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Updates from National Congress of American Indians winter session in D.C.

National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby embraces Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy at the organization's executive council winter session in Washington, D.C., on February 22, 2016. Photo by Indianz.Com

Some highlights from the opening day of the National Congress of American Indians 2016 executive council winter session in Washington, D.C.

The Obama Era
As more than 400 tribal leaders gathered in Washington, D.C., for updates on a wide range of issues, National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby opened the organization's executive council winter session with a familiar refrain.

“This administration has been the best administration ever for Indian Country," Clasoodby said on an unseasonably warm Monday afternoon. "President Obama kept candidate Obama’s promises."

But with President Barack Obama heading out of office in less than a year, Cladoosby wants tribes to push the administration to make even more strides. Strengthening enforcement of the Indian Child Welfare Act, addressing the impacts of climate change on Native communities and improving the education system for Native youth are all achievable goals before January 2017, he said.

"You can either be at the table or on the menu," Cladoosby said to applause. "We are done being on the menu."

Speaking later in the day, Karen Diver, the new Special Assistant to the President for Native American Affairs at the White House, said she was working hard to ensure that the gains made since January 2009 can continue regardless of who succeeds Obama in the Oval Office. She noted that there "332 days" left in the administration.

"This last year is going to be about institutionalizing this work," said Diver, who resigned her post as chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa last November to join the effort.

To fulfill that goal, Diver encouraged tribes to come up with ideas that can be implemented by the executive branch before January. "We need you to go to the agencies and ask them what they can do to help without legislation," she said.

Karen Diver, the Special Assistant to the President for Native American Affairs at the White House, speaks at the National Congress of American Indians executive council winter session in Washington, D.C., on February 22, 2016. Photo by Indianz.Com

Carcieri Woes
NCAI's meeting this week marks an ominous anniversary. It's been seven years since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar threw a wrench into the land-into-trust process.

The February 24, 2009, decision has increased litigation, stymied tribal economic development and placed additional burdens on the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Despite the negative impacts, Congress has yet to pass a fix to ensure that all tribes, regardless of the date of federal recognition, can restore their land bases.

With that in mind, NCAI executive director Jackie Pata followed up on a message delivered by Cladoosby during the State of Indian Nations address last month. Tribes need to take a serious look at S.1879, the Interior Improvement Act.

"This legislation, it is not perfect," Pata said, referring to provisions regarding states and local governments that some tribes have criticized. But she added: "If a clean Carcieri fix were possible, that would be moving."

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee passed the bill last December and Pata said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the panel's chairman, has made it clear that the only Carcieri fix that will be moving in the 114th Congress is S.1879. He's is due to address NCAI on Wednesday morning.

Tribal leaders listen to Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota) at the National Congress of American Indians executive council winter session in Washington, D.C., on February 22, 2016. Photo by Indianz.Com

NAHASDA and Native Hawaiians
Speaking of another unfinished legislative priority, Pata issued an urgent and more explicit plea about the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act, which expired in September 2013.

Last year, Pata said unnamed Republicans were holding up a bill to reauthorize NAHASDA due to concerns about existing Native Hawaiian programs. On Monday, she blamed the delay on just one person, a lawmaker who appears to be far removed from Hawaii and its first inhabitants: Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).

“This is not a new thing," countered Pata, who served in an Indian housing position during the Clinton administration. "NAHASDA has had Native Hawaiian programs in it since 1998, at least, or earlier.”

Tribes, Native Hawaiians and their allies in Congress have tried to work with Lee but have not made any progress even as the House has repeatedly voted to renew NAHASDA, Pata said. Regardless of his position, she said NCAI will not bow to a divide and conquer strategy.

"NCAI does not support cutting out existing Native Hawaiian programs in NAHASDA to get NAHASDA passed," Pata told tribal leaders. "Giving into this divisiveness is not a principle NCAI was founded on."

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee approved S.710, its version of NAHASDA, nearly a year ago but Lee's hold has prevented further action. H.R.360, a different version of the reauthorization, passed the House in March 2015.

EPA and Treaty Rights
The Environmental Protection Agency finalized its treaty rights policy on Monday and Administrator Gina McCarthy drew big applause for making just one simple statement.

"Under the constitution treaties are the supreme law of the land," McCarthy said.

The policy is the first of its kind for the EPA and it builds upon the agency's tribal consultation initiatives. It explains how the EPA will consult tribes to ensure that any decisions and actions do not conflict with treaty rights. Whenever possible, the agency will work to protect and enhance treaty rights.

“We are embarking on new ground here," McCarthy said of the policy, which goes into effect immediately.

Larry Roberts, the acting head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, speaks at the National Congress of American Indians executive council winter session in Washington, D.C., on February 22, 2016. Photo by Indianz.Com

A Final Push at BIA
The Bureau of Indian Affairs lost its leader last December when former Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn went back to New Mexico. He's returning to NCAI on Tuesday evening to be honored at the 13th annual Leadership Awards Banquet but his former deputy, Larry Roberts, is busy putting some final touches on several key initiatives.

The biggest item is a new Indian Child Welfare Act rule. Roberts said the BIA received more comments on the proposal than any in history, with some questioning the goals of the 1978 law.

Despite the controversy, Roberts hopes to issue a final rule in the coming months. “We are moving full steam ahead on those regulations," he said.

The BIA is also planning to issue two interim rules that can go into effect as soon as possible, Roberts said. One would extend the deadline for burial assistance to allow people more time to seek assistance when their loved ones pass on.

The second involves a minor change to the BIA's Part 151 land-into-trust regulations to address land title issues. Both rules should be ready by the end of the week, Roberts told NCAI.

Additionally, the BIA's new model juvenile justice code, a process started by Washburn last April, should be finished this week as well, Roberts said. The code hasn't been updated since 1988.

“We are trying to move quickly to implement as much common sense approaches as we can," Roberts said.

Finally, Roberts encouraged tribes to submit land-into-trust applications or, if their applications haven't already been approved, to find out why not. The BIA hopes to place at least 500,000 acres in trust before Obama leaves office and the agency is about 100,000 acres short of the goal.

"We want to know where the hang ups are," Roberts told tribal leaders, noting that the BIA is holding a listening session on land-into-trust and rights-of-way on Wednesday afternoon. "We want to make decisions on as many applications as possible."

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