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NCAI meets in Washington for winter session

Correction/Clarification: NCAI is proposing a partnership with the White House to fight methamphetamine use and drug trafficking. NCAI President Joe Garcia said the administration is receptive to the idea.

The nation's largest inter-tribal organization is meeting in Washington, D.C., this week amid a political climate that has been characterized as hostile to Indian Country.

With the Jack Abramoff scandal providing fuel for the fire, proposals have surfaced to rein in tribal political donations, place limits on the $19 billion Indian gaming industry, impose a moratorium on new tribal casinos and change how lobbying is done in the nation's capital. The heightened activity has the National Congress of American Indians, which represents more than 250 tribes, ready to do battle in the coming months.

"Turning the tide of public opinion in the post-Abramoff environment," NCAI president Joe Garcia and executive director Jackie Johnson said in memo to tribal leaders last week, "is a challenging uphill battle that will likely be with us for some time."

Garcia, who was elected to his post last November, said tribes are doing their best to move on from the scandal and advance a positive agenda. In his first State of Indian Nations address this month, he identified public safety, health care, education and the economy and settlement of the trust fund as the "four great steps" needed to improve the lives of American Indians and Alaska Natives.

But tribal leaders largely find themselves dealing with controversies raised by outsiders. A few days after Garcia gave his speech, NCAI was forced to defend the right of tribes to lobby and make political contributions at a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing.

"The concern for us is that the illegal actions of Jack Abramoff really is the issue that seems to have gravitated and turned into a different agenda," Ron Allen, the group's treasurer, testified on February 8. "For us, this is a lobbying scandal. This is not a tribal scandal."

"If we were so influential by our new [political] contributions that have risen over recent years, why is our health care still falling? Why are we losing ground in health care? Why are we losing ground in education?" Allen later asked. "If we have so much influence [and] you look across the Indian programs ... we are losing ground, categorically."

Despite the negativity, NCAI plans to focus on issues cited by Garcia in his speech. Today, the organization will announce an initiative to fight methamphetamine use and drug trafficking in Indian Country. Other big topics on the agenda for this week's meeting include violence against women, trust reform, health care and self-determination.

A number of key lawmakers, including Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), Rep. Tom Cole (R-Arizona) and Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Arizona) are scheduled to address tribal leaders. Bush administration officials, including several Cabinet members and associate Interior deputy secretary Jim Cason, also plan to speak at the NCAI winter session, which runs through Wednesday at the Wyndham Washington DC hotel.

The conference is part of a big week for tribal issues in Washington. In addition to NCAI, the National American Indian Housing Council is holding its annual legislative summit on Wednesday.

Two big hearings are taking place this week as well. On Tuesday, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee will hold another oversight hearing on gaming, a major focus of Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the committee chairman. It is not clear whether McCain will address NCAI as he has done in the past.

On Wednesday, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and the House Resources Committee will hold a joint hearing on settlement of Cobell v. Norton. The leaders of both panels are sponsoring legislation that would put an end to the nine-year-old case over the mismanagement of billions in Indian trust funds.

After NCAI is over, an eagerly anticipated media symposium sponsored by the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the lobbying arm of the Quaker religious society, takes place March 2-3. Interest has been extremely high, with the seminar already fully booked.

Relevant Links:
National Congress of American Indians -