United south and Eastern Tribes President Brian Patterson addresses attendees at the organization's Tribal Unity Impact Week in Washington on September 19.

USET Tribes Talk Up VAWA, Carcieri, Budget, Voting and More at Tribal Unity Impact Week in Washington

Gale Courey Toensing
September 22, 2012


Indigenous leaders from around the country joined colleagues from the United South and Eastern Tribes in Washington, D.C., for the annual Tribal Unity Impact week.

The United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) in partnership with the National Congress of American Indians hosted the annual gathering, which took place this year during the week of September 17. The goal of Tribal Unity Impact Week is to educate members of Congress on the issues that are crucial to American Indians. This year’s top concerns are land restoration, protection for Native women against violence and abuse, a legislative fix for the U.S. Supreme Court’s disastrous Carcieri v. Salazar ruling, the federal government’s Indian budget, and emergency response action. Other issues topping the USET/NCAI agenda include the confirmation of Kevin Washburn as the Interior Department’s next Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs, Native voting and vote identification, economic development and housing.

USET President Brian Patterson acknowledged in a press release issued September 19 that change in Washington is slow and reminded tribal leaders of their responsibility not only to the current generation but also to future generations. “Every time we come here we take food and resources from our people to see very little resolved. I am reminded that this is the work of legacy,” Patterson said. “What will our children see from our work here? Will we protect our land, our women, and resources to take care of our people? We need to hold each other accountable and let’s advance this legacy work. We are small but strong,” Patterson said.

USET is a non-profit, inter-tribal organization that collectively represents and advocates for its 26 member tribes at the regional and national level through workgroups and committees, and provides a forum for the exchange of ideas and information amongst tribes, agencies and governments. USET tribes are located in the eastern part of the continent.

A briefing session took place on the morning of September 19 at the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Hearing Room. Various tribal leaders and non-government organizations scheduled meetings with members of Congress to provide education on the state of affairs in Indian country and discuss why certain provisions, amendments, and laws are needed. This is what the leaders were talking about:

A Carcieri Fix: The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in 2009 said that the Interior Department secretary could only take land into trust under the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) for tribes that were “under Federal jurisdiction” in 1934, without defining the term. The ruling creates the risk of having two classes of tribes – those with trust land and those without trust land. Three bills – S.676, H.R. 1234, and H.R. 1291 – have been introduced to fix devastating impacts of the Carcieri decision. “Failure to address the Secretary’s authority to place land into trust for all federally recognized tribes will lead to decades of costly federal litigation, threats to reservation public safety, and further harm to tribal economies. It would also erode the federal trust responsibility, which is founded in the Constitution and includes a federal commitment to support Indian tribes seeking to take land into trust for a wide range of social, cultural, and economic purposes necessary to the well-being and growth of their communities. Passing the proposed legislation comes at no cost to the federal taxpayer and will save federal dollars by putting a stop to potentially decades of costly litigation,” Patterson said in his press release.

The press release quotes Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Chairman Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), who has made a Carcieri fix a priority. Akaka says, “We need a clear fix for Carcieri. We are looking at a real struggle in the next four years in Indian country, regardless of who goes into the White House. We have the poorest of the poor in this country.” The damage caused by Congress’s failure to fix Carcieri has been compounded by the high court’s ruling in June in Patchak v. Salazar, which allows anyone to challenge trust acquisitions under the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) even if the land was already permanently in trust. “Patchak would not exist if Congress had passed a Carcieri Fix,” Patterson said.

The Stafford Act: The Stafford Act of 1988 gives the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), states, and local units of government the ability to receive assistance in the wake of disasters, but does not recognize American Indian tribes and Alaska Native communities as sovereign governments authorized or eligible to directly request a disaster declaration for an emergency or disaster. This makes each tribe dependent on the state(s) for disaster assistance from FEMA. FEMA and American Indian tribes and Alaska Natives have been working to support bills in the Senate (S. 2283) and House (H.R. 2903); amendments in the two bills will offer the option for federally recognized Indian tribes to make direct requests for emergency or disaster declarations by the President of the United States.

Resolving the issues presented in the current Stafford Act begins with the definition of a tribe according, to FEMA Chief Counsel Brad Kiserman. “The Stafford Act is the nation’s pre-eminent disaster response and recovery legislation. It is the law under which vast amounts of natural and other disasters in this country are dealt with in terms of what services are available, what funds are available, and what federal programs can be made available once the President issues the declaration. [The current Stafford Act] defines tribes as local governments. That is so 17th century it is just ludicrous, frankly. We think that from a pure philosophical view tribes are not local governments. They are co-equal sovereigns. It seems to us that the pre-eminent disaster legislation ought to reflect that.”

Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) Reauthorization: New VAWA legislation would authorize tribes to arrest and prosecute anyone accused of domestic violence, sexual assault or abuse. Statistics show that almost 40 percent of all American Indian and Alaska Native women will be raped, assaulted or abused in their lifetime. Over half of American Indian women have non-Indian husbands. Those living on tribal trust land with non-enrolled spouses or partners and are victimized by domestic violence generally have no legal recourse or justice. Well-documented cases show tribal police officers and courts have no jurisdiction over non-Indian perpetrators. Federal, state, and local courts have no jurisdiction since the crimes occur on tribal property or the cases are never prosecuted.

Congressional representatives at the Tribal Unity Impact Week briefing agreed that there is support and enough votes to pass S. 1925 in the House. One of the challenges has been a House of Representatives bill (H.R. 4970) that has been introduced to reauthorize VAWA, but it excludes key tribal jurisdiction provisions included in the Senate version of that bill, which protects Native women who are abused by non-Indian relations.

The Indian Budget: Senators and representatives at the Tribal Unity Impact Week briefing spoke of possible shortfalls in funding for tribal programs as a result of tax and automatic spending cuts, which are due to expire at the end of 2012 and are not being addressed. The Congressional Budget Office has been issuing warnings that doing nothing will cause another recession. Under the Budget Control Act, most programs will suffer drastic cuts of more than eight percent across the board in January 2013. The impact could be detrimental to Indian programs.

National lawmakers are working to avoid a “fiscal cliff” which is a series of deadlines for the tax and spending cuts, according to Minnesota Fourth District Representative Betty McCollum. (This process is commonly known as sequestration.) “We need to start setting the table for what is going to happen after the election. We have passed a continuing resolution, which is going to take us through until next year. The good news is you can do a little bit of planning. The bad news is that sequester is still out there looming. What the sequester has in cuts across the board it will take in no urgencies and no priorities,” McCollum told tribes.

Patterson said there is still more work that needs to be completed on each of these issues. “The legacy of our future generations and accountability are things to have in mind and heart going forward,” Patterson said. He said that unity is key for success in Indian country. “That’s the way we must go forward today to address this platform with unity in principle, unity in conviction, unity of one mind, one heart, one voice. And we must hold each other accountable,” Patterson told tribal leaders.

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