Special to The Native Voice
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Q: What are the most pressing issues that need to be addressed, both at the NCAI Annual Conference and in the coming months?
First and foremost are the social issues, I am most concerned with the number of lives that we are loosing, especially with the younger crowds, and it has to do with suicide and the use of methamphetamine and things of this nature. A lot of us are forming partnerships in Indian country to address this together. The only way we are going to win battles, like this one, is by reinforcing our own partnerships and building a firmer foundation in order to work together. This is so we can take care of our people, and this issue is at the top.
Related to this is the Healthcare Improvement Act. which has not been approved at this point in time, and we need to continue to push that effort.
Also in terms of our youth, in terms of education, we continue to struggle. The No Child Left Behind Act has certainly been the driving force for changes in education, but it is underfunded. Monumental changes in education are expected to be accomplished with measly funds. That’s not how systems work and that’s not reality.
Compare it to business: if you are going to make major changes in business, you’re going to apply money to those changes. And it’s the same thing in Indian country. The truth is that if you are going to incorporate changes you have to have other dollars that will implement the changes, versus using the same programmatic dollars to continue running programs when we are underfunded to begin with. It does not make any sense.
Q: This is an important election year. We are looking potentially major changes in the balance of power on the Hill. What is the most important message regarding getting out the Native Vote?
The first and foremost is the message that Indian people have got to get out and vote. We need to be apprised about what voting means, and not just to the local issues, but more drastically, at the national level. There is a relationship between what happens locally and what happens nationally. But the ultimate is not just leaving it to chance that people are going to get out and vote. The important statistic, and it is wise for every tribe to know this, is that out of your eligible voters, how many are actually registered to vote? If we are sitting there at forty or fifty percent, we’re not doing our job. We’ve got to elevate the number of registered voters. And, we need those voters to get out to the polls and be knowledgeable about who are the appropriate people to support in these elections. If we can get those two things under our belt, then we will have a lot more say so and we will help Indian country by virtue of having that political strength.
I know we’re low in numbers, but there are ways that the smaller numbers can have effect and impact on key elections and elected officials, like senators, congressman, state legislators, governors.
Q: What are the other major national issues that you would like everyone to pay attention to now?
As far as legislation and other political things, the Cobell litigation has kind of gone haywire. I thought we were really close to getting something settled. Unfortunately, in this case, it is not so much that the tribes are not together, it’s more the (Bush) administration that we’re battling at this point. Even Congress is working on our behalf, it is the administration that is hindering a settlement.
The Cobell litigation is tied to trust reform. We’ve really got to be clear on things that we don’t want to compromise – in trust reform. Yes, we want to settle Cobell, but those things should not be compromised. The tribes should have a say so, not individual Indians or in this case, the plaintiffs. I think the important part is that we are working together with the plaintiffs and the attorneys and others to resolve the issue. This is a big positive sign.
As far as the issue on “rights of way” (regarding the Energy Policy Act of 2005) that has been pondered by Indian country, we have concluded that there need to be no changes. The tribes have the final say so on whether they want leasing agreements to go forth or not. No one else should have that responsibility, or in this case, the authority to do that. The tribes, as sovereign nations, should determine that.
Q: On the subject of energy in Indian country, what about alternative energy development for the tribes?
This is a key issue, in fact, because of the energy situation in this country. As you know, a lot of the potential energy development-exists in Indian country, it is important that we be involved in the development of energy and alternatives, and if its green energy, so much the better. But we have to be versed in technology and we ought to be driving whatever we think is appropriate to happen in Indian country.
We ought to be moving forward those initiatives that can be beneficial to us, but, the ultimate idea here is that the tribes then can say, “We are looking out for the best interests of the United States of America, not just my land and my people, but all of the United States.” And I think the tribes can really, really do that and demonstrate to this country what we are all about, and what we can do. And, with the energy bill and the energy titles for Indian country, I think we will be beneficial in that arena. We need to promote this a lot more.
Q: So you are referring to the legislative incentives, the financial incentives, that have been put in place for doing business in Indian country in alternative energy development?
Q: Are you aware of the meeting that Senator Tom Daschle hosted with tribes interested in wind energy development?
This is one of those rare opportunities for Indian country to take the lead on something that’s actually going to benefit everyone, the larger population.
