Supreme Court decision a big topic at NCAI meeting
Update: In a late addition to the schedule, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will speak at NCAI tomorrow morning, around 8:40am. He is also still on the schedule for the CERT summit.

A half-foot of snow and freezing temperatures couldn't stop the National Congress of American Indians from pushing forward its agenda in Washington, D.C., on Monday.

Hundreds of tribal leaders braved the cold weather to learn more about the federal stimulus, recent U.S. Supreme Court activity and legislation on Capitol Hill. Spirits were positive despite some of the daunting work ahead.

"We're here and we're making history as we speak, more so than in the past," said NCAI President Joe Garcia, who is serving the final year of his term. "This is an historic moment for all of us, mainly because of our newly elected officials -- most importantly, the election of a new president, President Obama."

Garcia expressed hope that President Barack Obama, who enjoyed overwhelming support in Indian Country, will live up to his promises to help tribes and Alaska Natives. So far, the record has been favorable, with $2.5 billion in federal stimulus funds headed to reservations and villages in the coming weeks.

But nearly every speaker on the opening day of NCAI's winter session addressed a controversial and potentially divisive issue that jumped on the agenda only a few days ago. Tribal leaders and members of Congress said they supported a "fix" to the Supreme Court's February 24 decision in Carcieri v. Salazar.

NCAI quickly passed a resolution to ensure that all tribes can benefit from the land-into-trust provisions of the Indian Reorganization Act. The decision, if it stands, restricts the process to tribes that were "under federal jurisdiction" in 1934.

"I see that as a major obstacle moving forward," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma.

A Carcieri fix presents numerous opportunities for legislative "mischief," Cole warned. Opponents of Indian gaming will try to limit tribal rights, he said.

"We've got a lot at risk here," Cole told tribal leaders.

Shortly after the ruling, Rep. Nick Rahall (D-West Virginia), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, announced plans hold a hearing on the issue. He is scheduled to address NCAI this morning.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, is not on the agenda for this session. But Allison Binney, the majority staff director and a member of the Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo Indians of California, said he will hold a hearing within 30 days.

"Having a fix on that decision is going to be incredibly controversial," said Binney.

The case involved a land-into-trust application filed by the Narragansett Tribe of Rhode Island, whose federal status didn't become official until 1983. Randy Noka, a tribal council member and one of NCAI's area vice presidents, said the "destructive" decision will hurt tribes nationwide.

"Indian Country has only so many people [on Capitol Hill] that we can go to," Noka said of the potential fix.

The Obama administration hasn't said much about the ruling in the last week. But Interior Secretary Ken Salazar supports the ability of "all" tribes to follow the land-into-trust process, according to a statement released last Friday.

"Secretary Salazar is very disappointed by the court's ruling," said Matt Lee-Ashley, a spokesperson for the Interior Department. "Our attorneys are in the process of evaluating the decision. The department is committed to supporting the ability of all federally recognized tribes to have lands acquired in trust."

Salazar isn't on NCAI's agenda either but Jackie Johnson Pata, the group's executive director, said tribes are talking to the administration about addressing the ruling. The Department of Justice hinted of changes to the land-into-trust process in briefs for a closely-related case.

"This decision draws the arbitrary line between tribes that were recognized in 1934 and those that were recognized after," said Johnson.

The case, and other Supreme Court activity, will be discussed again today. Tribal leaders are also slated to hear from Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

Supreme Court Decision:
Syllabus | Opinion [Thomas] | Concurrence [Breyer] | Dissent [Stevens] | Concurrence/Dissent [Souter]

Supreme Court Documents:
Oral Argument Transcript | Briefs

American Recovery and Reinvestment Act:
H.R.1 | S.1

Related Stories:
NCAI to broadcast economic stimulus meeting (3/2)
NCAI meets for annual winter session in Washington (2/27)
Obama sends first federal budget to Congress (2/27)
Supreme Court rules in big land-into-trust case (2/25)
Garcia hopeful in last State of Indian Nations (2/11)