The briefest speech of the summit came from Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., who took the podium between votes and committee hearings on Capitol Hill. He began with the booming announcement that as co-chairman of the Congressional Native American Caucus, he hopes to grow the caucus to 125 members or more and then raise money to create a Web site featuring the priority issues of the caucus:
''And then I'm going to start posting who's voting with us and who's voting against us. It's not about Republicans or Democrats, but we'll find out who's with us and who is against us, okay?
''I represent the largest land-mass of poverty in the United States. It's not Republican or Democrat. It's too big an issue for one party. I need warriors and I need fighters, and I need congressmen to vote in bloc for Native Americans and for Indian country. That's it. You guys go back to business and make it happen.''
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., spent most of his speech to the plenary session of the National Congress of American Indians Tribal Nations Legislative Summit outlining specific legislation. He predicted, for instance, that a bill to ease labor organizing laws, having passed in the House of Representatives over his opposition, will not make it out of the Senate. Tribes are watching labor developments closely this Congress, following court approvals of a National Labor Relations Board ruling that would permit unionization at tribal casinos, a move many tribes consider a threat to revenues that underwrite extensive tribal governmental services.
Cole concluded with a more general endorsement of tribal sovereignty that got attendees on their feet:
''We are in an extraordinarily important time, I think, in Indian country. I certainly see this in the part of Indian country that I'm privileged to represent. Tribal governments that I deal with have never been as prosperous as they are today, and they've never been involved in as many enterprises as they are today. But they've also never had as many threats to their sovereignty, at least for not in along time. And you're going to see this battle, again, come forward in different formats. And it's not really a Republican battle or a Democratic battle. It's a battle of sovereign entities to try and infringe upon us in different ways.
''I was listening with great interest to the legal case that was just discussed in terms of the National Labor Relations Act. That is a real challenge and a real problem to us, because we're going to see in these areas a labor union trying to encroach really on sovereign rights, and I think that's going to be one of the big battles moving forward. It's a battle we didn't have to worry as much about, at least in the legislative arena, in a Republican [majority] Congress, but it's one we're worrying more about in a Democratic Congress. I don't want to be un-evenhanded, because we had to worry a lot more about the efforts to deal with IGRA [Indian Gaming Regulatory Act], I think, in the Republican Congress, than we did with a Democratic Congress. So it's sort of, you know, one threatens one way, one threatens another.
''But the fundamental issue here is always, always, always tribal sovereignty. Every enterprise that you have, every program we have, every position we hold depends in the end on being able to maintain the rights and status of tribes as individual sovereign units, and their unique government-to-government relations with the United States of America. I hope, and I think, I've demonstrated in my two terms [in Congress]: I hold that principle really above all else. I think it's a constitutional principle. It's in the Constitution, and frankly I think when you take an oath to uphold the Constitution, whether you realize it or not, you're taking an oath the sovereignty of Indian nations as well.
''My goal is to make sure that our members of Congress on both sides of the aisle understand that. You can't say you're a conservative, you know, and not be for conserving the Constitution. You can't say you're liberal and 'I believe in the rights in the Constitution' without being for that. All this is about is giving individual tribes the ability to control their own affairs.
''The government of the United States recognized from the very conception that that's the way in which it wanted to deal with Indian nations. Sometimes that's been to our disadvantage. Sometimes it's to our advantage. When it's to our disadvantage, I don't notice a lot of people wanting to change it. When it's too our advantage, I certainly notice a lot of people who seem jealous of it and anxious about it. And I think as we go through what I really do believe is a renaissance in Indian country; we're going to see a lot more of that jealousy. We saw it in the IGRA legislation of last year; we were able to beat it back. I think we see it now in some of these court decisions dealing with labor unions.