I think what we are doing is providing the knowledge building, if you will. Not only of our tribes and tribal leaders, but relaying the information and having a systematic approach to building that knowledge in the general public. For example, we’ve incorporated the media section in NCAI. If we can put out greater efforts and collaborations to get the message out, then we’ll be a lot better off. So I appreciate the opportunity that you are giving here, so keep up the good work.
Q: Thank you. We think it is an important part of the solution, so we are just doing our small part.
Every little bit of potential solution adds to the greater picture. All of the pieces all lead to the comprehensive solution in Indian country.
Q: This is NCAI’s annual meeting. It is by far a most important annual event in Indian country. That being said, would you like to paint the bigger picture of the trend of how the tribes are working together? Do you feel that there is a good amount of consensus, do you feel the need to call everybody together, are you feeling a good momentum growing?
I think we have a great momentum right now. All of the leg work that we’ve done in collaborations is a good indicator of that positive momentum, it doesn’t mean that all issues have been resolved to this point by any means, that is not the case. This is only because of the large quantity of issues that face Indian country.
And part of the underlying reason why we haven’t been as progressive as we might have been is that a lot of times the knowledge that is required is not yet developed. For example, the federal budgeting process is pretty complicated. Unless you get your feet wet and get into the system and learn that and understand the mechanics behind what drives the federal budgeting process, a lot of the solutions that we propose are blind solutions. Until we got involved in this national budget advisory council where a number of very good tribal leaders are members of this council, until we got our feet really wet and got our hands dirty, about the budgeting, did we clearly understand how much of a dilemma we faced. And we’ve been partly complaining to the wrong people, and bringing the issues to the wrong level, if you will. The target ought to be the OMB (Office of Management and Budget) and the President.
All of these other times, we’ve been battling at the lower levels, and by virtue of that fact, we haven’t been as successful. And working together now with the tribes throughout the country has been a big plus.
Q: This sounds like a positive trend in political development.
Yes. One thing I need to tell you about, though, is that there may be too many national meetings. Where the same tribal leaders that need to be in one meeting are tied down because they attending another meeting that was scheduled at the same time. There is not a whole lot of concerted effort to get the schedules together so that they follow one another. Meetings are scheduled at the same time during the same week in completely different parts of the country.
We still need to do a lot of work on our time management system. With technology readily available, I think we can do that. We all need to be involved finding the right solution for that.
How much do we know about the systems that are available? And its not just in Indian country. This is what the world uses, so why shouldn’t it work for us? We just tweak the systems to fit our needs.
The tests still remain, but I feel very, very positive about Indian country working together. And it’s going to continue. We’ve not reached the ultimate solution, but we’re working towards that end. I trust that within this next year, we’ll get even farther down the road.
Q: Going back to what you said about working directly with this administration, can you fill in what is going on behind the scenes in the negotiations or communications with the offices at the White House and the OMB?
The important piece about OMB is that Indian country has never met directly met with OMB until last December. It was the first time we as a national budget advisory council met with OMB. That began a collaboration. OMB listens a lot, I found out, to the departments (Interior, etc.). They indicated that there is not a lot of down-to-earth advocacy (on our behalf) from the other departments. And it is their place to be doing that. But for whatever reason, it never comes across as such.
So the OMB meetings are really key, and we’ve had at least five meetings with the OMB staff, the main people who make decisions. We’ve also got to be sending our message, the same message, to each of the departments, such as the DOI. We have to be aligned with our messages – what we are proposing and what they are advocating on behalf of Indian country need to be the same message. So that when OMB meets with us, they hear the same story and the same truth, they hear the same needs and they see the same solutions that we all are talking about. We’re all on the same page. In the past, we haven’t been able to do that. I think that’s changed somewhat. Progress has been made.
The other thing to remember is that the budgeting cycles are like three overlapping cycles at any one time. There’s the implementation of last year’s budget, there’s the planning and implementation of this year’s budget, and then there’s the planning for next year and the year after that. Being able to juggle three phases going on at one time is an important piece, and that may not have been very clear to Indian country in the past.
Q: And how have you felt about the response from, for example. Reuben Barrales’ office at the White House, or the Department of OMB? How has the response been from that level of government?
