The 61st annual National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) is underway in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, this week. Here's a wrapup of some of the events that took place on Day 2 of NCAI. New Miss NCAI
A new Miss NCAI was introduced yesterday morning after winning the pageant
the night before. Madeline Soboleff Levy, 20, is a Tlingit-Haida from
Alaska whose platform focuses on improving educational levels among
American Indians and Alaska Natives.
The outgoing Miss NCAI 2003-2004 is Cheryl V. Dixon of Isleta Pueblo, New Mexico.
Happy. Healthy. Terrific?
Bureau of Indian Affairs head Dave Anderson led NCAI through his usual
cheer (but only once) before highlighting some of the agency's challenges
and achievements. He said the BIA is overhauling its policies to better
serve tribes and tribal members.
"We need to set a new course for the BIA," he told tribal leaders.
"What we are doing doesn't work."
Anderson, who joined the Bush administration in February, is creating
a book of tribal success stories to share with Indian Country. He said
he hopes tribes can learn from one another in areas like economic development.
He also said people need to know that the BIA is making positive changes.
"We do many wonderful things at the bureau but it never gets out," he
Some of those successes, he said, include the first "green" BIA
school, a project to help the Warm Springs Tribes of Oregon become
the majority owner in a hydro plant, a BIA records repository in Kansas
and a state-of-the-art computer command center. "The bureau has
to be more accountable," he said.
Don't Vote Me Out
Special Trustee Ross Swimmer isn't running for re-election but painted
a very bleak portrait of what might happen if his boss were voted out of office
next month. A new administration, he said, would take a year to study
trust reform and another year to hire even more consultants to figure out
what to do.
"It would take two to three years to get where we are now," he argued.
He said the Bush administration was a year away from an operating
title system and was "almost" finished with a realty system.
Swimmer also spent a considerable portion of his address attacking
the plaintiffs in the Cobell v. Norton trust fund lawsuit. "We
got pretty beat up last week," he said, referring to a temporary
restraining order accusing the Interior Department of retaliating
against individual Indians.
Swimmer admitted a memo he authored about the court order
led to widespread confusion among subordinates. But he denied
ever directing anyone to stop issuing checks to trust beneficiaries.
Swimmer then claimed the plaintiffs are trying to kick Indian people
"out on the street" by supporting a receivership for the trust.
He said that 95 percent of BIA and OST employees are
American Indian or Alaska Native.
But when pressed by Darrell Flyingman, a recently-retired BIA
employee and representative of the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes of
Oklahoma, Swimmer couldn't say how many Office of Special
Trustee employees are Native. Flyingman said qualified Indians are passed up for
leadership roles due to cronyism at the department.
Swimmer also suggested the trust was worsened when the
Clinton administration eliminated a number of
BIA jobs in the mid-90s. "We RIFfed the wrong ones in 1996," he
Image, Perception, Reality
Charles Colombe, president of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South
Dakota, brought some much-needed humor to the session after
Swimmer's sobering speech. He called trust reform an oxymoron.
"It's not happening," he told NCAI.
"It's like 'Indian money,'" he said. "Or 'Russian intelligence.'"
Colombe said a major problem with the lack of progress in fixing
the trust is too many chiefs at the fort.
"We don't know who the boss is," he said. "Is it BIA or is it OST?"
But Colombe, like Swimmer, praised the passage of the S.1721,
the American Indian Probate Reform Act. He called it the most
important legislation of his lifetime. While it won't solve
all problems, he said it will help consolidate fractionated ownerships.
A Broken Trust
Keith Harper, a Native American Rights Fund lawyer handling the
Cobell case, then spoke and gave a blistering response to Swimmer.
"Facts are a stubborn thing and unfortunately the record here is
not Swimmer says it is," he said. "The record is abysmal," he
Harper said the trust is only "minimally better" than it was before the Bush
administration took over and in some ways is "worse." He said
there is still no accounts receivable system and no way to account
for Indian funds.
"The accountings they perform are an absolute joke," he argued.
Harper said DOI continues to "dictate" to Indian Country instead of
working with tribes and individual Indians. He said the plaintiffs
continue to support a receivership because the trust still hasn't
been fixed in more than a century.
"A receivership does not mean BIA employees on the ground level
lose their jobs," he said. "A receiver comes in and replaces
the leadership. That's all. And it's temporary."
It's Health and Fitness Day at NCAI, with updates on health care,
Native Boys and Girls Clubs, the Just Move It diabetes initiative
and a Healthy Lifestyles Walk and Rally. Sen. Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota)
is on the agenda and breakout sessions will focus on IRS, violence
against women, homeland security and contract support costs.
National Congress of American Indians - http://www.ncai.org
202 630 8439 (THEZ)
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