''But at the end of the day, I promise you this: I will fight to the last bullet quite frankly on all of these issues. And I don't aver this is just unique to my district. I'm very privileged. Obviously I've got my own tribe, the Chickasaw; I've got the great Comanche Nation and the Fort Sill Apaches. Cheyenne-Arapaho country reaches into my area, as does Choctaw country. There's a lot of great tribes in my part of the world that I get to represent [in Congress]. But the reality is, if Indian sovereignty is diminished on the East Coast, the West Coast, or any place in America, it is diminished everywhere. We have a very profound interest in what goes on around the country. And this is an issue on which we may have different opinions on this or that issue, but tribes can never, ever be divided when it comes up to giving away pieces of their sovereignty. Because I promise you this: any piece that escapes control, we'll never recapture again. And so we're very, very intent on making sure that that never happens, and that we build on the prosperity and the opportunity that are in front of us as we go forward.''
Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., co-chairman of the Congressional Native American Caucus, repeated some of the themes that have endeared him to Indian country for many years. Along the way he got laughter and ovations; afterward, as a measure of his stature with tribes, his pro-labor positions in a heavily unionized state did not come up, despite tribes' engagement largely against the fallout from a National Labor Relations Board ruling that could open the door to unionization at casinos. In the past, Kildee co-signed a letter of opposition to a proposed legislative ''fix'' of the NLRB ruling, on grounds the Republican measure was ''unnecessarily divisive.'' Now it appeared that NCAI delegates and attendees had taken the precaution to heart, and Kildee's speech admitted no doubt of his solidarity with them:
''We know that progress has been made and is being made in Indian country, but there's still a big disparity between the first Americans and the rest of our nation. And without adequate funding, you know, you can't do things. I always distinguish between a get-well card and a Blue Cross card. Very often, the president will send you a get-well card. What you really need is a Blue Cross card. And that's the appropriation, right? There's where you really show the value of a person, by the appropriations.
''And we have a trust responsibility also. And that trust responsibility is not just a patronizing [trust] - not at all a patronizing trust. It's between two sovereignties. And that trust responsibility is based upon treaties and executive orders and also the expropriation of much of your lands. So we have a trust responsibility to make sure that our Indian families have safe and affordable housing, that our Indian students can be educated in well-constructed schools, that our Indian elders especially, but all Indians have adequate health care, and that the roads on our Indian reservations are adequate.
''I'm disappointed with the president's 2008 budget. He says nice words in the first part of it, but when you look at the cuts you can find out really that the Blue Cross card did not come along with that get-well card. Within the Interior Department, the president eliminates the Housing Improvement Program, which is a 23.4 million [dollar] program that serves the poorest individuals. Eliminates it! Now that sends a message to Indian country that we're not going to carry out our trust responsibility.
''In addition, while the president talks about improving Indian education in his get-well card, his proposal decreases funding for Indian school construction, and I've been to many of those Indian schools - you've heard me tell this before - I've been in Indian schools that a federal judge would not let us keep prisoners in. I know that because they tore down a prison in my district because the federal judge said it was not fit for human habitation, and I know a BIA principle who would love to have had that building. It was better than the [school] building that he had. His proposal also decreases post-secondary scholarships, eliminates the funding for the BIA's two vocational education programs, and for a second year in a row - and we're not gonna do it - he's asking us to eliminate the Johnson O'Malley program. Now Kim Teehee, on my staff over here, Kim benefited from the Johnson O'Malley.
''He talks about safe Indian communities, but he also eliminates the Fire Protection Public Safety Program, and decreases funding for tribal courts. This is what you really have to look at in a budget, how a person spends one's money. You can judge a person by how they spend their money. ... When you eliminate these programs, you can really find out the real values of a person. And we're not going to let it happen in the Congress. We have people like [Rep.] Patrick Kennedy [D-RI], my dear friend, one of the founders of the [Congressional] Native American Caucus, who is on the Appropriations Committee [in the House of Representatives]. Patrick is alert, and he's got a good head and a good heart. And he's going to fight these cuts there. And we're going to find - I want to be fair here - we're going to find friends on both sides of the aisle, and find new friends on both sides of the aisle. We're going to find a Rick Renzi, who's the co-chair of the Native American Caucus, along with me. And work with your friends on both sides of that aisle.