In a sense, they are asking why didn’t we do this before? We can ask ourselves why, but part of the answer is the fact that we didn’t know the system. It’s just like not knowing what to do when a car breaks down. If you knew how that car operated you might be able to do something about it. So that analogy falls into play here, but the response has been really, really extraordinary from OMB, from the Budget Council, from Congress, and a lot of staff at the White House. I have to commend them for being out front and meeting with us.
The one thing that I still want to see happen is for us to meet with President Bush, and we have not had that opportunity as the embassy of tribes, we have not been able to do that. That is going to be one of the initiatives that we push forward at NCAI – the officers, myself, the tribal leaders and the tribes that make up NCAI. We really need to push for this.
Q: There have been some tough issues on Capitol Hill lately. What is the mood, the tone of the meetings with members of Congress lately?
We need to get away from the attitude that we are fighting Congress. Everywhere I’ve been and I’ve talked about Congress, I’ve never said that we’re “fighting” with Congress. What I said is that we’re “working” with Congress to find the solutions. Just from a human philosophical approach, that sends the more positive note to the parties involved. And I think that means a whole lot to all of us so we want to continue to push those efforts.
Besides Congress, we’ve initiated meetings with a number of other federal agencies that haven’t worked with Indian country, per se. One prime example, just the latest one of consultation – and you know how I feel about consultation – is the DOJ (Department of Justice). As long as its been involved in working with Indian country, which is years and years, the very first consultation was held just last week. This was the one in Minneapolis regarding the Violence Against Women Act. This in itself is a prime indicator that our efforts are having some impact. But, we must continue to be vigilant in working with the issues that face us.
As we speak, there is a lot of legislation coming on-line that we knew nothing or little about. One of them is HR 4, having to do with the benefits for employees of tribes. The other is HR 16, that is clarifying labor union issues in Indian country. Under the National Labor Relations Act, we are protected from labor unions setting up shop in Indian country. The latest interpretation was that tribes were exempt from that protection, and so HR 16 moved to clarify that tribes share the same protection as other government agencies.
We still see legislation being introduced that disadvantages Indian country. The latest one that I heard about has to do with the 8A status, that would give tribes no special attention or opportunities when it comes to business or business development. That in itself could be detrimental. What we’ve been pushing for all along is for tribes to do economic development and sustain their own economies by doing economic development, business enterprises and what not.
Q: What is the proposal on the table regarding 8A status for tribes?
What it says is that the tribes with 8A status should not receive any special consideration for governmental jobs or for projects. If it gets by, it wipes out our efforts having to do with economic development and the SBA 8A status that a lot of tribes have been moving toward. It would wipe away a lot of opportunity, a lot of momentum.
Q: There are a lot of tribes that have economic development and industry in place that are dependent on that 8A status.
That’s right. It’s being talked about, and chances are it could be introduced. The best effort would be to cut it off at the knees before it makes it to any other level.
Economic development, in my eyes, goes hand in hand with tribal sovereignty. If we’re talking about self determination and self reliance as tribes, then we have to have the revenue stream and the resource base by which we can say, “I’m no longer dependent upon the federal government.” If you relate that to reality, though, you see that the tribes are at different levels of economic development. Those tribes that have been very successful in their efforts, and there are those tribes that are still in need of help and development, a lot of it by no fault of their own: because of the systems, the funding, the locations, the regions why they have not reached that level.
Q: What is your vision for the future of tribes, of Indian country as a whole?
My vision is that the day will come that we will no longer be dependent on the federal government. We will stand on our own means. That is true sovereignty, that is true self governance, self reliability, self sustainability, and that’s what we all ought to be pushing toward…and this includes every tribe in this country, even those that are not recognized, because the lack of recognition was through no fault of their own. We can help our brothers and sister tribes, and I think that is happening more so than it was before. That is our own solution, if you will, absent of any other help from the feds or from the state. If we can accomplish that, then more power to us.
Q: We went to see the Dalai lama with Arvol Looking Horse last week, and Arvol mentioned that individual sovereignty is important to tribal sovereignty. That if you have the ability to be individually sovereign, then you can lead, have the full understanding of what sovereignty is. You can see this with Indian leaders from around the country, like yourself and Tex Hall. Some of the best tribal leaders are those that understand the meaning of personal self-sufficiency.
That is right.
If we’re talking about self determination and self reliance as tribes, then we have to have the revenue stream and the resource base by which we can say, “I’m no longer dependent upon the federal government.”