Courtesy National Congress of American Indians
Juana Majel-Dixon

Majel-Dixon Is a Defender of VAWA, Sovereignty

Richard Walker


When Native American Rights Fund attorney Heather Kendall-Miller introduced Juana Majel-Dixon at a 2007 presentation at Harvard University, she said, “We’ll see how far we get with Juana before she has to dart out of here.”

That wasn’t an exaggeration.

Majel-Dixon, a traditionally appointed member of the Pauma Band of Mission Indians Council since 1974, is first vice president of the National Congress of American Indians and a member of the U.S. Justice Department Task Force on Violence Against Women. She also serves on an advisory committee of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

In addition, she has been the Pauma Band’s policy director since 1997, and a professor of U.S. policy and federal Indian Law at Palomar College since 1981.

Majel-Dixon was a major force behind the passage – and subsequent renewal and expansion – of the Violence Against Women Act. In her public-service career, she has worked on myriad issues, but VAWA really showed what she’s about.

Experience and education aside, she is driven by something deep inside, something beyond herself. Her mother, a longtime NCAI delegate, taught her that working on behalf of the people is a sacred trust and, to Majel-Dixon, VAWA was a spiritual battle. People were praying and working up until Congress voted.

On the issue of sovereignty – the authority of Tribal authorities to prosecute non-Native offenders on tribal land – she would not compromise. She had confidence VAWA advocates would prevail, because justice had to prevail, because tribal governments have the inherent right to protect their own citizens, because Native women deserve the same protections as all other women.

And in the end, VAWA was approved with tribal provisions.

“Juana's work is absolutely astounding,” said Christine Funmaker-Romano, executive director of the American Indian Community House in New York City. “Her passion comes through.”

Gena Tyner-Dawson, senior adviser to the Assistant U.S. Attorney General for Tribal Affairs, said of Majel-Dixon, “She provides excellent Tribal leadership support for national-impacting Tribal policy matters … and provides objective viewpoints important to developing action plans, strategies and arriving at joint solutions to issues and concerns.”

Majel-Dixon is one of four announced candidates for president of NCAI. The others: Brian Cladoosby, Swinomish Tribe; Joe A. Garcia, Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo; and George Tiger, Muscogee Creek Nation. The election will take place during NCAI’s 70th annual Convention & Marketplace October 13-18 in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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NCAI’s president serves a two-year term and is not salaried. NCAI has a staff of 33. If elected, Majel-Dixon will be the third woman president in the organization’s 70 years. Veronica Murdock, Mohave, served as president in 1977-78. Susan Masten, Yurok, served as president in 2000-01. (Majel-Dixon believes the presidency is a calling, and that gender has never been a factor in NCAI presidential elections.)

Majel-Dixon’s priorities include protection of sovereignty; education in grades K-12 of Native American history, culture and self-government; building economic sustainability, including more investment in clean-energy technology; and restoration of the authority of the U.S. Department of Interior to place land into trust for all tribes, regardless of when they were recognized by the U.S.

“One of the hardest things is how much time it takes,” she said of NCAI’s presidency, which she expects will take up half of every day. “There’s not only the face to face meetings, but the calls to Congress to give response and bringing together all the organizations and the monthly conference calls.”

NCAI is a force where Native leaders come together as one voice, where unified efforts on issues develop and are taken to the Hill. And such a force is needed, she said, particularly on issues related to sovereignty.

According to Majel-Dixon, the recent transfer of custody of a Cherokee child from her biological father to a non-Native South Carolina couple shouldn’t have happened. The father, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, challenged the adoption and was awarded guardianship by the Cherokee Nation District Court, which was scheduled to consider his adoption petition. But South Carolina’s custody order was upheld in Oklahoma courts and allowed to be enforced – “ignoring the sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation and the authority of its courts to hear the case,” she said.

“Someone is allowing states to mutate this Act. The U.S. Attorney General must say to the states, ‘These are the mandates of this Act,’ ” she said. ICWA sets federal requirements that apply to state child custody proceedings involving a Native American child to “protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families."

Majel-Dixon believes that if children in grades K-12 – America’s future community, state and national leaders – were taught about tribes’ inherent right to self-govern, it would “shift how we do business in the United States.”

Majel-Dixon said many people are interested in knowing about sovereignty; they hear the term, but don’t really know what it means – that in the U.S. there is local government, county government, state government, federal government, and tribal government. She told of the questions generated from fellow travelers who see the NCAI logo on her bags. “They’ll say, ‘Talk to me about that,’ or ask about an issue and say, ‘What’s wrong with that?’”

When she’s not lobbying on the Hill, teaching a class, or tending to Pauma policy matters, Majel-Dixon enjoys golf, art and music.

She relaxes to chants. “I’m always in a [state] of prayer. The state of sacredness relaxes me,” she said. “The way is the sacred way.”

Indian Country Today Media Network has profiled each of the four candidates campaigning for the NCAI president’s seat.

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