Update from NCAI winter session in Washington

Updates from the winter session of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C.

Anti-Drug Initiative
NCAI President Joe Garcia held a press conference to outline a three-tiered initiative to fight methamphetamine abuse and drug trafficking in Indian Country, an issue that landed on the pages of The New York Times last week. But the media isn't motivating tribes, it's the devastation meth has caused on reservations throughout the nation, Garcia said.

"Meth is killing our children, affecting our cultures and ravaging our communities," he said.

NCAI's initiative urges tribes to develop laws to combat meth abuse and drug trafficking, seeks a tribal partnership with the White House and requests Congressional hearings to address the issue. "We, Indian people, are survivors," said Kathleen Kitcheyan, the chairwoman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe of Arizona. "We can defeat this as well."

Washington/Legislative Update
NCAI President Joe Garcia's first message to tribal leaders was simple and clear. "There is no Indian loophole in campaign contributions," he said, referring to a controversy that has surfaced in recent weeks about the millions of dollars some tribes are pouring into federal elections.

Tribes face "difficult" challenges in the post-Abramoff environment, Garcia acknowledged, but they should not be afraid of change. "We need to be the drivers of the solutions," he said in talking about health care and other issues.

Jackie Johnson, the executive director of NCAI, said passage of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act is probably the single biggest positive agenda item for this year. "For too long, we have not been able to get this reauthorized," she said, urging tribal leaders to lobby members of Congress as they head to Capitol Hill for meetings this week.

U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger Besides announcing changes to the Johnson Act proposal, outgoing U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger said the Department of Justice is interested in a "cold case" review of unsolved murders and other crimes in Indian Country. Although there is no count of such cases, a large number of tribal leaders indicated they knew of many on their reservations. Heffelfinger said DOJ is interested in collecting more data.

Walt Lamar, the former director of law enforcement at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, told Indianz.Com he is developing a "Missing from the Circle" website to document missing and unidentified persons through his company Lamar Associates (

Native Veterans
Jim Nichols, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, made his first appearance to NCAI and said the Bush administration supports H.R.601, the Native American Veterans Cemetery Act. The bipartisan ure would make tribes eligible to receive grants to build veterans cemeteries on tribal land.

"We recognize that American Indian and Alaska Natives volunteer to serve at a higher rate per capita than any other racial or ethnic group in the country," Nichols said. He highlighted a partnership with the Indian Health Service to help Native veterans manage the care they receive through VA and IHS facilities.

Fiscal Year 2007 Budget
Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, and Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico) focused their remarks on President Bush's latest budget, which slashes funds for Indian education, health care and other programs. "Real progress was made in Indian Country throughout the 90s," Bingaman said, but the cuts threaten to "roll back" the gains.

Dorgan said he will once again introduce an amendment to add $1 billion to Indian health care even though he lost a vote on the issue last year and faces the same defeat this year. "If you're going to get sick, you better get sick before 9:30 and 4:30," he said of the current system. Dorgan will be a guest of honor at NCAI's awards banquet tonight.

Interior Department Update
Jim Cason, the associate deputy Interior secretary, faced repeated fire over his decision to cut Indian program funds to pay for attorney fees in the Cobell v. Norton trust fund lawsuit. A slew of tribal leaders said it was wrong to take the money out of an account used to pay legal expenses for water rights and other settlements.

"This couldn't have come at a worse time for us," said Norm Harry, the chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, who said the cut could jeopardize water talks with the state of Nevada and non-Indians. "A lot of the tribes are in the same situation," added Dennis Smith, the vice chairman of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes on the Duck Valley Reservation in Nevada and Idaho.

Tribal leaders pressed Cason to explain whether the money will be restored to the BIA and whether future funds will be affected. "As far as I know our '07 budget is not affected," he told them. But he wasn't able to respond to questions about the current situation. "I would be willing to accept them [the fees] back from the plaintiffs and put them back where I took them," he said.

"That's not the answer," said Smith, who succeeded in getting Cason to commit to a meeting with affected tribes.

Relevant Links:
National Congress of American Indians -