Skip to main content

Through the lens at NCAI

WASHINGTON - The National Congress of American Indians does not endorse political candidates, but on May 7, it released a detailed platform urging all candidates in the current political season to support government-to-government relations between tribes and candidates for Congress and the executive branch, the cultural rights of American Indians and Alaska Natives, and the adequate funding of their health needs.

The more extensive online platform document for 2008 added other priorities, but a first cut for the press and media of limited excerpts suggested that NCAI has disciplined its demands in a downfallen economy, with budget restrictions being felt across the board. W. Ron Allen, the current NCAI secretary, former treasurer and president, described the impact of the economy's derailment on tribes.

''We're losing ground big-time. All domestic programs are, but Indian programs are just getting devastated, categorically. The BIA, IHS, HUD. The only area I can see where we're making good progress is transportation. ... But we're getting hammered. We're getting hammered. And you gotta keep remembering: the majority of tribes just don't have any other resources. This [the federal budget] is their resource base to advance their mission of empowering the tribal government [to provide services to citizens]. So this is a big deal.''

Testifying May 13 before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on the tribal self-governance compacting process with the BIA and IHS, Allen ascribed the reduced expectations (for now) of a draft bill proposed by tribes to ''just a political reality factor that we're weaving in here.''

NCAI executive director Jacqueline Johnson confirmed the impression that a ''political reality factor'' influenced the platform as well. The platform is an exercise of tribal sovereignty, she said, echoing NCAI President Joe Garcia.

''We don't think that this is out of line to ask for.'' But the path to resources in the present hard times leads through ''beliefs, relationships, respect,'' Johnson added, implying that the more extensive legislative demands on past congresses could amount to a poke in the eye of potential allies right now.

At the same time, the NCAI platform gave candidates plenty to think about - and to work on once they're elected. Among the highlights:

On government-to-government relations, ''We believe that the federal government must consult with tribal governments on a government-to-government basis to develop Indian policy goals into planning and management activities, including the budget, operating guidance, legislative initiatives, management accountability systems and ongoing policy and regulation development processes.''

This plank finds its place in the platform after frequent, often strident, complaints from tribal and Native-organizational leaders about the alleged penchant of federal agencies for settling on onerous ''guidance,'' budgetary decisions, and administrative systems for tribes without their genuine prior participation - only notification and after-the-fact meetings designed to go through the motions. In the House of Representatives, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, has held a hearing on the consultation process and drafted a bill to address tribal complaints. The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs has also gotten an earful on consultation at recent hearings.

Under cultural rights, the platform calls for a policy to protect and preserve inherent Native freedom of belief, expression and traditional religions with all they entail of sacred places, objects, ceremonies and rites, and the repossession of human remains and associated funerary objects.

''In addition, the rights of tribal members must be protected to continue to hunt, fish and gather on traditional lands and places and engage in subsistence practices.''

As for health and health care, the platform's lead emphasis is on fuller funding of the many programs that assist Native people, including the Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, nutrition program; child immunization programs; Healthy Start; and the Drug Free Schools Act.

''Until tribal governments have the resources to combat the epidemic impacts of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, suicide and alcoholism - each disproportionately severe in Indian country - our very existence is at risk.''

The platform's call to reauthorize, strengthen and fully fund the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, aimed in many cases at candidates who will not be elected until near the close of the current 110th Congress, is not a sign of doubt that sitting congressional members will move the current IHCIA reauthorization bill, Johnson said. ''No concession,'' she added with emphasis.

A bill has passed in the Senate, but a counterpart bill in the House has been threatened with an amendment that would cut off any funding under its authority to the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, pending resolution of freedmen rights. Cherokee freedmen are the descendants of slaves and free blacks who lived among the Cherokee before, during and after the Civil War; the Cherokee voted, in effect, to expel them from the tribe. The freedmen contend the referendum violated an 1866 treaty that made them Cherokee citizens.

Courts and the BIA have intervened, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, among others, are threatening to penalize the Cherokee on several counts - including the IHCIA reauthorization bill.

Johnson said the dispute is an issue for the bill, but not one that will prevent it from coming to a vote in the House.