least from," warned an NCAI position paper."

On the social side, the host Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation presented special blankets to members of the NCAI executive committee.

Mashantucket Chairman Kenneth Reels recalled the hardships once faced by his people as he gave a sometimes earthy explanation of the landmarks depicted on the blanket.

"The water tower is especially important to me," he said, recalling his former duty of rationing the tribal water supply during the drought days of August.