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Unity, commitment needed to protect common interests

CROW AGENCY, Mont. – Tribal unity and commitment is necessary to combat many of the federal government’s funding and policy authorizations that hurt Indian country, large reservation tribal leaders claim.

A coalition of the Council of Large Land-Based Tribes, the InterTribal Monitoring Associ-ation and the Inter-Tribal

Economic Alliance met at Crow Agency to exchange ideas and discuss issues that will affect Indian country.

“We need to stick together – there are too many things the government is doing. They are cutting money; and with war and Katrina, Indian tribes are taking the brunt of the cuts in this country,” said Carl Venne, chairman of the Crow Nation and of the CLLBT.

“Tribal leaders have to band together and talk to congressmen. We have been silent too long, letting other people talk for us. We need to approach congressional delegations and tell them how it is,” Venne said.

The underfunding of health services, a move to open corridors for energy development that could directly affect Indian country without its input, probate reform that is not totally supported by the tribes, the infringement on sacred sites and the trust fund settlement are all open topics.

“In this circle there are many years of experience, of fighting different battles. We are fighting for who we were, our identity,” said Cecelia Fire Thunder, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

“It’s good to know that we are here today singing our songs; that’s a good feeling. We are resilient.”

Dealing with the issues on an individual basis has not been productive and it appears a working relationship of all three groups is doable.

One of the major issues with the large tribes is Section 1813 of the Energy Policy Act, which directs that a study take place to determine rights of way on reservation lands for energy development.

The tribal leadership gathering opposed this study that the departments of Interior and Energy will complete.

The concern is that tribes will have their right to negotiate taken away from them, which will, for all appearances, be an erosion of tribal sovereignty. In the end, reservations could have more power lines and oil pipelines running through their territories. Another concern is that the tribes would not receive fair market value.

“The contractor for the study is a non-Indian company. Indians haven’t been involved and it is likely the study will not be friendly to Indian country,” said Majel Russell, attorney for the Crow Nation.

Venne said that from his perspective, the move to take easements and rights of way negotiations away from the tribes is harmful to tribes.

“We [Crow] will have rights of way negotiations that come up this year. We can’t fight alone, as individual tribes. Together we can do something; when we stand together we can do something,” Venne said.

Section 1813, the right of way provision to the energy bill, was a rider submitted for the energy bill by Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., at the 11th hour. This allows the secretary of Interior to condemn land on reservations for power lines.

“An uprising from Indian country stopped that rider,” Venne said.

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Part of the battle was lost when a study provision of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 survived.

The tribal coalitions are on the same page in opposition to portions of the Probate Reform Act. Many tribes are developing their own probate codes, but they take time, and in the interim probate reform moves ahead and some tribal leaders expressed the idea that it will erode tribal sovereignty.

“A family should have a right to come to the tribal government to say what they want done to their land and how they want it passed on. Will we have interference from the act, saying, ‘Tribes – you don’t have the authority’?” Hall said.

The tribal leaders passed a resolution to ask for a delay in the implementation of the Probate Reform Act. More time is needed for tribes to implement probate codes. It could take more than a year to have a probate code become law.

The act imposes the need for the landowner to write a will, but the BIA no longer holds or assists with wills. The tribal leadership wants the BIA to once again write and hold wills.

The problem is fractionation of allotments, and the larger tribes share the bulk of that problem because of the larger land expanses. The federal government has provisions in the Probate Reform Act that will allow tribes to purchase land portions if less than 5 percent of the original allotment. But money is an issue and tribal leaders are not optimistic that Congress will appropriate funding.

On the Crow Reservation, some federal projects allow the tribe some funding to address fractionated interests and management, according to Venne.

“Smaller tribes and gaming tribes are seeking to get lands and turn them into trust and build casinos. That affects us in Indian country; sometimes they judge all as one, that is very dangerous and detrimental to us,” Venne said.

Funds for the Indian Land Consolidation Act are only $70 million, and the Crow Nation could spend $90 million. The Crow Nation drafted its own legislation that would provide funds to purchase fractionated lands.

Sometimes tribal members don’t even know what their holdings are or what their land looks like. There is a belief that the BIA knows, Fire Thunder said.

“For all tribes, how do we let people know what they own? Maybe we need to legislate, put more money into real specific things that need to take place. It’s all about money to address this whole land issue,” Fire Thunder said.

Health care for the many tribes involved has become a No. 1 issue. Funding is not keeping up with inflation and more tribal members are not receiving proper medical attention. The Senate in the debate over the latest Health Reauthorization Act admitted a fiduciary responsibility. The bill makes the IHS the payer of last resort, and tribal leaders want the IHS to be payer of first resort in order to meet the 2010 health goal.

Sharon Peregoy, health director for the Crow Nation, said the concept of moving IHS to “payer of first resort” status would mean a huge amount of funding would have to be allocated.

The tribal leaders agreed to support the reauthorization act, but to have it fully funded.

“The big one is construction waiver lists based on a first-come, first-served basis, that has split tribes nationally,” said Jayce Killsback, Northern Cheyenne tribal council member.

“The construction idea fall into one of the goals we should look at as Council of Large Land-Based Tribes – infrastructure of technology, waste water, roads, support development. This is one of the major pieces of legislation this group can push,” Killsback said.

Gathering the tribes together with the same voice is the key to pushing legislation beneficial to Indian country – and that is the premise for the large tribal organizations to meet and agree on the issues and methods to bring to Congress and the federal government.