''You know, on many of our nation's reservations we have a - I talked to the Ute, Mountain Ute tribe yesterday. And they have a serious problem with methamphetamine. And yet dollars for that, dollars for law enforcement, have been cut.
''So it's time really that this administration make a serious commitment to meet the unmet needs of Indian country. So reducing these programs, and eliminating these programs, is not the way to go.
''Let me talk to you about some of the things we are going to be doing this year. We're going to consider some positive legislative proposals this year, in addition to try to restore the proposed cuts. The Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act was first enacted in 1996. It's the first piece of comprehensive housing legislation directed solely to Native Americans. And I will reintroduce the reauthorization of that bill this year. It will be introduced by me and I've been working with HUD [Housing and Urban Development], with Financial Services [Committee] Chairman [Rep.] Barney Frank [D-Mass.], Chairwoman [of the House Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity] Maxine Waters [D-Calif.], who is a very, very good friend of yours, as well as my Senate colleagues, on approving NAHASDA. That's a very important housing program. Proud to have my name first on that bill, and we'll get co-sponsors from both parties on that bill.
''No Child Left Behind - I'm chairman of the subcommittee that has jurisdiction over that. We're going to reauthorize that this year. There's some defects in the No Child Left Behind period, but one of the biggest things about it - it's $70 billion under funded. One of the biggest unfunded mandates that the Congress has ever passed. Seventy billion dollars. We're going to try to reauthorize that and make sure that the money flows to the Indian communities in a proper way.
''That's how I first got started on Indian matters down here in Washington. I had done that for 12 years in Lansing, Michigan, the state capital. But when I first came down here, I noticed money would flow to state education agencies and local education agencies, and I would always offer an amendment 'and to Indian tribes.' And that's when Carl Perkins [the late congressman from Kentucky], who was chairman at the time, called me up there and said, 'I notice you've been adding Indian tribes' - they had no problem with that - 'but could you head up an Indian task force?' And I headed up that task force, and that's when I went out and started visiting Indian schools. I think I've told you this before too, but I would get calls after awhile from BIA principles, they'd say 'Congressman, would you come out to my school, or just tell the BIA you're coming out to my school. Because they're there a week ahead of time, fixing things up.' ...
''The Indian Health Care Improvement Act. [Rep.] Nick Joe Rahall [D-W.Va.] is going to reauthorize, introduce that this year, and Nick Joe Rahall is a very good friend of yours, and he's chairman now of the Natural Resources committee.
''We're going to have legislation for tax-exempt bonds. And you know the IRS has kind of confused things. They let the state of Michigan use the tax-exempt bonds without limitations, but they say that if you're going to build a road and it might help a casino, we can't let you issue tax-exempt bonds. We're going to try to clarify that with the IRS, because very often that road serves many functions within your reservation. It might peripherally, or it might to a great degree help the casino. But the state of Michigan has a lottery, and they don't hold the state of Michigan back from issuing tax-exempt bonds. And the Constitution says 'Congress shall have the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations, the several states, and Indian tribes.' You should never let them diminish you below that sovereignty of the states.
''The telecommunication act by omission left you out. That's going to be reauthorized. I want to make sure that you're put in there too.
''The Special Diabetes Program. I want to give credit to Kim Teehee. Kim did a great job of really doubling that amount from seventy-five million to a hundred and fifty million. That's up for reauthorization this year; we want to keep that money going. Because we know that diabetes throughout our country is an increasing problem. But more so in Indian country. And that seventy-five million to a hundred fifty million dollars has done a lot to help on that.
