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Tribes descend on Washington

WASHINGTON - Education and advocacy on a number of issues were the focus of a two-day legislative conference sponsored by the National Indian Gaming Association and the National Congress of American Indians. Nearly 200 tribal leaders and their representatives took part.

"We know it's active on the hill this time of year. There's a lot of things going on, so we want tribal leaders in town," said Ernie Stevens Jr., newly elected association chairman and a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. "We're very excited about what we can get done."

There were strategy sessions and meetings with members of Congress and the administration. During the gathering, a variety of priority issues were outlined including: tribal gaming, energy issues, taxation, appropriations, education and welfare reform.

A number of tribal gaming issues were raised within Congress and the administration. Many association-member tribes are focused on proposed regulations drafted by the National Indian Gaming Commission which is charged with oversight and regulation of tribal gaming. The proposed regulations deal with the definition and classification of gaming terms under the law and environmental and safety regulations.

Throughout the draft process tribes expressed concern about how far new regulations many go, especially regarding environmental and safety issues.

In Congress, many gaming tribes also focused on proposed amendments to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act originally passed in 1989 which covers all tribal gaming activities. Proposed amendments include a bill, introduced by Sen Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., which many view as pro-tribal and another, introduced in the House by Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., which most tribes view as anti-tribal.

Campbell's bill, S. 832, would amend the definition of Class II gaming, establish a strategic plan to make the commission more accountable to tribal governments, recognize the authority of the commission to issue regulations on minimum standards, in negotiation with tribes, and outline the allocation of funds from fines imposed by the commission.

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Wolf's bill, which has not yet received a number, would expand authority of a state with regard to tribal/state gaming compacts. Under the proposed bill, approval of the state Legislature, in addition to the governor's approval, as outlined under current law, would be required to take land into trust for gaming purposes and for final approval of gaming compacts. It also would set up a commission to report to Congress on the current living and health standards in Indian country.

"This bill could snowball into something more significant, so we'll keep our eye on it," Stevens said. "Right now its just a challenge to the efforts of tribal leadership who could be doing other things. For those legislators to say they are doing this in the interests of tribes is just nonsense."

Other congressional issues discussed at length included: federal appropriations for tribes and the upcoming reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act and national welfare law. Reauthorization of both laws must occur before the end of the year, when they are due to expire.

The Indian Health Care Improvement Act initially was authorized by Congress in 1976 and enables the Indian Health Service to provide a variety of health care services to American Indian people. Tribal representatives have held meetings throughout the country on health care and welfare reform to draft language for the new measures.

The president's new energy policy and the inclusion of tribal governments in the search for solutions to the energy crisis came under scrutiny. Tribal governments and organizations have begun submitting policy documents and statements on the implications of the President Bush's proposed national energy policy and the need for tribal input.

"Our issues are broad, but we have to focus our efforts at the right time,"

Stevens said. "We are working on that and I hope we'll even see some results by the end of the week."