NCAI in Nebraska
Seven years ago, in 2005, I visited Lincoln, Nebraska for the first time, touching down on a sweltering August afternoon into the heartland. My initial impression then? The heat. Not the dry, arid kind one might find in Arizona, but the suffocating, humid variety, almost tropical, like entering a greenhouse that has baked under the sun all day. Yeah, it’s like that.
In 2005 I was attending the Native American Journalists Association Annual Convention. June 18-20 I attended the Mid-year conference for the National Congress of American Indians, the first-ever in Lincoln, slightly surprising given the central location of Nebraska’s capitol to Oklahoma and the Dakotas, states with notable Native populations. But then again, who thinks of Lincoln, much less Nebraska, when talking about big conventions?
“Really? Oregon Ducks?” so said the lady in the lobby as I walked to the registration desk the morning of June 18th, sporting my forest green Oregon Ducks golf shirt. Her comments are to be expected. The hotel and site of the conference is the Cornhusker Hotel, in whose lobby is an ATM for Cornhusker Bank. Just several blocks away is the University of Nebraska, and Memorial Stadium, home of the Cornhuskers. Red is the predominant color of choice in Lincoln. I had to wear my Ducks gear, at the very least to provide balance. The day after, my shirt would be a brilliant yellow and white-striped polo.
This is my first Mid-year NCAI Conference, having attended the winter session in Washington, DC twice and several times the year-end conference where resolutions are passed, the most recent being in Portland last November. The format isn’t vastly different, as there are the usual pre-conference functions which usually consists of task force meetings, listening sessions, consultations, and face time with Federal representatives, and/or of an exposition of some nearby Tribe, in this case a tour of the Winnebago Reservation with Lance Morgan which for the record I regret missing. Morgan has made a name for himself in Indian Country, being the subject of a short documentary the last time I was in Lincoln, and also being featured years ago in an article on economic development in “The Economist”, one of the most widely read international news publications.
Like every NCAI convention, we kicked off with the posting of the colors, a drum song, and a welcome address from local and state representatives. This morning conference attendees were greeted by Chris Beutler, the Mayor of Lincoln, Lieutenant Governor Rick Sheehy, and Congressman Fortenberry, who quoted local native legend Chief Standing Bear in his speech. Sheehy bestowed an honorable admiralty to NCAI President Jefferson Keel and others, giving command over many things aquatic Nebraska, from sailors to tadpoles.
Keel provided his President’s Report, wherein he touched on multiple subjects, from urging a Carcieri “fix”, to the US Presidential elections, to the fact that nationally natives are on average the victims of fraud more than any other demographic group. He then yielded the podium to a number of speakers, including Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes, NCAI Executive Director Jacqueline Johnson Pata, who also urged action on a Carcieri “fix”, and Jodi Gillette, Senior Policy Advisor for Native American Affairs for the White House.
Lance Morgan seemed to be the one who virtually everybody wanted to hear. Now the CEO for Ho-Chunk, Inc. his organization employs people in 10 different states and three different countries, being a model of tribal economic development Tribes, he said, have incredible opportunities right now. They have access to grants, their own courts, write their own laws. He talked about how Ho-Chunk bought interest in a bank. There is no secret formula to success, he stated. Your people are the right people. But obstacles loom, Morgan explained, and among the greatest is the US Supreme Court. Congress doesn’t do much, but the Supreme Court, and States, he told us, are “the enemies”, by which I think he meant the real deterrents to native commerce. But he also railed slightly against Tribal leaders, saying they can act rationally, but are conservative in their approach, afraid to take the necessary risks. Set up an institution that can take the risks, he said, and let it happen. My guess is he had Ho-Chunk in mind as an example.
While often NCAI features numerous workshops, today we were forced to choose between several concurrent breakout sessions. I chose Native Vote 2012. As some probably are aware, Get Out The Native Vote is a nation-wide effort bent on converting the more than one million Native Americans who are unregistered voters into registered voters. Natives, more than any other ethnicity, are just plain bad when it comes to voting, ranking at the bottom in turnout, being unregistered, and turnout among registered voters. There are legitimate reasons, for example as one panel speaker shared malfunctions in electronic polling stations occur in or near Native communities more than anywhere else. Plus for more remote areas, there is a language barrier, as many older natives speak English as a second language. But still, the number of native votes could play key roles in at least 12 states this upcoming Presidential election, all the more reason to get registered. As expected, Lisa Murkowski’s improbable victory was cited as proof.
