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NCAI 2007: Updates from winter session in Washington

Updates from the 2007 winter session of the National Congress of American Indians!

Judicial Nominations
Quechan Nation President Mike Jackson described his how tribe fought and won the battle against Bill Myers, one of President Bush's most controversial judicial nominees. As the Interior Department's former top lawyer, Myers re-wrote a legal opinion so that a Canadian company could open a gold mine on the tribe's most sacred site.

"He lied to the Senate Judiciary Committee," Jackson said of Myers, who never consulted the tribe but met with representatives of the mining company.

The tribe was the first to publicly oppose a nominee to the federal bench. The California Nations Indian Gaming Association, the National Congress of American Indians and the National Indian Gaming Association joined the fight and defeated Myers' nomination to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

"Mr. Myers paid for what he did to the Quechan Nation," said tribal attorney Courtney Coyle.

Democratic Priorities
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-New Jersey), who established a "headquarters" at NCAI's winter session, said tribes have an opportunity to advance their issues now that Democrats are in charge of Congress. He said his party would work to reauthorize the Indian Health Care Improvement Act but urged tribes to contact a wide range of lawmakers to ensure its passage.

"It goes to a lot of committees," he said of the bill. Last year, the measure passed the House Resources Committee but was tied up in the House Ways and Means Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where Pallone is now a leader.

Pallone said Democrats are working on a new energy policy bill to achieve energy independence. Although the Republican-passed energy policy bill included an Indian section "there's another opportunity" for tribes, he told NCAI.

Finally, Pallone said he supports efforts to open Department of Homeland Security funding to tribes. "There's a lot of money out there in homeland security," he said. "Not enough of it is going to Indian Country."

Interior Department Update
Jim Cason, the associate deputy secretary at the Interior Department, has been in charge of the Bureau of Indian Affairs for more than two years. He's very much ready to give up the job to Carl Artman, the president's nominee for assistant secretary.

But Artman's nomination was held up by Republicans in the 109th Congress, and Republicans are again blocking his confirmation in the 110th Congress. Cason confirmed to NCAI that Artman met with Sen. David Vitter (R-Louisiana), an opponent of off-reservation gaming and of tribal political influence, just yesterday to discuss various issues.

In an odd twist, Democrats are trying to get Artman confirmed, possibly as early as this week. While that happens, Cason says he has been trying to figure out how he will hand control of the BIA to Artman.

"Good question," he said, when Rosemary Morillo, a council member for the Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians in California, asked about his future role at the department. "The answer is we don't know."

Cason, however, said the holds on Artman's nomination are not related to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne's concerns about off-reservation gaming. Letters that have been sent to over two dozens tribes with pending gaming land acquisitions. "The two items are not linked," Cason said.

Elsewhere, Cason said the BIA plans to rewrite the 25 CFR 151 land-into-trust regulations, more than six years after the Bush administration pulled them from the Federal Register. He said the criteria are "really generic" and don't provide true guidance. "Depending on how you feel that morning, you could say yes to all of them or no to all of them," he said of pending land-into-trust applications.

The Bush administration is still interested in settling all tribal and individual Indian trust claims, Cason said, noting that over 250 tribes have filed Cobell-like lawsuits. But NCAI is considering a resolution to keep the tribal issues separate from the Cobell case, which has been pending for over 10 years.

Finally, Cason said the BIA is currently developing an operating budget for fiscal year 2007 to send to the White House Office of Management and Budget. With earmarks removed from budget, Cason said the agency is trying to figure out if any of those items can be included in existing programs. He said he the department should be able to provide more information by March 20.

Litigation Update
Tribes have been able to keep their cases out of the U.S. Supreme Court, which is a good thing, said Native American Rights Fund Executive Director John Echohawk, who was honored by NCAI at its leadership banquet on Monday night.

"We think we might be on the right track," Echohawk said, noting that tribes lost 80 percent of cases under the Rehnquist court. "Since the project started in 2001, our winning percentage is up to 50 percent, so maybe we're doing something right in working together and coordinating closely on the briefs and the arguments."

But that doesn't mean there aren't negative developments in the courts. John Dossett, the general counsel of NCAI, highlighted a decision by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to subject tribes and their commercial enterprises to federal labor law.

"You're soon going to have labor unions knocking on your door," Dossett warned tribes. The case is being appealed but NCAI is urging tribes to look at their labor ordinances.

Looking Ahead
Today is the final day of the 2007 winter session. NCAI will hear from Sen. Kent Conrad (D-North Dakota), Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Michigan) BIA nominee Carl Artman and Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Arizona). Tribal delegates will also discuss a controversial change in NCAI's dues structure.

Relevant Links:
National Congress of American Indians -