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NCAI's Garcia delivers State of Indian Nations

The leader of the nation's largest inter-tribal organization said on Thursday he hopes to build on the achievements of his first full year in office.

Joe Garcia, the president of the National Congress of Americans, said tribes succeeded in turning out the Native vote last year. He cited two examples: freshman Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), who benefited from a surge in reservation votes, and Rep. Heather Wilson (R-New Mexico), who narrowly won her re-election bid in a district with a handful of tribes.

"Both of these candidates have spoken out on issues of concern to Indian Nations," Garcia said during the 5th annual State of Indian Nations, a speech that was carried on C-SPAN and radio stations across the country. "They have been supportive of tribal governments and they addressed Native issues in their platforms."

Another success came with heightened awareness of the methamphetamine crisis in Indian Country, Garcia said. He pointed to a prevention partnership with the Interior Department and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, as well as efforts by Congress to help tribes fight the drug.

"Our collaborative efforts have put us on the right path," Garcia said at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Despite the progress, Garcia said NCAI's work on some other items must continue in the coming year. They include passage of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, a bill that will modernize the way millions of American Indians and Alaska Natives receive health care services.

Tribes made a big push to reauthorize the legislation, which expired in 2000, at the end of the 109th Congress. But on the eve of consideration in the Senate, Republicans blocked the bill after the Bush administration raised objections.

"We came close to passage, but time ran out," said Garcia. "Therefore, this item remains on the agenda and it is more important than ever."

With Democrats in control of the 110th Congress, tribes are encouraged by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the new chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. He plans to make health care a top priority, said Jackie Johnson, the executive director of NCAI.

"He knows and understands the treaty responsibilities and obligations," said Johnson. "He understands and respects tribes as sovereign nations."

The forecast for another item is less clear. That's a legislative settlement to the Cobell trust fund lawsuit, which has been pending in the courts for 10 years.

"It affects everything we do," observed Johnson. "It affects the budgets we get from Congress, it affects the programs as the federal government evaluates its trust liability for Indian nations."

NCAI worked with other organizations and the Cobell plaintiffs on principles to settle the case and fix the trust system. But legislation to provide $8 billion to hundreds of thousands of individual tribal members ran into serious hurdles when the Bush administration, late last year, proposed some concepts that Indian Country widely rejected.

Garcia said NCAI will take a fresh approach in the coming year in order to respond to resolve issues surrounding the lawsuit. "We need to regroup," he said. "Let's all put our heads together and finalize what it is we need to do so that we're more in tune, rather than [taking] a shot in the dark."

In other areas, Garcia said NCAI will continue efforts to strengthen tribal governance, improve the public safety and justice systems on reservations, spur economic development, support education and harness natural resources while protecting the environment.

Garcia was elected president of NCAI in November 2005. He has served as governor of Ohkay Owingeh, a pueblo in northern New Mexico. He currently serves as chairman of the All Indian Pueblos Council, which represents all 19 pueblos in the state.

Read the Speech:
State of Tribal Nations (January 25, 2007)

Relevant Links:
National Congress of American Indians -