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Updates from National Congress of American Indians winter session in DC

National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby. February 24, 2015. Photo by Amy Stretten / Twitter

Some highlights from the opening day of the National Congress of American Indians winter session in Washington, D.C.

A New Landscape on Capitol Hill
Tribal leaders are used to working with the two major political parties, a bipartisan spirit that must continue now that Republicans control both chambers of Congress, National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby observed in his opening remarks.

Cladoosby pointed out that Republicans helped champion the Tribal General Welfare Exclusion Act last year. So tribes will need to reach out even more to the majority in order to advance other priorities, such as a long-delayed fix to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar, he said.

"What does divided government mean for Indian Country?” Cladoosby said. "The best way to respond to divided government in Washington is to unite our voices as tribal governments."

A united voice will get a Carcieri fix passed in the 114th Congress, Cladoosby said. That means tribes must set aside other divisive issues -- such as gaming -- for now, he said.

"Let's get a clean Carcieri fix in Indian Country," Cladoosby said.

Presidential Politics
Speaking of legislative priorities, tribes have to act quickly before the 2016 presidential election overtakes everything in Washington, NCAI executive director Jackie Pata said.

"After August of this year, all of our issues will take a different political tone and it will be harder to get things done," Pata told tribal leaders.

In addition to the Carcieri fix, Pata identified several big ticket items for Indian Country. They include the reauthorization of the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act, the reauthorization of federal transportation programs, the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, long-overdue updates to the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act to put tribes on the same footing as states when it comes to federal labor law and a permanent solution for the funding of contract support costs at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service.

NAHASDA expired in September 2013 and efforts to reauthorize it have repeatedly failed. Pata, a former Indian housing official, explained one reason why -- some Republicans are objecting to the inclusion of Native Hawaiians in the bill even though Congress has been approving Native Hawaiians housing programs for decades.

Indian Child Welfare Act Concerns
Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978 to stop the removal of Indian children from Indian homes but Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn said the goals of the law remain elusive.

Washburn, the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, singled out South Dakota as one place where ICWA appears to be routinely ignored by state officials, the judicial system and adoption agencies that are all too eager to remove Indian children from their families. He recounted one listening session where the head of a private adoption firm accused tribes of wanting to take away "her" children -- the children she wants to place in non-Indian homes.

"We’ve heard that child adoption agencies are really trying to evade ICWA," Washburn told NCAI.

In hopes of changing the situation, the BIA issued new ICWA guidelines for state courts and state agencies. Washburn said the update, which was 35 years in the making, was long overdue.

“Kids are our future," Washburn said. "They're the future leaders of our tribes and they are being taken from us."

A Look Ahead
NCAI returns to session today for more updates on key issues, including the Tribal Supreme Court Project and the implementation of the tribal provisions of the Violence Against Women Act. The 17th Annual Leadership Awards Banquet also takes place tonight.

For more details about this week's meeting, including agendas, visit

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