PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – The White House announcement that President Barack Obama and tribal leaders will meet in early November was greeted with elation at the National Congress of American Indians annual conference, but that happiness soon turned to disappointment for representatives of state-recognized tribes who learned they would be excluded from the historic event.
“The interests of the state tribes should be just as important as the interests of the federal tribes,” said the Rev. John Norwood, president of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation.
“I don’t begrudge our federal brothers and sisters one iota. I know they deal with different issues in some respects and I think having an audience to deal with those types of issues is appropriate. But to be snubbed and not to be told that there will be a meeting for us state recognized down the road is surprising,” Norwood said.
Obama’s invitation to meet was delivered on Columbus Day during NCAI’s 66th Annual Conference and Trade Show in Palm Springs. The conference was attended by tribal leaders and representatives from almost 150 tribal nations.
Joe Garcia, who was still president of the national organization at the time, expressed the general sentiment of happiness that Obama would make good on his campaign promise to meet with the tribes.
“Indian country has been waiting for well over a decade for a meeting of this caliber with the President of the United States.”
The meeting will take place Nov. 5 at the Sidney R. Yates Auditorium at the Department of the Interior.
Leaders of the 564 federally recognized tribes have been issued invitations to send one representative to the meeting. The announcement said tribal leaders will be given the opportunity to interact directly with the president and other top administration officials.
“I look forward to hearing directly from the leaders in Indian country about what my administration can do to not only meet their needs, but help improve their lives and the lives of their peoples,” Obama said.
Larry Townsend, the tribal veterans service officer for the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, said NCAI should be pushing to have the state recognized tribes included.
“This organization is the National Congress of American Indians. It’s not the National Congress of the Federally Recognized American Indians. So NCAI has an obligation and a duty to make sure its members are duly represented, but we’re being told (the meeting) is for federally recognized tribes only. Is NCAI differentiating between us? Are we or are we not Indian tribes? I heard on the podium this morning that we’re an organization for all Indians.”
Townsend said representatives of state recognized tribes had complained to NCAI leadership about being left out.
“We voiced our objections to Jefferson Keel (the newly elected NCAI president), Joe Garcia, Juana Majel-Dixon, who is the first vice president, Theresa Two Bulls, the secretary, and Ron Allen, the treasurer. And there are others who feel like us. We’re all in this boat together. We’re like a chain. We’re only as strong as our weakest link,” Townsend said.
“NCAI does not set the White House invitation list. NCAI has urged the White House to include the state recognized tribes, most recently in NCAI Resolution PSP-09-008. In past meetings that administrations have had with tribal leaders, state recognized tribes were also not invited. This is not a new precedent that the White House does not include federally recognized tribes. Simply put, NCAI does not make this decision,” Keel said.
Norwood said Obama received the support of almost all of Indian country, including state and federally recognized tribes, and non-recognized Indian people, and said he was disappointed that history seems to be repeating itself.
“This is the second time it’s happened since I’ve been involved with NCAI. The first time was under George Bush, but we kind of understood that. I guess it’s a shocker that Obama is doing the same thing, because all of Indian country is the same. We were sovereign before the existence of the United States.”
When NCAI interfaces with the federal government, it should represent all of the tribes, Norwood said.
“Our situation needs to be addressed by this administration, because what you have effectively in this country is a form of apartheid, but it’s at a tribal level and I’m hoping Obama will fix that.”
Norwood said the state recognized tribes are talking about coordinating their efforts to address the issue.
Pointing to himself and Lance Gumbs, Shinnecock and NCAI’s newly elected representative for the northeast region, Norwood said, “You have two of the tribes of first contact sitting here at this table and to consider the fact that we’re being snubbed – it’s an insult and it’s insensitive and it also shows a lack of understanding. My hope is we can communicate that to the administration so we don’t repeat the last eight years.”
It’s a story that needs to be told, Gumbs said.
“Inside or outside of NCAI, this is a problem and we as state tribes need to start addressing what’s going on. It’s great that our federal brothers are going, but a piece of card doesn’t make them more Indian than us. That’s just reality. I was born Indian and I’ll die Indian.”