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NCAI 2007: Updates from winter session in Washington

The 2007 winter session of the National Congress of American Indians was held this week in Washington, D.C. Here are some leftover updates from the three-day conference.

Prez on the Rez
Mark your calendars! On August 23, 2006, the first-ever presidential forum in Indian Country takes place on the Morongo Reservation in southern California. The event is sponsored by INDN's List Education Fund, a non-profit arm of INDN's List, which was founded by Kalyn Free to put more tribal members in public office.

"This has never been done before," Free, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, said at a reception on Monday night. "This is a huge deal."

Free anticipates that every candidate will participate. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), addressing NCAI earlier in the day, announced that he will definitely be there. "I want to be the first candidate for president that accepts the debate," Richardson told to roaring applause.

Prez on the Rez won't serve as a forum for White House contenders to tout their platforms, Free pointed out. "We're bringing these candidates to Indian Country so they can hear from the tribal leaders and the tribes ... about what we expect of them and what we want them to do for us if they're elected president," she said. "Big distinction there."

In response to a question, Free acknowledged that INDN's List is "partisan" in that it only works with Indian candidates who are Democrats. The group will be holding a training session at Morongo the same week as Prez on the Rez, which does not have a partisan slant but obviously draws from Democratic field.

For more information, visit Users can submit questions in consideration for forum.

Meth in Montana
Cedric Black Eagle, the vice chairman of the Crow Tribe of Montana, came to NCAI to talk about the battle against methamphetamine. "It's not only on our reservations, but in Montana, it's all over the state," he said of the drug.

Black Eagle said the Crows work closely with their neighbors, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, and state and local authorities to combat meth. Success only comes when everyone in the tribe -- from elected leader to employees to spiritual leaders to youth -- takes part, he said.

An HBO special, "Montana Meth," features segments on tribal members who have been addicted to the drug. Black Eagle attended the premiere of the documentary, which debuts March 18.

The 110th Congress
Tribal legislative priorities obviously include the reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. But there's a lot more on the plate, with everything from technology to housing on the agenda for the next two years.

But NCAI President Joe Garcia warned tribes they need to work just as hard as they have done in the past to move their issues forward. "Simply because there's been a political change," Garcia said, "does not mean that things are going to automatically turn our way. What this does mean is that there's an opportunity for Indian Country to make way and become true partners with Congress and all the constituents of Congress."

One big item is the reauthorization of the Farm Bill. "Indian Country's second largest employer is agriculture," noted Jackie Johnson, NCAI's executive director, on Monday. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johnson, the former governor of Nebraska who was raised on a dairy farm, told tribes they will be affected by the proposal. "You'll find that across the board, the Farm Bill proposals do affect Indian Country, from commodity programs to nutrition, conservation, energy, and research," he said.

Other significant bills up for reauthorization include Native American Housing and Self Determination Act, the No Child Left Behind Act and the Telecommunication Act. Johnson also said tribes hope to push for an exemption to issue tax-exempt bonds, much in the same manner as states and municipalities do. "We know we have bipartisan support for this," she said.

Speaking later in the week, Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Michigan) backed the effort. "We're going to try to clarify that with the IRS," he said on Wednesday, noting that the Internal Revenue Service has gone after tribes who issue bonds for gaming or gaming-related projects. "The state of Michigan has a lottery and they don't hold the state of Michigan back in issuing tax-exempt bonds."

Urban Indians
Once again, the Bush administration is proposing to eliminate the $33 million urban Indian program, a move that could force clinics that serve 200,000 Native Americans to reduce services or outright shut down.

Charles Johnson, the assistant secretary for budget, technology and finance at the Department of Health and Human Services, defended the cut. "Should we continue the urban Indian program or put more money in or near reservations?" he asked on Monday.

Gaiashkibos, the former chairman of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians in Wisconsin, said the question itself demonstrates the inadequacy of the Indian Health Service. "Today, the majority of Indian people live off the reservation," he said. Without urban clinics, they will have to seek health care from their tribes. "We don't have that funding to begin with," he said.

"We realize that it's been underfunded," Rep. Frank Pallone (D-New Jersey) said of the IHS on Tuesday.

Even More Updates
But wait, there's still more to say about the winter session! Check back Monday for more news, information and tidbits.

Relevant Links:
National Congress of American Indians -