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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!

BIA in Limbo
Carl Artman, a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, came to NCAI to talk about his strong background on tribal matters. As a former lobbyist and former lawyer for his tribe, he has experience with land-into-trust, land claims, taxation, jurisdiction, sovereignty, gaming and sovereignty. He's continued that work as assistant solicitor for India affairs at the Interior Department.

But not everyone is happy with his record. While NCAI and tribes have supported the nomination, Senate Republicans have been holding Artman up since last year, and they continue to place holds that prevent him from receiving a floor vote, leaving the top leadership position at the Bureau of Indian Affairs vacant for more than two years.

"You -- we -- deserve to have a Senate-confirmed, president-nominated assistant secretary for Indian Affairs," Artman said to applause.

After countless meetings on Capitol Hill, Artman finally hopes to be confirmed within "days," he said. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs, told NCAI on Monday that he was trying to secure a vote by the end of this week.

If that happens, Artman pledged to take action on a matter that was raised repeatedly by tribal leaders all week at the winter session. "Land-into-trust is a critical issue for our communities," said Bob Chicks, the president of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians of Wisconsin, who co-chaired a task force that developed new regulations before they were pulled by the Bush administration six years ago.

Artman acknowledged problems with land-into-trust and agreed that gaming is unfairly clouding the process. "In the 151 process, there are two different sides to this," he said, citing the section of the Code of Federal Regulations. "There's the one side -- off-reservation issue -- that everybody seems to focus on."

But the overwhelming majority of tribes aren't seeking to develop casinos away from existing lands. "There is no reservation shopping," Artman said of these cases. "What there is, is a need to reacquire the reservation."

Two weeks ago, the Government Accountability Office told Congress of more than 1,000 pending land-into-trust applications. On Tuesday, Jim Cason, the associate deputy secretary at Interior, said the number is closer to 2,000.

"Having a backlog of 2,000 -- I've heard even more applications -- is ridiculous," Artman added yesterday. "We need to take care of that issue."

Artman said there should be a better way of handling non-gaming applications, or the "low-hanging fruit," as he termed them. That was also a suggestion made by Charles Vaughn, the chairman of the Hualapai Tribe of Arizona.

"We need to have the process streamlined so that we can recover some of our traditional territory," Vaughn told Artman.

The second major issue was the budget. The Bush administration has repeatedly sought to eliminate key education, social service and reservation-level programs from the BIA.

This year is no different. For fiscal year 2008, the White House is proposing to eliminate the $16 million Johnson O'Malley education program and the $23 million Housing Improvement Program from the BIA. The cuts were viewed all the more suspiciously by tribal leaders after Artman touted two new initiatives: $16 million for public safety and anti-methamphetamine efforts and $15 million for education.

"That's not new money," said Cheryl Seidner, the chairwoman of the Wiyot Tribe of California. "We've got $16 million [for the new initiative] and then we find out that JOM's been cut. Gee, what's going on here."

Ed Thomas, the president of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska, said he was tired of hearing officials tell tribes about "tough" budget times. He cited numerous government and independent studies -- from the Government Accountability Office, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and Harvard University -- that show Indian programs suffer discrimination in the federal budget process.

"I really don't know how many more studies we need to figure this thing out," Thomas said, after Artman said he wanted to "hear" more from tribes about the impact of budget cuts. Thomas said the BIA's central office budget has increased 200 percent while programs that directly serve tribes have been flat-lined, reduced or outright eliminated. "I really don't believe that is the right way to budget," he said.

Looking Ahead
NCAI winter session officially ended yesterday. But check back tomorrow for additional updates!

Relevant Links:
National Congress of American Indians -