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NCAI prepares for federal government transition

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ST. PAUL, Minn. - Confusion over the national election took top billing at the National Congress of American Indians 57th annual gathering.

A focus was to strategize about the makeup of the new, 107th Congress and the new administration. But, day after day, there was no word on who the new president was to be.

So, hundreds of tribal leaders who attended the NCAI gathering set about to plan for working with the transition teams of both political parties. The best advice any advisor or tribal leader could come up with is to prepare two transition teams to lobby each political party and affect appointments of cabinet-level people, staff and agency and bureau heads.

A resolution that established a pro-active agenda to create two groups of transition team advocates passed. And, for the first time in the history of the NCAI, an official position was taken to organize the effort to meet with both parties and put forward a personnel, policy and budgetary wish list.

Advice to the NCAI delegates boiled down to preparing a unified, yet succinct, focus that can be taken into the transition process. The advice was not to come up with a lot of names, but to offer one or two, and should one name advanced by either party be acceptable or favorable over another, to push for the person most favorable for Indian country.

This advice was offered frequently by many of those brought to the convention to help plan strategy. Tom Collier, former chief of staff with Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt and now a member of the law firm Steptoe and Johnson, said that if Gov. George W. Bush is elected, he will govern by compromise. He told the convention delegates they could influence the appointments to the various offices, but need to be realistic about the approach.

"Suggest people who have a real chance to get the job. If not, you are wasting your time. Don't bring in five or six names. Reach out beyond a few committees and jobs and be relentless. If the president of this organization and 13 other tribal leaders request a meeting they will get it," Collier said.

As to the names on any short list, the convention advisors said nobody is talking about any names, but a lot of speculation is circulating across the country.

And while the election results, or lack thereof, were on the lips of most of the delegates, the count in Washington state continued with no definite result between Sen. Slade Gorton and Rep. Marie Cantwell. But when it was mentioned that Gorton might lose, delegates in the grand ballroom cheered. It was a means for any speaker to get the crowd involved.

"American Indians had more effect on this campaign than any other. Indian country has the money now and can use the vehicle to effect elections. We have to show that we make a difference," said W. Ron Allen, vice president of the NCAI.

"This is the kind of campaign that gives us respect. Slade had to fight."

If Gorton wins the election, Gerry Sikorski, former House member from Minnesota and now a member of the law firm Holland and Knight, said he will have to be neutralized.

"If Bush is president, there will a shift of power to the states. He will reduce funding to Indian country and the executive orders will be watered down," Sikorski said.

He said an offensive strategy is useful, as shown by the 106th Congress which he said was "spectacular, in spite of a hostile house and Slade Gorton."

If Gore takes the president's office, Indian country would be in good shape, he said.

Bruce Babbitt, outgoing secretary of Interior, said he will leave office with pride and satisfaction for the past eight years of his administration. He reminded delegates that education was important and told people not to lose track of the Clinton orders on self-governance. "They will be binding orders to the next government."

The spiritual and cultural traditions are important tools to use when fighting attacks on sovereignty, Babbitt said.

"The larger community responds when they can hear about spiritual reality. Struggle to restore and breathe life into the treaties of the 1850s. People understand the place the spirit of the salmon plays. People now understand how Native Americans are so passionate about treaties, and the emerging role of the bison, a sacred organizing symbol of the culture. Over the coming years they will come back," Babbitt said.

Babbitt emphasized the power of tribal unity when 12 tribes joined together to articulate their spiritual connection to a mountain being mined for the sand used to stone wash blue jeans.

"The spiritual connection swept into public opinion and the mining stopped. I vowed this sacrilege would stop. I didn't know I could do it, but it's because of the tribal leaders," he said.

The successes that could be gained in the 107th Congress will be hard fought and may be few, pundits allege.

Phil Baker-Shenk, former chief of staff for the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs under Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said there will be a need to coordinate and play smart.

"The lame-duck session could turn into a long-term disability. In the next few years the Republicans will be in charge of the House because of redistricting."

Baker-Shenk offered a number of names for possible positions that a transition advocacy team can watch for. For Department of Interior, he said Marc Racicot of Montana, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Al Simpson and Slade Gorton are names that may be on the list.

He said Gorton expressed a desire to be considered for Attorney General, along with Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma and Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri.

Collier added the names of Mike Sullivan, former governor of Wyoming, and John Turner. If Gore wins, he said, "I wouldn't be surprised to see Babbitt stay.

But for all the speculation on names it was not clear which party would be in the White House. So, by resolution, the NCAI convention delegates adopted a plan to solve the problem of transition team influencing.

NCAI began to prepare for the transition by having member tribes appoint two representatives and two alternates from each of the 12 regions to each of two teams, Democrat and Republican. The purpose, as stated by the resolution, would be to interface and advocate for the needs of Indian tribes and nations with transition teams of the respective political parties.

This is a standing resolution that will take effect at every presidential election.

The idea for the transition advocacy teams came from Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes. Hall's motion followed the advice of Letitia Chambers of Chambers and Associates. Chambers acted as chief budget advisor for the 1992 Clinton/Gore transition team.

"Transition is a good time to influence appointments. Get your budget numbers to the transition team. It does have an effect. Get to the people and let then know about how you want Indian policy to look in the next administration," Chambers said.

The resolution stated the transition teams would be selected before the end of the convention.

For all the attention given to the election outcome and the strategy Indian country will impose in influencing appointments and policy, the NCAI covered more ground and addressed ongoing and pertinent issues.

Bill Richardson, secretary of Energy, told the convention delegates there were "some serious issues affecting Indian country.

"Indian homes are disproportionately without electricity. American Indian homes are more likely to spend a greater share for electricity, 20 percent as compared to the average home of 9 percent.

"There is a potential for wind and solar energy. Sixty reservations have renewable energy. Companies need to be given the incentive to invest in Indian country, on your terms," Richardson said. He encouraged the NCAI to get more involved with the energy problem. He said the Department of Energy worked with NCAI over the years to effect change in policy.

The convention was attended by more than 1,300 delegates from some 130 tribes across the country. They covered international issues, gaming, black-Indian relations, trust policy, HIV/AIDS, Indian Health Care Improvement Act, sustainable economic development, tribal-state relations, law enforcement environmental issues and others.

Missing from the agenda was any session on education. Carole Anne Heart, president of the National Indian Education Association, advocated for time to address the convention floor. She told delegates that while they were dealing with the issue of sovereignty, educators were dealing with intellectual sovereignty.

NCAI delegates took time out to honor three members who passed on during the past year. Joe DeLaCruz, Quinault, former NCAI president; Gerald Clifford, Oglala, former NCAI Aberdeen Area vice president, and Helen Peterson, former NCAI executive director.