January 22, 2017

NCAI delegates focus on ‘sacred sovereignty’ issues

Info exchange in Rapid City could influence policy making

RAPID CITY, S.D. — Policy planning progress at American Indian conferences often can be challenging to chart.

Certainly, that’s the case with this year’s mid-year planning conference of the National Congress of American Indians, the oldest and largest organization of its kind in Indian country.

Meeting in Rapid City, with one of the country’s largest reservations – the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation – nearby, delegates were scheduled to focus on issues of “sacred sovereignty” during the three-day conference’s workshops.

At least, that was the thrust of newly elected NCAI President Jefferson Keel’s exclusive interview with Native Sun News on the day the planning conference opened at the downtown Rushmore Plaza Civic Center.

“We make sure that the tribal nations have sovereign governments, that our sovereignty is not eroded by the courts,” said Keel, an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation.

Hosted by the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association, the conference drew more than 1,000 delegates throughout Indian country in the United States and Canada.

“We probably won’t make any policies here,” said Keel. “There may be some decisions on the Cobell (Settlement) litigation … on which direction we take, on what our response should be … but this will be more of an information exchange.”

President Keel, who participated in the conference’s honoring powwow on Sunday, June 20, at the civic center, serves the organization along with the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s President Theresa Two Bulls. Two Bulls has called for a stronger stand when it comes to support for the survival of threatened tribes, such as the genocidal implications of British Patroleum’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill – likely the largest oil-spill accident in human history.

To date, there has been no official response to the emergency two-week-old call from Two Bulls, who is NCAI secretary.

“These are dynamic meetings and there are times when tribal leaders will bring something to the congress that we need to act on and if that happens then we will take that and that can happen from the floor at any time,” said Keel.

Meanwhile, Keel told Native Sun News that “the federal government provides funding for houses, health care and other types of services that are part of the federal trust responsibility.

“Indian tribes seceded many lands, millions of acres of lands, in exchange for services from the federal government,” Keel said. “A number of people believe that our health care is free. It is not free. It is prepaid health care paid for by billions of acres of land.”

Keel, characterizing the Washington NCAI as a lobbying group, said the congress focuses on making sure the federal government upholds its trust responsibility to provide services.

What the NCAI does, he said, is have an “embassy of tribal nations” in Washington DC.

“We have a complete staff that attends all the meetings on Capitol Hill with senators and congressmen and all the federal agencies. We serve similar to lobbyists in Washington on all areas, on all issues that affect Indian people,” said Keel.

Buffeted recently by criticism from some of Indian country’s larger tribes, NCAI also has been the subject of controversy concerning its stand on the class-action lawsuit brought against the federal government by Elouise Cobell, a member of the Montana’s Blackfeet Tribe. The case, which has reached the floor of Congress, is in the settlement stage

“The Cobell case is litigation that Elouise Cobell presented against the federal government about the mismanagement of the federal funds,” Keel said. “NCAI doesn’t necessarily have a position on that.” Keel said NCAI supports a settlement. However, it first issued a press release, then withdrew it, that opposed the settlement, which has been threading its way through the federal court system for years, since being filed in 1996.

“We support a settlement, but we don’t take sides in terms of the decisive issues between individuals and tribal governments,” said Keel, who’s organization has taken the brunt of American Indian criticism for being an indecisive national “Indian group that hides behind press releases,” rather than driving Native American policy.

Keel has explained that “the federal government mismanaged the trust responsibility to individual Indians and have done it for centuries.” This, the Cobell case, was designed to hold the federal government accountable, he said.

“Parties on either side of the issue are asking NCAI to take a stand and the thing is we represent tribal governments and individuals on both sides of the issue,” he said. “So we don’t take a positive stand one way or the other. We support the settlement, but there are terms of the settlement that individuals on both sides don’t agree to, so there are problems with that,” Keel said.

Discussions on proposed resolutions appeared to be the mainstream of Monday’s agenda for the mid-year meeting, Keel said.

A Cobell Settlement resolution is one of many discussion items, acknowledged Keel, who also referred to the conference’s printed guide.

I believe it (NCAI conference goals) may be stated in here,” Keel said, referencing the official “Mid-Year Conference Agenda.”

“There is a letter that I put in here that may provide some of your answers,” Keel said.

That letter offered delegates a welcome, the explanation of “the inherent sovereignty of Indian nations” and a message to “stand together here in Rapid City to honor the legacy we have been asked to protect.”

Concurrent breakout sessions were scheduled for the afternoons of Monday and Tuesday following the general assembly’s morning speakers. The mid-year conference has been three year’s in the planning, according to NCAI officials.

Breakout session focuses range from communication, internet gaming, leader-to-leader discussions on tribal constitution reform and tribal homeland security.

After breakout sessions, subcommittee and full committee meetings are scheduled on a variety of topics ranging from the economy and finance to litigation and governance.

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