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Tribal Leaders Gather in D.C. to Protect Indians from Budget-Slashing

A story about a three-day gathering in Washington, D.C., and hosted by National Congress of American Indians, in which American Indian tribal leaders presented a united front to Congress on a variety of issues important to Indian country.

Hundreds of tribal leaders, according to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), traveled to the nation’s capital in mid-October to present a united front to Congress on a variety of issues important to Indian country—most prominent among them is protecting Native programs from cuts, given the dire budgetary situation.

The three-day gathering, hosted by the NCAI, culminated October 11 in the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building with a sometimes-tense strategy session. Among the issues discussed were protecting the Indian affairs federal budget; securing a congressional Carcieri fix to the land-into-trust mess created by the Supreme Court in 2009; and best practices for uniting the divergent interests of 565 unique federally recognized tribes. Ideas for preventing violence toward Indian women were also discussed.

Tribal leaders are apprehensive about the federal budget because they know lawmakers are desperately seeking to cut funding to a variety of programs in an attempt to make up the large budget shortfall. Tribal leaders feel that some uninformed Congress members do not understand how much good comes from the funding for tribal programs—and how much more is needed. “There is still an effort to do away with [federal] trust responsibility for tribes,” said Jefferson Keel, president of NCAI, in a speech kicking off the session. He was referring to proposals released this year by some Republican lawmakers to slash funding to Indians—without regard to their unique constitutional- and law-based status, which is supposed to protect them.

Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-California, a member of the all-important congressional “super committee” charged with finding an additional $1.5 trillion in debt savings over a 10-year period, told tribal leaders that there is “nothing like pressing the flesh” to be sure they are heard. “Make sure you explain how much folks where you live have sacrificed,” he said.

Most of the tribal leaders visited congressional offices throughout Capitol Hill to do just that—with talking points in hand. Their main messages were highlighted in a letter sent from NCAI members, which noted that “[tribes] and tribal entities have patiently participated in the political process, but recognizing the urgency of these pressing issues, we are now increasing our call for congressional action.” The letter also said that tribes expect Congress to “act in a timely manner” on issues of tribal sovereignty and governance. A Carcieri fix, supported by the Obama administration back when Democrats were in control of both congressional chambers, has now been stalled for over two years.

Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of NCAI, told Becerra that tribes have long worked hard to make economic progress and to be efficient in their spending of federal dollars. “We’re a good investment,” she said. Becerra said Indian country needs to be able to specifically show how infrastructure investments have been working.

Cedric Cromwell, chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, said later in the session that federal investment in trust responsibility is more complex than just talking macro–budget level issues. “The super committee needs to be talking about trust responsibility and what can be done to enhance tribal economies” to, in turn, bolster the overall U.S. economy, Cromwell said. He noted that investments in tribes do much more than just help tribal communities, but also the localities and states that the tribes are in.

Some tribal leaders said that a summit with congressional members, similar to the two White House tribal meetings with President Barack Obama, would be useful. Tribal leaders could educate members of Congress on trust responsibility and other Indian issues that they may not be intimately familiar with. Keel expressed support for this, and a motion was presented for the NCAI and the United South and Eastern Tribes to make it happen.

On Carcieri, John Dossett, NCAI’s general counsel, noted that the land-into-trust picture remains murky for tribes, especially since a fix is stalled in Congress and a recent D.C. Circuit Court ruling found that the Quiet Title Act does not protect Indian lands. He said that this situation “threatens all tribes.” Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, agreed, saying that one of his legislative priorities remains amending the Indian Reorganization Act to make clear that the U.S. Department of the Interior can take land into trust for tribes regardless of when they were recognized by the federal government. “It is the responsibility of Congress to fix this,” he said.

An idea that seemed to be on everyone’s mind during NCAI’s Unity Week was what exactly it means to be united. On the topic, Keel said during his opening remarks that “together we can make a difference; individually we will continue to struggle.” Akaka agreed, adding, “By working together, you are demonstrating what we Native people have always known—we are more alike than we are different.”

But it is not always so easy to present a united front, Ben Shelly, president of the Navajo Nation, later told the group, expressing his view that sometimes the ideas of what he called “smaller tribes” appear to be in opposition to the will of the larger tribes, such as his own. “We need to support each other,” he said, adding that his tribe plans on building a United Nations–like entity of Indian governments to be hosted on Navajo lands.

Hiawatha Brown, a tribal councilman for the Narragansett Indian Tribe, touched on the complications of presenting a united front via an impromptu talk to his peers, lamenting that many did not support his tribe in its battle involving Carcieri until it was too late—after the Supreme Court had ruled in a way that hurt all of Indian country. “We had been fighting for years…but it is only in the last two years that you all have come to support us,” he said. “Collectively, many of our tribal leaders have become complacent.… There are only about 150 people in this room,” he added. “That’s pathetic!” he said, noting that there are more than 500 tribes throughout the country. “There are hundreds of thousands of us, how can our voices not be heard?”
With that, he called for prayer.