FROM THE ARCHIVE

BIA's Martin breaks unofficial boycott of NCAI

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TUESDAY, JUNE 17, 2003

The acting head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs extended an olive branch to the nation's largest inter-tribal organization on Monday, citing a need to heal a fractured relationship that has hindered efforts to reform the broken Indian trust.

Acting assistant secretary Aurene Martin said she attended the mid-year session of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) in an attempt to start "mending some of those wounds" that have developed in recent months. "I do sense that there has been some distance between tribal leaders and NCAI and the administration," she told the conference, being held on the Gila River Reservation in Arizona this week.

Martin's appearance broke the Department of Interior's unofficial and self-imposed "boycott" of NCAI events. After a joint tribal-federal task force on trust reform broke down late last year in a disagreement over standards and oversight, senior department officials did not attend the organization's winter conference in Washington, D.C., this past February. Lower-level employees were warned, by Martin, not to attend without obtaining proper clearance.

Tribal leaders took the snub personally, a sentiment that has persisted despite attempts, by tribes, to bring the department back to the table. "There is a sense within the administration that there is not a good working relationship with NCAI," Richard Milanovich, chairman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians in California, said during the general assembly yesterday morning.

But some tribal leaders said it was time to move beyond the disagreements in light of the ongoing reorganization of the BIA and the expansion of the Office of Special Trustee (OST). Although there is opposition to the changes, the two sides need to come together to resolve tribal concerns, said Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe of Washington and a former member of the task force.

"They [Interior officials] need the tribes to be on board to make this happen," he said in an interview. "That's where they need to work with the tribes and the regions to reshape it and turn it into a win-win situation."

Tex Hall, president of NCAI, which represents more than 250 tribes, also urged cooperation. "We can't let personalities, we can't let the words stop us from continuing to engage," he told Martin after her speech.

Increasingly frustrated with DOI and BIA, tribes have taken their pleas to the White House. Jim Kelly, a White House aide on intergovernmental affairs who spoke at NCAI yesterday, was urged to get President Bush on board.

"The president does meet with mayors, he meets with the governors of various states, he meets with the [Congressional] Black caucus and he meets with other minority groups," said Ed Thomas, president of the Tlingit-Haida Tribe of Alaska. "We have yet to have a meeting between the president of this nation and the presidents of our recognized sovereign nations."

Relevant Links:
National Congress of American Indians - http://www.ncai.org/index.asp

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