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NCAI leader ready to tell Indian Country's story

The spotlight will shine on Joe Garcia next week as he makes his first major public appearance as the new president of the National Congress of American Indians.

Garcia, the governor of Ohkay Owingeh, a New Mexico tribe formerly known as San Juan Pueblo, will deliver his first State of Indian Nations address on February 2. He is continuing an initiative started by Tex Hall, the most recent NCAI president.

"It's time to tell the real story of Indian Country," Garcia said. "It's time to look at our cultures and traditions and what they are telling us to advance successful agendas for Indian people in this modern world."

The agendas, according to Garcia, are many. During an appearance last Friday on Native America Calling, the nationally broadcast radio show, he said preserving culture and language, promoting education, increasing federal appropriations and protecting sovereignty are among the top priorities.

In education, for example, he said tribes should take advantage of the No Child Left Behind Act to make positive changes that are based on their culture, heritage, and language. "It's an opportunity for us to be more involved," said Garcia, 52. "That's what I encourage the Indian nations to become more involved in the education process and I think we can do a lot better to help our people."

Garcia was elected last November during NCAI's annual convention in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In defeating two other prominent tribal leaders, he became only the second Pueblo person to win the post since NCAI was founded in 1944. The first was John Gonzales, a former governor for San Ildefonso Pueblo, who served during the 1980s.

In a recent profile by Jodi Rave of The Missoulian, Garcia said he never thought of himself as a "political person." At Ohkay Owingeh, he was chosen as governor and previously as lieutenant governor by traditional leaders -- there are no elections in the pueblo.

But politics will be a big part of his job as an advocate for American Indians and Alaska Natives. On the radio show, he said he intends to look to "new ways" to advance Indian issues in Washington, where budget cuts and program cuts have become common.

Historically, tribal leaders have complained to the Bureau of Indian Affairs about reductions in funding. But with competing priorities, Garcia said that approach doesn't really work.

"We've got to hit the right targets and the right targets are at the president and [White House] levels and Congressional budget committees," he said. "We also can't just say, 'We need more money.' We've go to base it on data and information and we've got to have strategies as to how we're going to request more funding and how that's going to meet the needs of the people."

"If we don't go with those news kinds of approaches, then we won't get anything more," he added.

The State of Indian Nations address is directed at one of those targets -- President Bush. Coming two days after the State of the Union, it serves as a response to that speech in addition to presenting the Indian agenda.

Later in February, Garcia and other tribal leaders will continue to advance the agenda at NCAI's winter session. The session, held in Washington, draws prominent members of Congress, top federal officials and other Native advocates.

Garcia became involved in NCAI recently but rose quickly among its ranks. He was first elected as vice president for the Southwest area in 1995. He later became first vice president in 2001, a post he kept until winning the presidency last year.

Relevant Links:
National Congress of American Indians -