WASHINGTON - The National Congress of American Indians Executive Council Winter Session took place Feb. 23 - 25 in a climate of urgent concern over the evolving position of Indian country within the framework of federal law and policy.
Key Supreme Court decisions touching on tribal sovereignty, as well as the service-consolidation policies and prospective budget cuts of President George W. Bush, seem to have rallied Indian country and its allies to a reckoning determination, stated often and strongly, to assert and strengthen tribal sovereignty in the current election year, especially by getting out the Indian vote.
But a succession of riveting speakers brought up a host of other subjects too. Their comments have been grouped below under relevant subject headings.
Tex Hall, the NCAI president and chairman of Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota, began the Winter Session with a call to get out a million Indian voters in the 2004 elections.
To that end, NCAI has established an Indian Vote 2004 program, and co-chair Holly Cook was one among several speakers who reiterated an underlying theme: "We will not support candidates who do not support our sovereignty."
For the 2004 election, she added, Indian Vote 2004 will track candidates' campaign promises on Indian affairs for follow-through, and profile Indian voters in certain congressional districts. The profiling in those districts will seek to demonstrate the number of tribal members eligible to vote, the number of eligible voters who register to vote, and the number of eligible registered voters who actually vote, Cook said.
Tribal voter registration tool kits are available from Indian Vote 2004. For more information, Cook referred people to the Web site www.nativevote.org .
Jackie Johnson, NCAI executive director, upped the ante so to speak by asking every tribe to assign one person as a point of contact for Indian Vote 2004.
Another Johnson, the South Dakota senatorial democrat Tim Johnson, said, "Some have referred to me as the poster child of Indian voting power" - properly so he added. Johnson won election to the Senate by 524 votes in 2002, as a direct result of an unprecedented Indian turnout.
The Indian engagement reflected in the turnout, and the success represented by his own narrow victory, galvanized many tribal members who had gone cynical on politics, he said. "They have become a force" in local elections now, he said. "The political profile of that state will never be the same."
On the national level, he added, "We're going to start slating [for electoral defeat] people who don't treat trust and treaty obligations with the respect they deserve."
At the close of Johnson's comments Steve Emery, representing the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, sang him a powerful honor song whose key phrase was Wicasa Tanka, Big Man - "It takes a big man to stand up for Indians back where we're from."
By that standard, an honor song is sure to come Rep. Dale Kildee's way. The Michigan democrat, co-chairman of the Congressional Native American Caucus which he also helped to found, reminded his audience that many congressional elections are decided by 1 percent or less of the total voter turnout. "You represent, in many places, the balance of power."
(Continued in Part Two)