A call for unity and activism

Gale Courey Toensing

PHOENIX – Joe Garcia, president of the National Congress of American Indians, opened the organization’s 65th annual convention with a rousing call for unity and a new, informed activism to move tribal nations forward as full partners in federal government decision making and leaders in the Earth’s healing.

“We’ve learned our lessons. We’ve set some wheels in motion now that are going to get us to the next level in protecting our people, in protecting our children, in protecting our grandchildren. Right now we’re at a transition, and this is a critical point in time and in history for us to be even more united.

“Unity means a whole lot to Indian country, more than it has ever meant,” he told hundreds of delegates and tribal members from across the United States who had traveled to Phoenix for the convention.

Garcia addressed the attendees on Oct. 19, the event’s first official day.

The intense six-day meeting of the largest national organization representing the indigenous peoples of North America took place Oct. 19 – 24 in the Phoenix Convention Center. Each day kicked off at 7:30 a.m. with regional caucuses, where committees discussed and shaped resolutions to be adopted at the end of the convention. The caucuses were followed by a general assembly with reports from NCAI officials, speeches from politicians and other dignitaries, and special speakers who focused largely on getting out the vote and implementing NCAI’s transition plan for the much-anticipated new administration. Afternoons were dedicated to breakout sessions.

 NCAI plans administration transition

Tribal nations have been left behind in the past when it came to presidential transitions, but the National Congress of American Indians has an ambitious and comprehensive transition plan that would place knowledgeable and qualified Native people in key positions that impact Indian country.

The plan was distributed and discussed at NCAI’s 65th annual convention October 19 - 24.

NCAI President Joe Garcia introduced the plan during his welcoming speech:

White House adviser on Indian nations.

“We need a White House adviser on Indian nations, not a government relations person with an Indian person below that. That’s not what I’m talking about. We want a full-fledged person who is attending to Indian issues at the White House.”

The position must be accompanied by adequate staffing and support.

Secretary of the Interior Department.

The Interior secretary is charged with protecting tribal sovereignty and treaty rights, administering trust responsibilities and a wide range of responsibilities to Indian people.

“So, who should that person be? It must be a person who knows tribal governments, who knows the Indian peoples, who knows what a nation to nation responsibility means. We need to have somebody who is knowledgeable, not on the job training.”

Office of Management and Budget Assistant Director for Native American Programs.

NCAI’s plan recommends reorganizing OMB to prioritize the budget for Indian nations.

“The budget is set by the president and OMB. All these years we complained to the wrong people about our budget and about lack of funding. We talked to the BIA and IHS and other departments, but to no avail because they have no control.

Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs.

“The ASIA bears the full weight of the responsibilities of Indian affairs. That’s a lot of weight, but why should the assistant secretary set the tone for what we can or cannot do? It ought to be us directing the assistant secretary. We ought to help that person find solutions.”

Department of Justice.

“The Justice Department has ignored its responsibilities for prosecuting crimes committed on Indian reservations, while violent crime, sexual assaults and drug trafficking have reached epidemic proportions on some reservations,” NCAI’s plan says.

“We have to have strong leadership in the Department of Justice and not just in the U.S. attorneys, but in the way the department manages its business. We have to be serious about the DoJ because a lot of or peoples’ lives are affected. We need to work on making the Justice Department more accountable,” Garcia said.

Federal judicial appointments.

The process of appointing federal judges needs to get beyond politics, hesaid.

“We better have some names of appointments that should be made. We’re soliciting resumes and people who are interested in these positions to send their resumes to NCAI. Who appoints federal judges? The president. We must place some names of potential judicial appointments, so that’s another challenge.”

NCAI’s transition plan has also identified Indian country priorities “where a transformation is needed in the way the federal government interacts with Indian nations.” These top issues should be the new administration’s focus for the first several months, the plan says. They include: trust reform and tribal natural resources management; tribal sovereignty, treaty rights, and consultation; funding of tribal government services; law enforcement; and taxation.

The transition plan has also identified national policy initiatives that are likely to be key priorities upon which Indian country should act proactively in order to make sure the nations’ concerns are incorporated from the beginning. They are: economic stimulus; health care; climate change and energy; education and job training.

The plan also includes recommendations for protecting sacred places and reforms in the Department of Homeland Security’s way of interacting with tribal nations, as well as a number of policy statements on issues such as climate change and the Indian Reservation Roads Program.

In looking toward NCAI’s future, Garcia reflected on the past to the events that have brought the Indian nations to the present beginning with NCAI’s creation in 1944.

He quoted from a letter sent to the tribes in October 1944 to rally support for the organization – a letter that in some ways illustrated the conventional wisdom in the saying that “the more things change, the more they stay the same”:

“‘There are good reasons why an Indian organization is needed. Many tribes have claims against the government because of land that was taken from them without their consent or because of some provision in a treaty or agreement or some legislation and the government has not lived up to its obligation and a strong national Indian organization in many cases will be in a better position to present matters of this kind.’”

Sixty-five years later, the nations have made much progress but have to stay on top of everything, he said.

“Legislation is so fast moving that unless we’re on top of it, we will surely be left behind and we’re not going to let that happen. So, my brothers and sisters, I truly believe the work that NCAI is doing with all your help and all your support would make our founding fathers so proud. But in order to achieve our goals of tribal and cultural sovereignty – the sovereignty I speak of – we must work both within and outside the U.S. system.”

Tribal political influences now are “so powerful,” Garcia said, referring to a number of laws empowering Native people and tribal nations, such as the Native American Self-Determination Act, the Indian Citizenship Act and others.

“But they didn’t come as natural and they didn’t happen overnight. Let’s not let it die; let’s continue to push even more so: and the political process must be a part of this too. I’m Indian and I’ll vote in two weeks.”

The new push in Indian country will begin with the transition, Garcia said. In the past, Indian people have been “an afterthought” in the transition process.

“No more will that be. We have a strong proposal and it’s going to involve Indian country. Indian country must be a part of the transition,” he said to a great burst of applause.

The transition plan – a 45-page white paper – details a strategy for influencing political appointments in key positions that impact Native people, identifies national policy initiatives and provides policy guidance on major issues. And NCAI is calling for recommendations and resumes of people who are interested in serving in the federal government in positions from White House policy adviser to department secretary to staff.

“Before I leave the podium I want to encourage all of you brothers and sisters that this is the time of change; this is the time when we must come together. We must be ever so relentless in all of our efforts to protect our people, to protect the future and build the future for our children and our grandchildren, because that is what life is about and that’s who we are and that’s why the Great Spirit put us on this Earth: to also protect Mother Earth. Global climate change and whatnot – had we followed our ways and if the dominant society followed our ways, we wouldn’t be in this world of hurt,” he said to great applause.

“Let’s build that. Let’s do all we can not only for ourselves, but for the betterment of this country, this great United States of America, because we are all a part of it – and whatever we do to ail Mother Earth we ail ourselves. But we’ve got to stay strong. We must continue to band together to stay strong so we can survive and build the country and bring back Indian nations the way they were long, long before the dominant society. Let’s do that, brothers and sisters, Great Spirit.”

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