National Indian Congress passes historic tribal citizenship protection measure
Galanda Broadman, PLLC
Last Monday, President Fawn Sharp convened the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) annual convention with a call for national conversation about equality and “what it means to just respect another human being, just basic civil and human rights."
As its last measure of business on Friday, NCAI passed a measure to protect the Indigenous human and civil rights associated with Tribal citizenship for the first time in its seventy-six year history.
NCAI Resolution #PDX-20-001 affirms the inherent Tribal sovereign right of each Native Nation to decide who belongs as a citizen, and recognizes the Indigenous right to belong as a citizen free from discrimination.
Both rights are recognized as human rights in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“The resolution powerfully affirms both sides of the tribal citizenship coin: The Indigenous human and civil right to belong and the inherent Tribal sovereign right to decide who belongs,” said Shannon O’Loughlin, a Choctaw Nation citizen and Director of the Association of American Indians Affairs (AAIA).
The resolution also creates an NCAI Tribal Citizenship Protection and Policy Task Force “to study, educate, and develop recommendations regarding issues of Indigenous tribal citizenship.” The task force will empower NCAI to defend against federal and anti-Tribal assaults on Tribal citizenship.
During NCAI committee deliberations, delegates cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s Baby Veronica decision as well as current litigation before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, where the Indian Child Welfare Act has been undermined by attacks on Tribal citizenship blood quantum criteria.
The Trump administration’s treatment of Native Nations as racial groups under Medicaid rules and disregard of Tribal citizenship data as a basis for federal COVID-relief funding were also discussed as reasons for greater NCAI Tribal citizenship protection.
“Our Tribal citizens—the People—are the foundation of our sovereign nations,” said the resolution’s prime sponsor, Jamestown S’Klallam Tribal Chairman and former NCAI President Ron Allen. “We must protect against outside attacks on Tribal citizenship, whether from the U.S. Congress, federal courts or anti-Indigenous groups.”
The Congress’ deliberations also touched on internal Tribal human and civil rights violations associated with disenrollment, which certain NCAI leaders denounced as inconsistent with Indigenous kinship tradition. Language was added to the resolution to prevent it from being used to undermine Tribal sovereignty and membership prerogative.
Joining Chairmen Allen in support of the resolution were former NCAI Presidents Brian Cladoosby, Susan Masten, and Mel Tonasket, and several Native Nations and national inter-tribal organizations.
Also supportive were the Jamestown and Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribes, Yakama Nation, and Spokane Tribe of Washington State; the Organized Village of Saxman in Alaska; Robinson Rancheria of California; Hualapai Tribe of Arizona; and Citizen Band of Potawatomi Nation in Oklahoma.
Those Native Nations were joined by the Great Plains Chairmen’s Association and eastern and southern Alliance of Colonial Era Tribes. In addition to AAIA, the National Urban Indian Family Coalition, National Native American Bar Association (NNABA), National Native American Law Student Association, and Association of American Indian Physicians also endorsed the resolution.
NNABA, which passed its own resolution of support, applauded NCAI for Resolution #PDX-20-001 and pledged “technical assistance and legal guidance to NCAI's Task Force upon request.”
O’Loughlin believes it is "imperative that Tribal leadership have open dialogue about protecting Tribal citizenship, nationhood and identity," explaining: "It is time that our Nations be the example of what it looks like to the world to protect human rights and cultural sovereignty."
With Chairmen Allen hopeful that the resolution and forthcoming task force “will help prepare NCAI for frontline defense of Tribal citizenship and nationhood,” the national Indigenous human and civil rights conversation has commenced.