Senator Daniel Akaka, chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, stands with tribal leaders as part of Tribal Unity Impact Week on Capitol Hill. Tribal leaders from leading tribal organizations and tribes across Indian country, including Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian leaders, called on Congress to take immediate action on the most pressing issues facing Native nations.

Tribal Leaders Present United Front to Congress

Rob Capriccioso
10/13/11

WASHINGTON – Dozens of tribal leaders embarked on the nation’s capital this week in an effort to present a united front to Congress on a swath of issues impacting Indian country—most important among them, protecting Native programs from cuts in the current budgetary climate.

The three-day gathering, hosted by the National Congress of American Indians, culminated October 11 in the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building with a sometimes-tense strategy session. Among the top issues discussed were protecting the Indian affairs federal budget; securing a congressional Carcieri fix to the land-into-trust mess created by the Supreme Court in 2009; and best practices for uniting the divergent interests of 565 unique federally-recognized tribes. Ideas for preventing violence toward Indian women were also highlighted.

On the federal budget, tribal leaders generally appeared apprehensive because they know that the current atmosphere in Washington is filled with a desire by lawmakers to cut funding to a variety of programs in an attempt to make up the large budget shortfall. In many cases, tribal leaders feel that some uninformed Congress members do not understand how much good funding for tribal programs does—and how much more is needed to rectify issues of poverty on many reservations.

“There is still an effort to do away with [federal] trust responsibility for tribes,” said Jefferson Keel, president of NCAI, in a speech kicking off the session. He was referring to specific proposals released this year by some Republican lawmakers that would slash funding to Indians—without regard to the unique constitutional- and law-based status that is supposed to protect tribes.

Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., a member of the all-important congressional “super committee,” charged with finding an additional $1.5 trillion in debt savings over a ten-year period, told tribal leaders that there is “nothing like pressing the flesh” to be sure they are heard. “Make sure you explain how much folks where you live have sacrificed,” he said in remarks.

Most of the tribal leaders in town visited congressional offices throughout Capitol Hill to do just that—with talking points in hand. Their main messages on the budget, Carcieri, and other issues were highlighted in a letter sent from NCAI members to Congress members, which noted, “Tribes and tribal entities have patiently participated in the political process, but recognizing the urgency of these pressing issues, we are now increasing our call for congressional action.” The letter said, too, that tribes expect Congress to “act in a timely manner” on issues of tribal sovereignty and governance. A Carcieri fix, supported by the Obama administration even when Democrats were in control of both congressional chambers, has already been stalled for over two years and counting.

Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of NCAI, told Becerra that tribes have long worked hard to make economic progress and to be efficient in their spending of federal dollars. “We’re a good investment,” she said. In response, Becerra urged that Indian country needs to be able to specifically show how infrastructure investments have been working.

Cedric Cromwell, chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, said later in the session that federal investment in trust responsibility is more complex than just talking macro-budget level issues. “The super committee needs to be talking about trust responsibility and what can be done to enhance tribal economies” to, in turn, bolster the overall U.S. economy, Cromwell said. He noted that investments in tribes do much more than just help tribal communities, but also the localities and states that the tribes are in. Plus, tribes enjoy a legal status that can make certain investments easier, he noted.

Some tribal leaders said that a summit with Congress members, similar to the two White House mass tribal meetings held to date with President Barack Obama, would be useful. Under such a scenario, tribal leaders could educate specific Congress members on trust responsibility and other Indian issues that they may not be intimately familiar with. Keel expressed support, saying, “That’s exactly what we need” in response to the idea. A motion was presented for NCAI and the United South and Eastern Tribes to make it happen.

On Carcieri, John Dossett, NCAI’s general counsel, noted that a fix has been stalled in Congress for over two years, and the land-into-trust picture remains murky for tribes, especially given a recent D.C. Circuit Court ruling that found that the Quiet Title Act does not protect Indian lands. He said that the combined decisions “threaten all tribes.” Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, agreed, saying in remarks that one of his legislative priorities remains amending the Indian Reorganization Act to make clear that the U.S. Department of the Interior can take land into trust for tribes regardless of when they were recognized by the federal government. “It is the responsibility of Congress to fix this,” he said.

Beyond specific issues, many tribal leaders spent some time during NCAI’s “Unity Week” pondering what exactly it means to be united. On the topic, Keel said during his opening remarks that, “Together we can make a difference; individually we will continue to struggle.” Akaka agreed, saying in his remarks that, “By working together, you are demonstrating what we Native people have always knows—we are more alike than we are different.”

But it is not always so easy to present a united front, Ben Shelly, president of the Navajo Nation, later told the group, expressing his view that sometimes the ideas of what he called “smaller tribes” appear usurp the will of the larger tribes, like his own. “We need to support each other,” he said, adding that his tribe plans on building a United Nations-like entity of Indian governments to be hosted on Navajo lands.

Hiawatha Brown, a tribal councilman for the Narragansett Indian Tribe, touched on the complications of unity via an impromptu talk to his peers, lamenting that many did not support his tribe in its battle involving Carcieri until it was too late—after the Supreme Court had ruled, impacting all of Indian country for the worse. “We had been fighting for years, but it is only in the last two that you all have come to support us,” he said. “Collectively, many of our tribal leaders have become complacent…. There are only about 150 people in this room,” he added. “That’s pathetic!” he said, noting that there are over 500 tribes throughout the country. With that, he called for prayer.

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