NCAI in DC
Last winter during the National Congress of American Indian’s Tribal Nations Legislative Summit, also held in Washington, D.C., there were so many conference attendees that coffee ran out and more importantly, space. In one of the main conference rooms seats were so few I felt claustrophobic in a sea of suits and cell phones. I expected virtually the same experience this time around, but was pleasantly disappointed, if such a feeling is even possible.
The 2012 NCAI Legislative Summit March 6-7 was a mild affair. By “mild” I mean with noticeably fewer conference attendees, which is overall very surprising given the lineup of speakers and guests, which included not only seven Obama administration cabinet members, but also Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and native actress Irene Bedard, of “Pocahontas” and “Smoke Signals” fame. One speaker, Shaun Donovan, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development indicated that Barack Obama had joked about being able to have had a cabinet meeting there at L’Enfant Plaza Hotel in DC.
Unlike the other two conferences that NCAI hold every year, the annual DC session seems to be structured rather differently. Whereas in the other sessions the conference presents an opportunity for local tribes of wherever it is being held to share culture and to exhibit how they themselves govern, complete with success stories and tours, what happens in DC is akin to a seminar. Few workshops or breakout sessions. One sits and listens. A lot. From 8:30 in the morning until close to 5:00 p.m. the conference consists primarily of a line-up of speakers, all of whom have something important to say. But still, that is a lot of listening, and like at least one other conference attendee I was greatly mystified as to why they didn’t serve complimentary coffee during the afternoon when it would have been needed the most.
Anybody familiar with me knows that I publicly supported Barack Obama for President in 2008. I feel obligated to mention that to get any appearances of bias out in the open. A number of the speakers who appeared before NCAI last week were obviously appointees of the Obama Administration, and quite a few of their speeches were about what this particular administration has meant to Indian Country, and what changes they’ve made and how natives have benefitted. That is not surprising given that 2012 is an election year, an epic one really. Equally not surprising is that most of the political speakers, like Congressman Xavier Becerra (D-CA), Senator Tom Udall (D-NM), and Senator Daniel Akaka (D-HI), are all Democrats. I don't think a Republican would have necessarily been met with rotten tomatoes, but rest assured this was a very Democrat-friendly conference.
The conference was so jammed with speakers that every morning they even began on time. Indian time didn't prevail here. What did prevail though were a number of themes and ideas that were mentioned early and often. Three big ones: Native Vote 2012, the Violence Against Women Act, and a Carcieri "fix". Grand Ronde's own opinion on the last one might differ from most, but the other two were issues I can't think of any solid reason not to be behind. Native Vote in particular caught my attention, because officially now natives number five million in the United States, of who one million aren't even registered to vote. NCAI President Jefferson Keel, through his thick Oklahoma drawl, hoped for the highest-ever voter turnout of natives in 2012. Seems like a worthy goal.
All of the Secretaries had something to say, ranging from inspirational to a laundry list of facts about what they've done for Indian Country. Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, explained that education is the "only way to achieve social justice". He also spoke to Executive Order 13592, which puts aside $1.2 billion for schools on Tribal lands. Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius noted that the Indian Health Services budget had increased by 30% under Obama, and Contract Health Services by 46%. While those are notable differences, she did lament that half of all natives still don't have access to IHS services.
One of the more intriguing speakers was Dean Granholm, head of the United States Postal Service. I don't think that the USPS was in "dire financial straits" was news to most of us. How it affected Indian Country was. You see, much of USPS business is being done online now, which will result in the closure of several thousand of the more than 30,000 retail stores nationwide. This will be a particular blow to tribal communities because they lag behind much of the country in internet access. So a national trend is affecting a group who are not part of that same trend. The picture isn't entirely bleak. Part of the solution will be Village Post Offices, where the USPS basically merges with a small local business, like a convenience store, and provides the training and materials to owners in order to still maintain postal services. One advantage, VPO's would be open longer than many postal offices.
- Senator Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, delivered a video-recorded speech where she complimented tribes for being able to "do more with less", a message which I'm sure as a conservative she also pointed at the Federal Government. For those not familiar with Murkowski, she was re-elected in 2010 as a write-in candidate in Alaska elections, winning with overwhelming support from state natives after being abandoned by Republicans for Joe Miller. It was a historic electoral feat, and I think Murkowski will be eternally grateful to Indian Country for her unlikely win.
- HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan shared this startling fact: 80 cents out of every Tribal dollar leaves Tribal reservations. He also noted that when housing is scarce in Indian communities, families cram into Tribal housing. Living in Tribal housing, I could certainly attest to that, and even could have before moving here.
- California Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, for whom there was the greatest buzz, offered some good quotes out of a speech that wasn't too specific: "How resources are allocated reflects our values", and "To change policies, we must change politics first".
- Congressman Edward J. Markey (D-MA), explained through his flat Boston accent (think "Good Will Hunting" or "The Town") that the word Massachussets is an old Indian word for "big hill". This I did not know, but should have.
- Greg Nadeau, Deputy Federal Highway Administrator for the Department of Transportation, reminded us that "Partisan politics have no place in transportation issues...there is no Democrat road or Republican bridge". Which of course I thought about and realized he was right.
- Congresswoman Betty McCollum (D-MN) touched on the language revival and the effort tribes in Minnesota are putting forth. She also spoke to violence against Native women, a trend she called an epidemic. McCollum provided a quote that I believe will become very relevant in Grand Ronde by about June, about making a difference: “Work for someone running for office, encourage someone to run for office…or run yourself.”
- Even more relevant, Tom Udall (D-NM): “Let’s have a lot less name-calling and more problem-solving.”