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NCAI 04 Wrapup: Day 1

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 1 of NCAI.

Native Vote 2004
In his State of Indian Nations address earlier this year, NCAI President Tex Hall promised 1 million American Indian and Alaska Native voters. "I was shocked when I heard him say that," Jackie Johnson, NCAI executive director, admitted yesterday.

While numbers are still rolling in, it looks like NCAI could meet that goal. Tribal leaders and volunteers from across the nation reported success on their get out of the vote campaign, with some -- like Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico -- beating their goals.

"They say Native Americans don't vote -- are we going to prove them wrong?" Hall asked. Tribal leaders said yes. A breakout session will be held today to further discuss the Native vote.

Civil Rights
Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia), a leader of the civil rights movement, gave a rousing speech on voting rights struggles. He recounted his experiences in the 1960s to ensure that African-Americans in the South had the right to vote and compared it to the need for Native Americans to vote.

Shame on Bush, Kerry
Al Neuharth, founder of USA Today, criticized President George W. Bush and Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry for not attending NCAI. "It's a shame on them that they are not here personally to address this conference," he said.

Neuharth was lauded by former Cherokee Nation chief Wilma Mankiller and the Native American Journalists Association for his role in promoting Native journalism. He called on more young Natives to join the field.

Anniversary of Termination
Fifty years ago, Congress began terminating the federal government's relationship with tribes. For the next ten years, NCAI fought those efforts.

Susan Power, an original NCAI member since 1945, and Vine DeLoria, NCAI executive director during the 1960s, gave attendees a history lesson with their first-hand experiences. "It threw a real chill in Indian Country," DeLoria said, noting that termination was such a poorly developed policy that Congress once offered to move 10,000 Turtle Mountain Chippewas to Minneapolis and find them jobs.

NCAI's job, he said, was to point out the "illogical" consequences of termination, while fighting members of Congress who promised to save bigger tribes from termination in exchange for eliminating small tribes in California and elsewhere. NCAI's answer was no, he said.

"We were not terminated," said Fred Matt, chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Montana. "We are stronger than ever. But don't be fooled -- the battles haven't gone away yet."

An Indian Embassy
Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe of Washington and NCAI treasurer, launched the start of NCAI's campaign to raise $12 million to provide a permanent home for Indian nations in the nation's capitol.

"We're suggesting that we bring Indian Country to Washington, D.C." he said.

NCAI is asking tribes to contribute money to purchase a prime piece of real estate near downtown DC to house NCAI and other tribal organizations. The building will be purchased once a down payment of $1.2 million is raised, with the goal of three years for the full amount.

"I think we should call it an embassy, the American Indian embassy," offered Ed Thomas, president of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska, to heavy applause.

The Main Event
Anticipation was high for the afternoon session featuring Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of John Kerry, and Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Arizona), who came to represent the Bush campaign.

A capacity crowd gave Heinz Kerry a warm reception as she gave a detailed speech about Kerry's overall policies towards American Indians and Alaska Natives. "John Kerry will support and defend tribal sovereignty," she told NCAI, promising an open-door policy at the White House, a tribal leaders meeting and trust reform summit within the first 100 days, increased funding for health care and an education system that will ensure that "no Native child is left behind."

After the speech, Heinz Kerry received a Pendleton and a Native Vote t-shirt from NCAI. She stayed in the convention hall to greet a throng of well-wishers who wanted to meet the woman whom one man in the audience enthusiastically called "the next first lady."

The crowd thinned noticeably for Hayworth's response. The congressman accused the Kerry campaign of being behind the times in making pledges that he said Bush has already implemented, such as more resources for the Indian Health Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs schools.

"You need to take a hard look [at the record] and we welcome that examination as the election approaches," he said.

Hayworth also blasted Kerry's recent comments about terrorism being a "nuisance" and charged that the Democrats are weak on terrorism. "Do you really feel safer with that approach in the wake of 9/11?" Hayworth asked. NCAI also presented a Native vote t-shirt and Pendleton to Hayworth, who gave the blanket to his wife, Mary.

Excitement for Kerry carried over to an early evening reception his campaign held for Native American veterans at a nearby hotel. Chickasaw Nation Lt. Gov. Jefferson Keel, a Vietnam veteran, stirred passions over television ads attacking Kerry as unfit to lead. "It's disgusting," he said.

Actress Mary McDonnell, of "Dances with Wolves" fame, gave the affair a celebrity air by talking about her desire to help the campaign and reach out to Indian Country. She said she was deeply honored to attend NCAI.

Looking Ahead
Today's agenda includes Bureau of Indian Affairs head Dave Anderson, Special Trustee Ross Swimmer and an update discussion on trust reform. Breakout sessions will focus on homeland security, the U.S. Supreme Court, state-tribal relations and the Indian Child Welfare Act.

Relevant Links:
National Congress of American Indians -

Related Stories:
Teresa Heinz Kerry to speak at NCAI conference (10/11)