''I'm going to end up by saying this ... just end up with what I always say: your sovereignty is your most precious possession. And sometimes someone may come to you and say well, if you do this, and give us a little more authority over you here, we'll give you that. Don't - don't exchange your sovereignty for anything. Your sovereignty is recognized in the U.S. Constitution. It's not given to you in the U.S. Constitution; it's recognized. So everything has to whirl around that sovereignty which you have, and which is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
''I'm getting new members of the Native American Caucus this year. We're approaching all the new [congressional] members and asking them to join. And I show them the U.S. Constitution; show them Article 1, Section 8 that recognizes your sovereignty. And if they believe in that sovereignty - first, gotta believe in it to join the Native American Caucus - then they have to tell me that they will have the courage to vote for Native American sovereignty. But that then is all they need to do to join the Native American Caucus, those two things. So if you have a new member of Congress from your area, you go to them and tell them that one of the things internally to the Congress to help maintain sovereignty is the Native American Caucus. You externally are going to make sure that people who come to Congress believe in that sovereignty.''
Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, knew just what to say at a national Indian women's ''Supporting Each Other Luncheon,'' one of several satellite events around the NCAI summit. An audience of more than 100 alternated between spellbound reverence and laughter as the senator made his homage to Patricia Zell, honored at the luncheon along with Rachel Joseph and Veronica Homer:
''My brothers and sisters, twenty years ago I suddenly found myself thrust into an unfamiliar position: Chairman of the [Senate] Select Committee on Indian Affairs. It was called Select Committee very significantly, because it meant 'temporary.' They were all scheduled to wipe out the Indian Committee. And so they put me in there, I suppose, to wipe it out. And I must say that like most Americans, non-Native Americans, I knew zilch about Indians. I was brought up with Pocahontas and Captain Smith. I knew Sitting Bull, who was supposed to be a conniving, murderous leader. I saw a couple of movies on the bad man Geronimo. And I think all of us knew Tonto.
''That was the extent of my knowledge of Indian country. You know, that's a sad commentary on America. But I think if you analyze most Americans, you will find that what I've just said is closer to the truth.
''And so I took it upon myself, not to hire new staff, because who do I know in Hawaii who knows more about Native Americans than I do. So I adopted the staff, that was leaderless, we had left. Now I didn't know them. Yes, I had been to meetings, but you never took it seriously. And there was this young lady, lovely young lady, a Navajo, called Patricia Zell. Brilliant. ... She has a law degree. Masters at law. Editor of the Law Review. And so I said, 'Get me three books, and I'll read them in two weeks, so I can know something about Indian country.
''Well, I depended upon her. She got me three books. And they were all on massacres. Really nothing on the history, just on massacres - a wise Indian woman. 'Get that guy angry.' Indian men don't go to war. It's the women who tell them to go to war. Study the life of the other great leaders, you'll see that the women were in the back saying, 'Old man, go.' If you didn't go, out you went.
''So she sent me, and I read, the massacres of the Pequots, massacres of the Cherokees, and she got what she wanted. She had on her hands a very angry chairman of the committee. And so I decided to just plow into this matter, knowing very little, but being angry.
''Through all the years, I've had the privilege of working with Patricia Zell; she is without question the finest woman I've known here, next to my wife that is. She is the most knowledgeable, and I know that all of you are very knowledgeable, but I think she is the most on Indian law. She is second to none. In her dedication, she is just as dedicated as all of you.
''And so it's a great privilege to be here to say to Patricia: I thank you very much for all you've done for Indian country. I think I can say with confidence that as a result of her work, Indian country sovereignty is much greater today than it was before. I can say with some confidence that we put Indian gaming in a proper path, so that yakuzas and mafia won't take over. I can say with great confidence that the education program, which was next to nil, at least is moving forward now. I can say with some confidence that the programs we set up for jobs and employment with the Defense Department is flourishing in certain areas. And what pleases me is that the suicide rate of young Indians has come down. And we can say to Patricia: thank you very much. The Navajos in Hawaii say mahalo nui loa. ...
''My message to you is, I'm so glad that Indian women are standing up to be recognized. Because in any society, whenever women stand up to speak their minds and to be recognized, the society improves. In the United States Senate, we are finally getting women, and we men feel threatened but that's the way it should be. I think the time is coming, who knows, but we may have a woman president, and that's nice.
''So Patricia ... I still have those three books. I'm going to set them aside to say, 'This is where my war path started.'''