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The Rise of Tribes and the Fall of Federal Indian Law
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Highlights from Day 1 of National Congress of American Indians

Filed Under: National | Politics
More on: bay mills, doj, football, icwa, immunity, john echohawk, mascots, meetings, ncai, nicwa, oklahoma, racism, redskins, shutdown, supreme court, suzan shown harjo, terry cross
     

The National Congress of American Indians kicked off its 70th annual convention in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Monday. Here are some of the highlights of the opening day.

Shutdown Grounds Guests
NCAI conferences typically attract top federal officials and high-ranking members of Congress. This year was to be no different -- except for the shutdown of the federal government.

Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn, the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Yvette Roubideaux, the director of the Indian Health Service, were among those who were stuck in Washington, D.C. Two White House officials -- Jodi Gillette and Charlie Galbraith -- also couldn't make it.

Neither could the only two enrolled tribal members in Congress who would have felt right at home. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, and Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma), a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, had to stay on Capitol Hill to continue work on the shutdown.

Jefferson Keel, NCAI's outgoing president, offered a blunt assessment of the situation. He asked tribal leaders what they would do if their employees didn't show up for work.

"It's up to us to replace these folks who refuse to do their jobs," Keel said.

ICWA Concerns
Oklahoma has been ground zero for the Indian Child Welfare Act in recent months due to the controversy surrounding the adoption of a girl from the Cherokee Nation so the law is high on the agenda this year.

Gov. Mary Fallin (R), who signed the extradition order for Dusten Brown, the biological father of the girl, addressed NCAI on the opening day. However, she only briefly discussed child welfare and didn't take questions from tribal leaders after her speech.

"We know working together we can serve our children better in the state," Fallin said.

Terry Cross, the executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, spoke in depth about the controversy later in the day. He said what happened to Brown and his family could happen to other tribal parents due to the changing nature of the adoption industry.

"International adoptions have dried up and so adoption attorneys want our children," Cross warned. "Our children are not for sale."

One of the main concerns with ICWA is lack of compliance. Cross suggested that the federal government withhold grants to states that fail to abide by the law.

"There really are very few consequences if someone violates the law," Cross said.

NICWA and NCAI are urging the Department of Justice to investigate the adoption from a civil rights perspective. Cross urged tribes to write letters, pass resolutions and lobby federal officials to ensure Indian children are being protected.

"The more the administration hears from tribes on the issue, the more likely they will investigate," he said.

NCAI will be honoring Dusten Brown at the convention today.

Supreme Court Showdown
John Echohawk, the executive director of the Native American Rights Fund, brought a familiar warning to tribal leaders -- don't bring your cases to the U.S. Supreme Court. Of the last 10 Indian law cases that went before the court, tribes lost 9 of them, he said.

"Since 2006, tribal interests have once again accumulated a very bad losing record," Echohawk told NCAI.

Tribal leaders are bracing for another negative outcome with Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community, which the court is due to hear on December 2. The case pits states against tribes and could lead to an erosion of tribal sovereign immunity.

But NARF and NCAI are asking tribes not to submit briefs to the court. That's a big shift from prior strategy -- in the ICWA case, for example, there were 24 briefs supporting Dusten Brown and the law in general.

Instead, tribes are being urged to join just one brief. Richard Guest, an attorney with NARF, said the goal is to speak with "one voice."

"The more tribes that we can sign onto this amicus brief," Guest told NCAI, "the better chance we have of persuading the court."

Eliminating Racist Mascots
Activist Suzan Shown Harjo drew strong statements of support at NCAI as part of the ongoing campaign to eliminate the use of "Indian" mascots in public schools and professional sports.

When the battle began in the 1970s, there were about 3,000 stereotypical images of Indian people and Indian symbols in use, Harjo said. Now there's only about 900.

"So we have actually won this fight," Harjo told attendees. "We have won it on a societal level."

But the Washington professional football team remains one of the holdouts despite increased pressure to eliminate the name. Harjo suggested cutting off ties with businesses that align themselves with racist mascots.

"So its probably about time we all quit using FedEx," Harjo said. FedEx holds the naming rights to the stadium where the team plays.

Bank of America is a major sponsor of the team -- fans can even brand their checks and debit cards with the name. Tribes do a lot of business with the institution, Harjo noted.

"We have to think about who we are in bed with," Harjo said.

Related Stories:
National Congress of American Indians opens annual meeting (10/14)


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