MASHANTUCKET, Conn. - A vigorous contest for national Indian leadership is heading to the week-long National Congress of American Indians meeting after making the rounds of regional tribal meetings and drawing the close attention of the White House.
The slate of Ernest Stensgar and Joseph Garcia presented its challenge to incumbent NCAI president Tex Hall at the recent annual meeting of the United South and Eastern Tribes. The line-up on the face of it could pit the smaller tribes of the Northwest, Southwest and East against tribes with large land bases and populations on central issues like BIA reorganization, the Trust Fund lawsuit and the Sovereignty Protection initiative, even though all candidates are calling for unity.
Stensgar, a regional NCAI delegate now running for president, has been chairman of the Coeur d'Alene Tribal Council since 1986 and president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, representing 55 Tribes, since 1996. Garcia, of the San Juan Pueblo of New Mexico, is running in tandem for re-election as NCAI First Vice President. Both Stensgar and Garcia made short speeches to the board of directors at USET on Oct. 22, emphasizing their grass-roots challenge to what they depicted as an NCAI agenda over-influenced by its Washington, D.C. staff.
Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes, Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara, of Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, is seeking re-election after a busy first term dominated by negotiations with the BIA and the Department of Interior on attempts to resolve the Trust fund issue. The NCAI has also sponsored legislative attempts to protect tribal sovereignty from potential harm from the U.S. Supreme Court and has intervened with legal briefs in several major cases.
In an interview with Indian Country Today, Hall argued for tribal unity in a hostile environment. "We are under attack," he said. "These are critical times."
Although Stensgar has devoted more energy to personal campaigning then to detailed criticism of Hall's program, he draws a clear line on one issue, Interior's restructuring of the BIA in response to the trust fund debacle. His election brochures promise to work to halt this reorganization and "insist that Tribal leaders have a meaningful role in this process." Both Hall and Stensgar fought Interior's 2001 proposal to break out the BIA's trust duties into a separate Bureau of Indian Trust Affairs Management (BITAM).
Garcia took the lead, along with New Mexico's All Indian Pueblo Council, in freezing a Congressional bill supported by the Sovereignty Protection Initiative. The bill would have allowed a due process appeal from tribal courts to the federal court system, but the pueblos refused to allow outside review of their traditional courts. Garcia spoke passionately about sovereignty in his USET talk.
"Nobody granted us sovereignty," he said. "We were given our sovereignty by the Creator."
In an oblique criticism of Stensgar, Hall noted that he had testified at length about the Trust Fund issue in a number of Congressional hearings. "I'm not certain what his position is," Hall said.
Hall said that federal judge Royce Lamberth has recognized the NCAI as a source of expertise in the class action Cobell suit on the individual trust fund accounts, accepting a friend of the court brief even though the NCAI was primarily concerned with the tribal trust accounts. The issues were the same, Hall said.
Hall also noted that the White House had become involved, pushing a rider in the Interior Appropriations Bill to put a moratorium on the court-order "historical accounting" of the trust accounts. "That's not good," he said.
The campaign comes to a head at the NCAI meeting in Albuquerque on Nov. 19, when NCAI bylaws require nominations for its four top positions. According to a staff member, the congress will print ballots overnight for voting which begins Nov. 20. The NCAI elections committee headed by Juanita Ahtone will supervise vote counting with new electronic ballot reading machines and should have the results by the end of the day.
NCAI voting procedures actually give an edge to smaller tribes. Each tribe has a vote weighted according to population, ranging from 100 to 180 for the largest. But no matter how small a tribe, it will have a minimum vote of 100. The vote total is expected to exceed 20,000.
In spite of the energetic campaign, both Stensgar and Garcia emphasized the need for a unified Indian voice at the USET meeting, whose theme was "Unity."
A highlight of the gathering, based at the Mashantucket Pequot's Foxwoods Casino Resort, actually took place at the nearby Mohegan Sun convention center, when the three federally recognized Connecticut tribes hosted a joint reception for delegates. Nearly four centuries of historic division ended when Mark Brown, chairman of the Mohegan tribe, joined Mashantucket Chairman Michael Thomas and Eastern Pequot chairwoman Marcia Jones Flowers on the dais in the Mohegan Sun convention room. The meeting, the first that all three tribes hosted together, symbolically ended animosities that had lingered since the Mohegans sided with the English settlers in the Pequot War of 1637.