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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!

Weather Woes
Dozens of tribal leaders found themselves stranded in airports across the country on Sunday, as snow in the Washington, D.C., area led to flight cancellations and delays. Many finally landed in the nation's capitol but others didn't. "Out of about 100 that started, only five of them made it," NCAI President Joe Garcia half-jokingly said when only a handful of delegates from his home state of New Mexico stood up at the opening of yesterday's session.

Anti-Meth Update
A year ago, NCAI launched its anti-methamphetamine initiative. Highlighting what has become one of the most crucial issues facing tribal communities, Garcia reported progress at a press conference.

"The White House and Congress have listened to our call," he said, referring to the Bush administration's partnership with NCAI on an anti-meth public service campaign, a request of $16 million in the fiscal year 2008 budget to combat meth and crime in Indian Country, as well as Congressional hearings and legislation on the subject.

Garcia asked tribes to support the tribal meth fix -- legislation that would ensure tribes are eligible to receive funds from three anti-meth programs. He hoped the Democratic leadership in Congress would "fast track this desperately needed bill."

Health Care
If Jackie Johnson, the executive director of NCAI, can only send one message during this year's winter session, it's about the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. "Our number one priority is the Indian Health Care reauthorization," she told tribal delegates.

The bill was close to passage at the end of the 109th Congress but was sidetracked by a "white paper" from the Department of Justice on the eve of consideration in the Senate. "This year, things will be different," promised Rachel Joseph, the chairwoman of the Lone Pine Paiute Shoshone Tribe of California and the co-chair of the national steering committee on the reauthorization of the bill.

Joseph expects the bill to be introduced sometime in the next week, with hearings in the House set for March 14, and in the Senate on March 15 and March 22. "We want this bill to be a bipartisan proposal," she said.

State Jurisdiction Over Tribal Lands
Unless tribes pass a resolution by July 27 to opt-in to a national sex offender registry and notification system, they will automatically consent to state jurisdiction on their lands for enforcement of the registry-system. This alarming provision was included in the Adam Walsh Act that was signed into law last summer.

"It's been a long time since I've seen Congress write that kind of a law," said Juana Majel Dixon, the secretary of NCAI and a 30-plus year member of the organization.

NCAI is developing a model resolution for tribes to consider and is also working on a potential legislative fix. The Department of Justice is hosting a training and technical assistance session on the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community in Prior Lake, Minnesota, on March 27-29 to discuss this issue and other tribal justice issues [Dear Tribal Leader Letter].

Carl Artman Nomination
Sen. Byron Dorgan is a Democrat. Carl Artman is a Republican. But party lines aren't an issue for the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, who is desperately trying to confirm President Bush's nominee to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"It is unbelievable to me that it is two full years and we've had a vacancy in the office of the assistant secretary for Indian affairs," he said to loud applause.

Dorgan vowed to get Artman confirmed by the end of this week. But that depends on Republicans, who have put numerous holds on the nomination.

"He is dealing with one hold after another," Jackie Johnson said of Artman, a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. NCAI urged tribes to contact Republican Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Jim DeMint of South Carolina to get them to support Artman, and to call on the Senate "to stop playing the game of holds on our nominee."

A White House Contender
The undoubted star of yesterday's session was former Congressman, former Energy secretary and current New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D). "I want you to know I'm running for president and I need your help," he said to thunderous applause.

Richardson cited a long list of achievements -- including his support for tribal sovereignty and self-determination as a member of the U.S. House, the return of millions of acres of tribal land to the Utes during the Clinton administration and the elevation of Indian affairs in New Mexico. "There's been nobody stronger [on Native issues]," he said.

But he acknowledged he isn't as well-known or anywhere near as popular as the other Democratic hopefuls. And whether he wins his party's nomination or not, he was the first candidate to confirm his attendance at the "Prez on the Rez" forum, to be held on the Morongo Reservation in California on August 23.

Arizona's Rising Star
Arizona tribes were eager to tout the achievements of their state's leader, Gov. Janet Napolitano, the first woman to hold the position. She impressed NCAI delegates with her knowledge of Indian issues -- she was a former U.S. Attorney and was elected attorney general of the state -- and with her commitment to putting teeth into the government-to-government relationship.

When she took office in 2003, only 19 Native people held state posts. Now there's 250, she said. She has held quarterly meetings with tribes to get their views on issues of importance to their communities.

"She recently held her 14th tribal summit. That's never been done before," noted Delia Carlyle, the chair of the Ak-Chin Indian Community.

Looking Ahead
Jim Cason, the associate deputy secretary at the Interior Department, is on today's agenda. So are Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), Veterans Affairs Secretary R. James Nicholson and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana). In the evening, NCAI is hosting a Capitol Hill reception in conjunction with the National Museum of the American Indian.

Relevant Links:
National Congress of American Indians -