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Live from NCAI annual convention in Tulsa

Indianz.Com is in Tulsa, Oklahoma, all week for the 62nd annual National Congress of American Indian convention. Join us daily for updates on all the happenings and events!

Violence Against Women
Diane Stewart, the director of the Office on Violence Against Women at the Department of Justice, spoke to NCAI during the morning session. She pledged to make ending violence against Native women a top priority, drawing applause from delegates.

Stewart said U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is very concerned about the high rates of violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women. When he was told that Native women are victimized at the highest rates in the nation, he initiated a staff effort to get more information, she said. "I'm here to tell you he is really, really concerned," Stewart told NCAI.

Voting Rights
John Tanner, the chief of the Voting Rights Section at the Department of Justice, spoke about the importance of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He cited a slew of cases in Montana, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, North Dakota, South Dakota and other states where the federal government has brought lawsuits to ensure Native voters are treated fairly and given equal access to the polls.

More significantly, he said the law has put Native people in public office. As one example, he cited Blaine County, Montana, whose voting system discriminated against Natives Americans and residents of the Fort Belknap Reservation. A DOJ lawsuit forced a change in the districting system and led to the election of Dolores Plumage, a Salish and Kootenai tribal member.

"The Indian voters in Blaine County now have a seat at the table," Tanner told tribal leaders.

Supreme Court Update
John Echohawk, the executive director of the Native American Rights Fund, said the Tribal Supreme Court project has been successful in protecting tribal interests at the U.S. Supreme Court. Since the project's inception after the disastrous 2001 session -- in which tribes lost five out of six cases -- only two cases have gone against Indian Country, Echohawk said.

As for the court's current term, only one Indian law case has been heard and no others have been accepted. "We're hoping that Chief Justice Roberts will have an open mind when he hears Native American cases," Echohawk said of John G. Roberts Jr., who argued two Indian cases before the high court as an attorney in private practice.

One Indian law-related case, involving religious freedom, was heard yesterday. Echohawk said he hoped the justices will limit their decision to the "compelling interest" test of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and bypass constitutional questions that could affect Native interests. "Hopefully, the Supreme Court can resolve the case on other grounds," he said.

John Dossett, the general counsel for NCAI, spoke about the lack of an Indian law record on Samuel Alito, a 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals judge who has been nominated to sit on the Supreme Court. Since no federally recognized tribes are located in 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, he hasn't ruled on any tribal issues. But, as reported by Indianz.Com yesterday, Alito sided with a man who claims to be Indian in a religious freedom case.

"Maybe it is a positive sign," Dossett said.

Civil Rights
Arlen Melendez, the chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony in Nevada, spoke to NCAI about his recent appointment to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. He is only the second Native American to serve on the commission. The first was Elsie Meeks, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

Melendez urged tribes to take an interest in the work of the commission. As one example, the panel will be taking up Native Hawaiian recognition, an issue that affects tribal sovereignty, in February 2006. "The bottom line is, Indian Country needs to weigh in," Melendez said. He also warned that the Denver office may be forced to close due to budget cuts even though it is "one of the most active" in terms of investigating Indian issues.

"The spirit of discrimination lives on," he said.

Trust Reform Update
Outgoing NCAI President Tex Hall said tribes only have a short amount of time to get in their concerns on a trust reform bill that would settle the Cobell v. Norton lawsuit, eliminate the Office of Special Trustee and make other changes at the Interior Department. Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) is leaving his position as chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and members of Congress will be busy with the 2006 elections, he said.

"I believe our window is within six months," he said. But he said the Bush administration and the Cobell plaintiffs remain far apart on provisions to settle the case.

David Mullon, an aide to McCain on the committee, said the committee is open to changes. "Nothing in the bill is set in stone," he told delegates. But he said "no substantial comments" have come from the Bush administration. "as of today, we have not received formal, or informal, comments from the Interior Department or the Department of Justice or Department of Treasury," he said.

Mullon said it was his personal view that the administration is holding back in anticipation of favorable rulings in the case at the appellate court level. McCain, in a video message delivered to NCAI on Monday, made the same comment.

But Mullon also said the plaintiffs are expressing objections. "It's going to require some compromise" on both sides, he said.

Interior Department Update
Jim Cason, the acting head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, warned of several pending budget cuts. Due to the billions being spent on hurricane relief and reconstruction, the BIA is "holding back" five percent of its current budget in anticipation of an across the board rescission.

Depending on the size of the rescission, the money might be "refunded" back to tribes and the programs. But it is unclear if any cuts are coming, Cason told tribal leaders. "At this point, no one really knows the answers," he said.

As for future cuts, the BIA is planning for a 0.2 reduction in 2007, Cason said.

Cason said he just signed a "Dear Tribal Leader" letter outlining the proposed contract support cost policy for self-determination agreements with tribes. The BIA will consult with tribes on the changes, he said.

As for Cobell, Cason said four issues are pending before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals -- the historical accounting, the bias of the former special master, the motion to get a new judge to replace Judge Royce Lamberth and information technology security. Cason claimed the Internet shutdown that Lamberth recently ordered will hurt the BIA.

"It would basically destroy our ability to provide services to Indian Country," he said. However, he did not elaborate.

Cason skimmed over the legislation to settle the Cobell case and implement reforms at Interior. He only said the department supported the "thought" behind the S.1439, introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota).

Relevant Links:
National Congress of American Indians -
Tulsa Planning Committee -

Related Stories:
Live from NCAI: Update from Opening Day (11/1)
NCAI kicks off annual convention in Tulsa (11/1)
NCAI ready to descend on Tulsa for annual meet (10/27)