Electing the next ‘Indigenous President of the United States’

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye

NCAI elections are on Thursday morning

It was a packed room (standing room for a while) Wednesday at this year’s debate for candidates running to be the next president of the National Congress of American Indians. Or as one candidate put it, the next “Indigenous president of the United States.”

The last time a debate was held for this position was 15 years ago. Native America Calling hosted a debate between Tex Hall, former tribal chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes and now Chairman of Coeur d’Alene Tribe Ernie Stensgar.

Jefferson Keel of the Chickasaw Nation held the executive position for three nonconsecutive terms. The 22nd president sat in the seat from 2010 to 2013 and again from 2018 to 2019. He did not run for re-election.

The four candidates who participated in the debate and are running to help lead the national organization included: Shaun Chapoose from Ute Indian Tribe, Chairman Harold Frazier from Cheyenne River Sioux, Chairman Marshall Pierite from the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana, and President Fawn Sharp from Quinault Nation. Candidates were organized alphabetically on stage for the debate.

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After some opening remarks from Indian Country Today Editor Mark Trahant, candidates had two minutes for an opening statement, which candidates directed at this year’s convention theme, “Sovereignty in Action.”

Chairman Harold Frazier from Cheyenne River Sioux (Photo by Jonathan Sims)

Of the four candidates, Pierite and Sharp gave land acknowledgement, but Pierite was the only presidential candidate to do so at the general assembly this morning.

Frazier said in his opening statement that the organization needs to start taking action and they can’t sit on the sidelines. His case was because an organization or a people is only as sovereign as their actions.

Pierite agreed.

“Indigenous responsibility is for all of us” and if they want to match the sovereignty then tribal nations “can’t seek permission for anything.”

Chairman Marshall Pierite from the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana

“We need to control our own destiny,” he said. “Do it as one people. Sovereignty in action is bringing the people together. It’s speaking from a demanding voice.”

His message of unity rang throughout the debate with the other three.

Just like her land acknowledgement, Sharp acknowledged other tribal leaders and elders in the room. She recognized the diversity of Indian Country, especially for such a position, in the room and brought that back to running for the position.

Because “when we are looking at a position like this from multiple angles, from different regions, it brings a richness to a whole process,” she said.

Chapoose “grew up in the era of the trust obligation.” He says he has experience in multiple tribal leader roles and understands what it takes to work with the U.S. government.

“So whoever sits in this seat has to have real vast knowledge of how to interact with the federal government because the way it is right now, the federal government is our trustee,” he said. “We have a government-to-government relationship.”

Shaun Chapoose from Ute Indian Tribe (Photo by Jonathan Sims)

That’s statement reminds candidates and those watching that this job isn’t going to be easy. It’s a game of building and nurturing relationships. The big relationship to nurture is the one with the U.S. government. It’s a difficult too as Indian Country is extremely diverse in its histories, cultures, governments, and peoples.

The first debate question: What should be the most important message coming from the National Congress of American Indians, especially since it’s an election year?

Sharp sees that everyone is divided and everyone is tired of that. When there is division, the message gets lost, she said.

But she believes that “tribal nations have the core values that resonate with everyone.”

‘This is not just a debate for the National Congress of American Indians president. This isn't just a debate for the president, the Indigenous president of the United States,” she said. “We have been here for thousands of years, they have been here for 400.”

Pierite wants to continue the advocacy and “building the bridges” that the organization does. However, he sees doing that advocacy in sheer numbers will be beneficial as well as improving the outreach.

Cheyenne River Sioux Chairman was blunt with his answer. The members “need to have confidence in an organization,” he said. They want an organization that “will always have their back” if a challenge comes their way.

Tribal leaders were brought into the conversation by Chapoose. He said the goal of the 76-year-old organization is to elevate the voices of leaders in Indian Country.

Leaders who are already at the frontlines are Native youth. Just last week, the Alaska Federation of Natives declared a climate emergency, which was initiated by a resolution from two youth.

Each candidate agreed that the youth need to be at the table when it comes to climate change and all agreed that it’s happening. But what efforts will the candidates themselves take to combat climate change?

Besides saying money is needed to help with local programs, Frazier said, “it’s time to take action.” Chapoose included the entire global and said climate change is affecting everyone and not just Indian Country.

Setting an example for the Native communities and collaborating to battle climate change is the way, said Pierite. “No one knows Mother Earth like Indian Country,” he said. Indigenous peoples should be leading the fight.