A native representative of “Rock the Vote” spoke of her efforts, which are increasingly revolving around social media. Two speakers, one from the Department of Justice, shared stories about election protection, segueing into anecdotes about robocalls, voter list purges, and all sorts of chicanery that you read about, and are thankful rarely happen in Tribal elections, for as colorful as they can be.
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The remaining two days of the National Congress of American Indians in Lincoln, Nebraska were as expected replete with breakout sessions, speakers, opportunities to socialize, and occasions to swap anecdotes on Tribal governance. As usual, some of the most memorable moments are the least expected.
One of those was a speaker by the name of Kevin Killer, a state representative from South Dakota, who looked every bit native, and in fact is although I don’t recall which tribe. He was here to talk about Native Vote 2012, and talked about the role, or lack thereof, his generation plays in national politics. It feels strange to refer to somebody only four years younger than me as belonging to another generation, but “millenials” as he called them are those born after Elvis Presley died, and I was born two years before, so there you have it. Regardless, the post-Presleyites will make up roughly 36% of the US population by 2016, and will be a much more diverse group than previous generations. So the future of America kind of matters to them, or should at least.
Killer made several points that surprised me. One was that in the Tea Party, in South Dakota anyway, are in fact very supportive of natives, for the simple reason that they support Constitutional rights. Two was that he recommended Tribal leaders turn to social media and the internet more, as demographically natives comprise the second highest percentage per capita of Facebook users, right behind Asian Americans. Last, and this was more to his original reason for speaking, was that the Native vote can make a difference, and he gave the obligatory nod to Lisa Murkowski and also to Minnesota Senator and former comedian Al Franken, who won by less than 400 votes, a margin he might have found difficult without the support of state natives.
The highlight of the conference, for me anyway, was sitting through the workshop titled “How Do Indigenous Knowledge, Science, and Language Matter”. All three presenters were engaging, but none more so than Kalani Souza, Executive Director for the Olohana Foundation. Like others I didn’t expect a long-maned and iconic Hawaiian elder man, because the name “Kalani” looks somewhat feminine. Wearing a lavalava pinned across his chest, bearing his clan colors of yellow and back, he regaled us through a light Polynesian accent on the evolution of Hawaiian language, and how like other native tongues it has been deformed by attempts at translation, Anglo-sized, and often misinterpreted.
“Because something is evident”, he warned us, “does not make it true.”
Hawaiian, Souza explained, consists these days of “New” and “Old”. Much of new Hawaiian is basically English translated, and usually not very accurately, into the native tongue. Old Hawaiian is basically what existed before the takeover of the islands by various colonial powers and missionaries, devoid of tenses. The most misused and misunderstood word? Aloha. What is “aloha”? Literally, the breath of first life. How it came to mean “Hello”, “Goodbye”, and “I love you”, he said, is beyond me. Well actually, it wasn’t. Hawaiians, he explained, would do little to correct linguists, content to let people interpret it as they wish. Every Hawaiian word, we were told, as up to four meanings.
As a teacher, Souza told us, he admonishes students for taking notes, a point that made everybody jotting down points like me smile. Taking notes is lazy, it makes people less likely to commit something to memory. I personally found this impractical, and after some hesitation resumed. The likelihood of my remembering the whole conference note-free was scant.
Souza faced a dilemma in his life. His grandfather, admittedly bitter at the takeover of Hawaii, urged him at a young age to “teach no one” the language and customs. Let it fade from memory. Kalani gave his word that we would do as instructed. But he found a loophole. His grandfather told him to “teach no one”, so by teaching everybody he was fulfilling his word, or not breaking anyhow.
Water and specifically water rights continue to be a big issue with numerous tribes around the country. Several speakers talked at length on their respective water issues, one Tribal leader calling clean water a “sovereign right”.
Another presenter, Desi Small-Rodriguez of the Northern Cheyenne, spoke about the need for tribes to engage in data development. Tribal data development is a tool for exercising self-determination, she told us over a Powerpoint. Her presentation was based upon her work with the Maori in New Zealand, and she spoke about her own tribe’s efforts to solicit more input from their members through a variety of surveys, and of course social media.
Two facts I learned:
- 47% of Native women have been victims of rape, stalking, or domestic violence. Hence such an emphasis on the Violence Against Women Act.
- The dropout rate of native youth is twice the national average. Which is why so many tribes are investing in education.
Lastly, I felt bad for the NCAI Executive Committee, but chuckled nonetheless when several speakers didn’t show up for their presentations on June 20, obviously not having given any notice of their absence. But on the plus side, the conference was able to finish up an hour early.