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Highlights from Day 1 of NCAI winter session in Washington, DC

Filed Under: National | Politics
More on: bia, brian cladoosby, carcieri, dc, don young, house, ihs, kevin washburn, land-into-trust, meetings, ncai, rob sanderson, robert mcghee, scia, senate, suicide, youth, yvette roubideaux

The National Congress of American Indians opened its winter session on Tuesday. Here are some highlights.

A New Leader
NCAI President Brian Cladoosby, welcomed all the "tribal chairs, presidents, governors and dictators" to Washington, D.C., as he gave an update on his activities since winning election last October at the organization's national conference in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Cladoosby, who also serves as chairman of the Swinomish Tribe of Washington, has been quite busy over the last four months. He's met with tribes in Alaska, Arizona, California, Nevada and North Carolina, and has attended conferences held by the National Indian Gaming Association, the Tanana Chiefs Conference and the United South and Eastern Tribes.

"Indian Country is alive," Cladoosby told attendees. "The energy is infectious."

More recently, Cladoosby and his wife, Nina, attended the White House State Dinner in honor of French President Francois Hollande last month. The couple stood out in photos thanks to the NCAI leader's distinctive cedar hat and cedar vest.

"Who would have ever thought that a couple of kids from the rez in the Northwest corner of the country would be sitting in the White House one day, having dinner with the president of France and the president of the United States of America?" Cladoosby said.

Cladoosby is serving a two-year term as president of NCAI.

Land-Into-Trust Woes
Land-into-trust is emerging as the biggest issue at the conference and NCAI continues to fight for a fix to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar to ensure all tribes can follow the process.

Five years later, however, a legislative remedy remains elusive. Cladoosby said the Senate Indian Affairs Committee can easily pass a fix but he noted that the problem lies with the full Senate, where concerns over gaming have stymied debate.

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, echoed that sentiment. He vowed to pass a "clean" Carcieri fix in the House but said it will get lost in the "dark hole" in the Senate without significant lobbying from tribes.

"It's very, very inoperative," Young said of the Senate.

With the Carcieri fix in limbo, a new threat has surfaced. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Big Lagoon Rancheria v. California has opened the doors for anyone to challenge a land-into-trust acquisition long after it has been finalized.

"Without a legislative fix, more and more cases will be filed across the country, raising the possibility that many tribal lands that have been held in trust for decades, or longer, could be taken out of trust status," said Robert McGhee, the treasurer for the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama.

Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn, the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, tried to bring some hope to the issue. Since President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, more than 240,000 acres have been placed in trust for tribes and individual Indians, he said.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has given Washburn a new goal -- 500,000 acres by the end of the Obama administration. “Get those applications in," the BIA leader told tribes.

Suicide Among Native Youth
Nearly every speaker brought up a sensitive issue in light of a front page story in The Washington Post on Monday about high rates of suicide among American Indian and Alaska Native youth.

Robert A. Sanderson Jr., a leader from the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Tribes, said Native villages in southeastern Alaska are seeing a resurgence of the problem.

"The suicide rate is climbing again at an alarming rate," Sanderson told Yvette Roubideaux, the director of the Indian Health Service.

Sanderson said existing solutions -- task forces and commissions -- aren't helping. He urged the IHS to direct more suicide prevention efforts to the tribes themselves.

"It is heartbreaking," Roubideaux said. "It's almost indescribable how horrible this problem is."

The session continues today. Highlights include Hilary Tompkins, the Solicitor at the Interior Department; Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), the new chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee; Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), a member of the Chickasaw Nation; Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson; Gina McCarthy, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency; and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan.

There will also be an update on the Tribal Supreme Court Project.

Related Stories:
National Congress of American Indians set for winter meeting (3/11)

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