President Fawn Sharp from Quinault Nation (Photo by Jonathan Sims)

Sharp, who has been fighting environmental concerns, was more concrete. In the past, she declared emergencies because their coast line was “littered with dead sea life.” Her plan of action is to directly engage with youth.

She said she heard from youth at a summit who were “choosing not to have children because they didn’t want to bring children into this world.”

“That should be alarming to everyone,” she said. Planning with youth is part of the action as well as giving testimony to Congress.

That led directly into a follow-up question: How does a leader get individuals change their behavior or do things differently?

Pierite doesn’t mind standing alone, building a circle, and bringing people into that circle.

Frazier, on the other hand, wants to get those individuals who need to change into the places where damage and destruction are happening. He said making decisions from an office in Washington, D.C., isn’t going to change someone’s mind.

Chapoose’s method? Educate the people is the way, said the former environmental protection agency employee. Part of that education also starts from home when raising and teaching leaders.

Sharp’s plan is to create more points of entry for engagement. Such opportunities include policy, Indigenous ecological knowledge, traditional Indigenous knowledge, renewable energy in the private sector, and small businesses.

The organization dealt with quite a bit in the last year. Candidates talked about how they will set a high standard for a workplace environent.

Frazier stuck to leading by example while Sharp agreed, she added that “clear, clear expectations” need to be made. Those expectations apply in meetings, conferences and everywhere within the organization.

What she pinned her finger is asking and wanting to develop consequences for failing to adhere to the standards set. She also added that building positive energy and synergy is part of that process.

Transparency, ethics codes and an ethics commission are probably words members hoped to hear, and Pierite was all about it.

Chapoose recognizes the reality and history of the organization. Of course, leadership sets the tone, he said. Things will happen and it can’t be dwelled on.

However, it’s unrealistic to set a rule and use it for another 100 years. To combat that, communication is key, and that means being upfront and honest.

Part of the leading a national policy organization is convincing Congress on reauthorizing bills. It takes different techniques to convince a divided Congress nowadays so candidates addressed how they will do it.

Chapoose said tribal leaders need to be in the room with the organization staff so lawmakers get educated and there is only one message coming from Indian Country.

Sharp said it’ll take different strategies. She used the example of the last Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization and having to chase down congressional members in the hall if they couldn’t schedule a meeting with you. But after making the case with one lawmaker, she finally had a one-on-one with one.

Interestingly, Pierite says the education of congressional members needs to happen at the grass-root level. Being inclusive and uniting is the way, he said.

“This is way bigger than any of us in the room,” he said. “I’m about to preach here.” The room laughed.

When it came to addressing the lack of Native representation in the judiciary. The group agreed to use the talented and educated young people to push for it. Frazier added that voting makes a difference.

Before the last statement, candidates told the audience why tribes should join the organization.

Pierite says this is “a way to get our stories out.” It’s a great vehicle for advocacy and to build bridges. “Regardless of what happens tomorrow, we can do this but we have to do it together,” he said.

Frazier was all about unity, too. “There’s no government that’s going to take care of us. All we have is each other,” he said. “This is the only place I feel we can build unity.”

Chapoose said, “The only reason our numbers are down is because a lot of leaders felt like they weren’t being heard.” The organization formed because of termination. It created a bond, he said. Right now that bond comes at a price. A costly one, too.

“The only way to get your voice heard is to pay to get your voice here,” he said. “So if we want people to join this organization, we need to be inclusive.”

He believes tribes will come back even though they struggle economically and wants to rethink how to make it available.

Sharp said, “The best way to get people here is to give them a reason to be here. And that also includes “a reason to stay.” When that exists, everyone looks forward to it.

She closed her time by addressing the growth of Indian Country overall. And with that growth, she will try every possible way to engage with tribes directly or indirectly.

Pierite hopes as president he will visit tribal regions quarterly and wants to double the membership by the end of his term.

Chapoose and Frazier said when Friday comes, after the election, nothing changes. They will still work together.

Election for president of the organization and other offices will take place Thursday morning. 

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Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is the Washington editor for Indian Country Today based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @jourdanbb. Email: jbennett-begaye@indiancountrytoday.com.

(Indian Country Today, LLC., is a non-profit news organization owned by the non-profit arm of the The National Congress of American Indians. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently.)