The new logo of the National Congress of American Indians is seen on a museum-style exhibition at the organization’s 80th annual convention in New Orleans, Louisiana, on November 12, 2023. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
> National Congress of American Indians kicks off milestone convention
National Congress of American Indians kicks off milestone convention
Monday, November 13, 2023
NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana —
The nation’s largest inter-tribal advocacy organization is hosting a milestone meeting here this week, and one controversial topic is already generating significant debate among attendees.
The National Congress of American Indians
(NCAI) heads into its 80th annual convention
with a celebration of its storied legacy. A museum-style exhibit at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in Louisiana’s largest city highlights the many ways in which the organization has been at the forefront of protecting and promoting tribal sovereignty and self-determination since 1944.
“Today, after nearly 80 years on the frontlines of policymaking, standing at the side of our partners, we don’t just have a seat at the table,” NCAI President Fawn Sharp
says in the exhibit on the convention floor in New Orleans, “we have influence and representation across the federal government, across the United States, and around the world.”
But the organization’s stature is being tested as attendees consider a controversial update to NCAI’s constitution. Some tribes are seeking to restrict membership to federally recognized tribes — reversing a long-standing policy in which groups with state recognition have been active participants in shaping Indian affairs at the national level.
“If this passes, it would be a major setback in our representation and our advocacy in Indian Country,” Chief Harry Wallace of the Unkechaug Nation
, a state-recognized tribe in New York, told Indianz.Com ahead of the opening of NCAI’s convention on Monday morning.
Wallace isn’t alone in opposing the proposed changes to NCAI’s governing document. Brian Cladoosby — a past president of the organization — called on attendees to reject the constitutional amendments in a statement on Sunday, pointing out that tribes have already been forfeiting their seat at the table by withdrawing from membership in NCAI.
“The exclusion of state recognized tribes would only further weaken NCAI and make the organization’s governance more difficult,” said Cladoosby, a citizen of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community
who served two terms as NCAI president. “We cannot afford this self-inflicted wound. We cannot and should not do the bidding of the federal government.”
Chuck Hoskin: Cherokee Nation calls for change at National Congress of American Indians
But supporters of the effort to restrict NCAI membership to federally recognized tribes say changes are needed to prevent “phony organizations” from undermining the unique, legal
government-to-government relationship between the United States and tribal nations.
Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr.
of the Cherokee Nation
said state groups have “harmed” NCAI’s mission
to stand up for treaty and sovereign rights.
“NCAI’s embrace of state-recognized tribes lends false legitimacy to groups that undermine our rights, histories and cultures,” Hoskin said in an opinion published on Indianz.Com
on Monday. “We must push back against efforts to erode what it means to be a Native American.”
The competing sides will come to a head on Tuesday morning, the second day of NCAI’s 80th annual convention. The organization has set aside about three hours for debate on the constitutional amendments
, of which there are three different changes.
Two of the changes have been proposed by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians
, based in North Carolina, and the Shawnee Tribe
, based in Oklahoma. The two tribes worked together to present one package in which only federally-recognized Indian nations are eligible for “tribal membership” in NCAI.
If the package passes, state-recognized tribes would be restricted to “associate membership” in the organization. The change is significant in that these groups would lose voting rights within NCAI.
Titled “National Congress of American Indians: A Journey Through Time,” a museum-style exhibit at NCAI’s 80th annual convention in New Orleans, Louisiana, details the organization’s history in Indian law and policy since its founding in 1944. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
In an interview, Chief Wallace noted that his tribe, which resides on one of the oldest reservations in the U.S.
, has long relied on NCAI’s stature to advance issues of importance in New York, most recently with the passage of a new state law
that protects burial sites
on private land. Without voting rights in NCAI, he said state-recognized groups would not be treated seriously by the organization.
“If they treat us in this fashion now, how will they respond to us when we have issues that we want to bring to the floor?” Wallace asked. “They will not be received in a positive way.”
The third change to the constitution has been proposed by the Ute Tribe
, based in Utah. According to the proposal, only citizens of federally recognized tribes should be eligible for “Indian Individual Membership” in NCAI.
