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Highlights from Day 2 of NCAI winter session in Washington DC

The National Congress of American Indians continued its winter session on Wednesday. Here are some highlights.

More Land-Into-Trust Woes
The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar dominated discussion once again but this time members of Congress were talking about it.

"As you know, we haven’t really moved anything," Rep. Frank Pallone (D-New Jersey) told tribal leaders, five years after the decision sparked uncertainty in Indian Country. "We are still trying to accomplish that, if possible, before the end of the session."

So far in the 113th Congress, two bills have been introduced in the House -- H.R.279, and H.R.666. But there have been no hearings on either measure.

Over in the Senate, no bills have been introduced. But Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) vowed to pass a "clean" fix and by that he said he won't take any efforts to exclude Alaska tribes despite concerns from the state and other lawmakers.

“We want to make sure this gets done," Begich told NCAI.

Violence Against Women Act in Alaska
Tribes have been celebrating the one-year anniversary of S.47, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act. The landmark law recognizes tribal authority over non-Indian offenders.

But NCAI is pushing for Congress to address a big void in the law -- Alaska tribes were not included in the jurisdiction provisions. Begich said S.1474, the Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act, will address the situation.

"Everyone should be treated the same, especially victims of domestic violence," Begich said. He expects the Senate Indian Affairs Committee to hold a hearing on the bill next month.

A Heartfelt Apology
Gina McCarthy, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, made news last week for moving to protect an important Alaska Native salmon fishery from development. But an off-hand comment about her recent visit to the state had Native leaders fuming.

A March 7 article in The Wall Street Journal said McCarthy complained about ethics rules regarding gifts. She used coarse language and appeared to ridicule a jar of moose meat presented to her by a Native girl.

"They showed me great honor and dignity and I want to thank them for it and let them to know that never would I disparage a gift that I received and never would I want to disrespect the individuals in those tribes," McCarthy said of her Native hosts.

"I apologize if I have hurt anyone. I was clearly insensitive," McCarthy said.

Ed Thomas, the president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Tribes, thanked McCarthy for meeting with Alaska Native leaders prior to her appearance at NCAI. He said they would "receive" the apology but urged her to convey it directly to those in Alaska, something she said she would do.

Supreme Court Update
It's been nearly 13 years since NCAI and the Native American Rights Fund launched their Tribal Supreme Court Project in response to a series of highly negative rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court.

The situation remains as dire as ever, NARF attorney Richard Guest said. Even though fewer Indian law cases are being heard, a majority of the justices do not appear to be on the side of tribal interests, he observed.

That was clearly the case during the December 2, 2013, oral arguments in Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community, Guest said. Although the dispute originated with a gaming facility it really is about a key aspect of sovereignty -- tribal immunity.

“The court was looking for a way to provide remedies for the states," Guest said of the debate.

According to his analysis, only two justices -- Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan -- appear to understand tribal interests. They also happen to be the newest members of the court.

But the fact that the high court has yet to release a decision in Bay Mills even though cases argued around the same time, and even more recently, have been adjudicated sends a signal, Guest said. "What it tells us is that the court is struggling," he told NCAI.

The justices will be releasing more opinions starting on March 24, so Guest urged tribal leaders to keep an eye out for a decision.

Promise Zones
In January, President Barack Obama selected the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma as one of the first five participants in a new anti-poverty program.

Obama plans to name 15 more Promise Zones over the next three years. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan said the application process will be opening soon and he urged tribes to compete.

“You know better than the federal government what your community needs to succeed," Donovan said.

Information for the next round will be posted at

The Final Day
NCAI wraps up its session today with an early, early morning speech from Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-California), the House Democratic leader. She's due to go on stage at 8:40am.

Tribal leaders will also hear from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack; Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon), the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee; Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii), the top Democrat on the House Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs; and Rep. Mike Honda (D-California) before adjourning at noon.

Related Stories:
Highlights from Day 1 of NCAI winter session in Washington DC (3/12)
National Congress of American Indians set for winter meeting (3/11)

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