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Kolby KickingWoman 
Indian Country Today

As the coronavirus pandemic has forced organizations to rethink the way they hold conferences and events, many gatherings have been cancelled or postponed. Others have been pushed online.

That was the case this week for the National Congress of American Indians’ annual event, “Tribal Unity Impact Days,” a two-day event that allows tribal nations to meet directly with members of Congress to discuss issues critical to their community.

14 members of Congress took part in roundtable discussions with tribal leaders this year. Some nations present included the Tohono O’odham Nation, Cowlitz Indian Tribe, St. Regis Mohawk Tribe and many tribes in between.

The next coronavirus relief bill, health, education, public safety, broadband access, protecting veterans and the McGirt Supreme Court ruling were at the top of the list for this year’s discussion.

The event is normally held in the room where the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs conducts hearings, which presents capacities for attendance. Many said moving to a virtual space has allowed for increased participation and attendance throughout Indian Country.

The briefings were five times larger than any other in the past, NCAI President Fawn Sharp, Quinault, reported. At different points throughout the second day, over 1,000 people were “attending,” NCAI’s Chief Executive Officer Kevin Allis, Forest County Potawatomi Community, shared.

Democratic Rep. Derek Kilmer of Washington, who has made a number of appearances at NCAI events, said Indian Country has long been aware of the issues addressed.

“These are obviously extraordinarily difficult times, which only exacerbated some of the disparities in access to essential services like healthcare and education and broadband that tribes have been working on to resolve since long before this crisis began,” Kilmer said.

No event with so many moving parts and of this scale goes without hiccups, even though they were few and far between. Exemplifying the issue of limited broadband access, Democratic Rep. Deb Haaland, Laguna and Jemez Pueblo, of New Mexico, Republican Rep. Tom Cole, Chickasaw, of Oklahoma, and an Alaska tribal leader’s internet connection continually went in and out while asking questions.

“I’m so sorry that, this broadband internet is exactly what we’re talking about and we see that it’s happening in front of our eyes,” Haaland said. “We hope that we’re able to get some legislation passed where you can connect with us without interference.”

Haaland also said, “It’s really sad that tribal lands continue to have connection rates that are lower than some third world countries.”

NCAI Tribal Unity Impact Days panel with Rep. Deb Haaland and Rep. Tom Cole (photo via NCAI Twitter)

In his opening remarks, Cole highlighted the successes Congress has achieved on Native American affairs during the current session. He was quick to credit the arrivals of Haaland and Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids, Ho-Chunk, of Kansas for the successes. Both women, he added, are “wonderful, wonderful partners and really strong voices for Indian Country.”

Going against his own advice, saying it was a topic he probably shouldn’t talk about, Cole briefly discussed the McGirt case. He said it was a big win for Indian Country and that tribes in Oklahoma are not going to give up any victories won in the decision.

“The basic principles of the decision are not at risk. You’re not going to see, I think, legislation move that would try to disestablish reservation status in lands that was recognized in the McGirt decision,” Cole said. “Frankly, I’ve told my friends on both sides of the issue in Oklahoma, if you don’t have tribal buy-in, you’re not going to move anything through the Congress of the United States.”

One of the more robust conversations of the two days involved Native veterans, coming from Democratic Senator Jon Tester of Montana. Referring to the veteran community, he addressed PTSD treatment, high rates of suicide, homelessness, unemployment and more.

Tester was asked about the lack of tribal consultation from the Indian Health Service and Veteran Affairs on a new memorandum of understanding to cover care coordination during future public health emergencies.

The senator said the IHS and VA have not provided briefings to the Indian Affairs Committee or the Veterans Affairs committee but it would be a good opportunity for a joint hearing between the two committees. He said consultation with Indian Country is critical.

“As far as consultation with the tribes, it is fundamental to any agreement that comes forth and if they haven’t been doing it, we gotta kick somebody’s butt and I don’t know which one to kick, IHS, VA or both,” Tester said. “They need to make sure they’re bouncing this off of Indian Country before they sign something because quite frankly it doesn’t do any good to have a crappy MOU that doesn’t meet the needs of people being served by it.”

In a separate conversation regarding tribal consultation, Democratic Rep. Rául Grijalva of Arizona said Congress needs to move to codify the consultation process on a national basis so that Indian Country has recourse with consequences.

“By codification you make it a requirement, you don’t make it a subjective discretionary issue,” Grijalva said. “Tacking a notice on a community center bulletin board is not consultation, nor is a phone call or meeting after the decision has already been made.”

While many expressed it would have been nice to have the event in person, it was apparent that most were happy to have the opportunity to speak with members of Congress about issues important to Indian Country and their communities. 

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Kolby KickingWoman, Blackfeet/A'aniih is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is from the great state of Montana and currently reports for the Washington Bureau. For hot sports takes and too many Lakers tweets, follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email -

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