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Final highlights from NCAI's winter session in Washington DC

The National Congress of American Indians wrapped up its winter session in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. Here are some final highlights from the event.

Indian mascots weren't a specific item on the agenda but nearly every speaker -- from President Brian Cladoosby to former Sen. Byron Dorgan(D-North Dakota) to Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-California), the House Democratic leader -- brought up the name of the Washington professional football team.

"It’s time to choose another name," Pelosi told tribal leaders on Thursday. "In fact, it’s long overdue.”

Pelosi supported efforts by young Native activists to petition the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to cancel the team's trademarks. A decision hasn't been issued.

Meanwhile, a bill to cancel the trademarks has seen little movement in the 113th Congress. H.R.1278, the Non-Disparagement of Native American Persons or Peoples in Trademark Registration Act, has yet to receive a hearing. Pelosi has not signed on as a co-sponsor.

The Affordable Care Act wasn't a separate agenda item either but that didn't stop several Obama administration officials and several members of Congress from promoting the benefits of the law, which includes a permanent reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act

Indian Health Service Director Yvette Roubideaux encouraged tribal members to sign up for coverage through Patients who bring their own insurance to the IHS will actually help the agency cover its costs, she said.

"We don't want people to miss the March 31 deadline," Roubideaux told NCAI, referring to the end of the open enrollment period. People who sign up will start to receive coverage this year.

People who don't make the deadline will be able to sign up later this year. But their insurance won't kick in until 2015.

Roubideaux pointed out tribal members aren't affected by this restriction. However, she recognized there are patients who are eligible for IHS care but may not be enrolled in a tribe or may not be eligible for enrollment.

Other provisions of the law can also help tribal members, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-New Jersey) said. Income level requirements for Medicaid were changed to help more people qualify, he noted.

"The ACA is great for Indian Country for various reasons," Pallone said. "A lot of Native Americans are now eligible for Medicaid because the income level was made higher."

However, not every state has agreed to expand Medicaid so some tribal members won't benefit. One state that said no is Oklahoma, which is home to the largest number of American Indians and Alaska Natives in the U.S.

Arizona, California and New Mexico, on the other hand, are expanding Medicaid. All three states are home to significant numbers of Native Americans.

Another Land-Into-Trust Concern
In March 2013, a federal judge ruled that the Bureau of Indian Affairs can't exclude Alaska tribes from the land-into-trust process. Judge Rudolph Contreras finalized the matter in September 2013 by deleting the Alaska exception from the BIA's regulations.

But Ed Thomas, the president of the
Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Tribes, noted that the BIA has not accepted the decision. He said the agency's stance flies in the face of its goal to acquire 500,000 acres in trust by the end of the Obama administration.

“Is there any way we can get past that so that we can participate in getting some of our tribal lands back?" Thomas asked Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn, the head of the BIA.

Washburn said the case is before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Opening briefs haven't been filed, according to the docket sheet for Akiachak Native Community, et al v. DOI, No. 13-5360, so it could take many more months before a decision comes down.

“We’re being very cautious and careful about how we proceed," Washburn told Thomas.

But if the court rules in favor of Alaska tribes, Washburn said the state could help the BIA meet its land-into-trust goal. “There's a hell of a lot of acres in Alaska," he said.

"I would love to have one more region where I can take land into trust," Washburn said.

A Dogged Advocate
Speaking of Washburn, he likely got the biggest response at NCAI when he compared himself to a dog. Yes, that's right.

Well it's not as bad as it sounds. Someone told him the other day that he has been referred to as a "lapdog for tribal leaders" on some unnamed blog.

"I said, 'lapdog?'" Washburn responded, incredulously. "I want to be seen as a Rottweiler for tribal leaders."

Rottweilers are known for their herding skills and are often used as guard dogs.

Federal Recognition Reforms
After facing years of criticism, the BIA is moving forward with plans to reform the federal recognition process. But politicians in Connecticut are trying to stop that from happening, citing concerns about land claims and casinos.

Washburn didn't discuss the opposition during his speech at NCAI but he promised to put out a proposed rule this spring. He warned, however, that "spring" could turn into June.

When that happens, the BIA will seek more public comments. Washburn said there also might be more consultation sessions before a final rule is released, most likely in early 2015.

"Hopefully within 12 months we will have a final rule," Washburn said.

Mid-year and Beyond
NCAI holds its mid-year conference in Anchorage, Alaska, from June 8-11. Expect heavy turnout from Alaska and Pacific Northwest, especially since President Cladoosby is from Washington.

The 71st annual conference will be held in Atlanta, Georgia, from October 26-October 31. The location will give a chance for Southeastern tribes to showcase their hospitality.

Related Stories:
Highlights from Day 2 of NCAI winter session in Washington DC (3/13)
Highlights from Day 1 of NCAI winter session in Washington DC (3/12)
National Congress of American Indians set for winter meeting (3/11)

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