Further, only citizens of federally-recognized Indian nations would be able to hold leadership positions within NCAI
if the amendment passes. The change is significant in that past leaders in the organization have come from state-recognized groups, including some that eventually secured federal recognition of their status by the United States government.
In particular, the Northeast and Southeast regions of NCAI have long been dominated by state-recognized groups
. But even in the Midwest, some tribes didn’t gain federal recognition until the mid-1990s. And the 200-plus tribes in Alaska weren’t added to the list of federally-recognized entities until 1994.
The official U.S. government list is significant because the proposed amendments to NCAI’s constitution cite the Federally Recognized Tribes List Act of 1994
, a federal law that requires the Bureau of Indian Affairs
to publish a list of federally-recognized entities
A sign promoting the candidacy of Marshall Pierite for president of the National Congress of American Indians is seen outside of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, Louisiana, on November 12, 2023. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Who gets to hold office in NCAI is also notable because it’s an election year for the organization. During the 80th annual convention this week, attendees will vote for a new slate of executive board officers — one candidate for president is
, the chairwoman of the Massachusetts-based Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe
, which didn’t gain federal recognition until 1987, and only after settling a land claim with the United States.
Another candidate for NCAI president is Marshall Pierite
, the chairman and chief executive officer of the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe
, which didn’t gain federal recognition until 1981, following decades of lobbying at the national level.
He’s running his campaign on home turf, as his people’s reservation in Louisiana is only about three hours from New Orleans.
Louisiana’s four federally-recognized tribes, including Tunica-Biloxi, are playing major roles at NCAI’s convention. Leaders from the Chitimacha Tribe
, the Coushatta Tribe
and the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians
will be appearing on the general assembly stage on every day of the event.
But state-recognized tribes in Louisiana
have a role at NCAI too. The
invocation and land acknowledgment on the opening day of the conference will be delivered by representatives of the United Houma Nation
, one of the 11 groups recognized by the state government
After Tuesday morning’s debate on the constitutional amendments, NCAI has tentatively scheduled a public forum with the candidates for president. In addition to Andrews-Maltais and Pierite, Chairman Mark Macarro
of the Pechanga Band of Indians
, based in California, is seeking the organization’s highest executive board position. Macarro currently serves as NCAI’s vice president.
On Wednesday, the candidates for office will make campaign speeches following their nominations to office. Besides president, NCAI is choosing leaders for vice president, treasurer and secretary.
Voting for the NCAI leadership positions will take place on Thursday morning. So will voting on the constitutional amendments. All votes will be cast by secret ballot.
The results of the election are typically announced by noon on Thursday. Additional time has been set aside for a run-off vote, should one be required if any candidate fails to receive majority of the votes cast.
Winners of the election are then scheduled to be sworn in on Friday, the final day of the NCAI convention. Organizers expect more than 2,000 people to attend.
According to Chief Wallace from Unkechaug
, “at least 24 bona fide Native Nations” would be downgraded to associate membership in NCAI should the constitutional amendments be adopted during the convention this week.
Cladoosby from Swinomish said the change would diminish the organization’s membership even further — his statement said NCAI’s ranks have dropped from 270 to 145 member tribes in recent years.
More than a decade ago, NCAI considered a proposal to bar state tribes
from membership. The constitutional amendment
was rejected at the organization’s 69th annual convention in Sacramento, California in 2013.
Brian Cladoosby Statement – November 12, 2023
Relatives, we must oppose the proposed NCAI constitutional amendments to exclude state recognized Tribes from voting membership. The issue of state recognition is not a national issue; it is not an NCAI issue. That issue must be addressed at the local, inter-Tribal level. The amendments threaten to weaken NCAI by lowering our membership numbers. Already down from 270 to 145 member Tribes, it has been difficult for NCAI to achieve a quorum in recent years. The exclusion of state recognized Tribes would only further weaken NCAI and make the organization’s governance more difficult. We cannot afford this self-inflicted wound. We cannot and should not do the bidding of the federal government. Please vote against the proposed amendments.
— Brian Cladoosby (Spee-Pots), 21st NCAI President, 2013-2017