Jefferson Keel, the lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation, celebrates his election as president of the National Congress of American Indians at the organization's 74th annual convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on October 19, 2017. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

National Congress of American Indians lines up speakers for big meeting in D.C.

The National Congress of American Indians is preparing for a big meeting in Washington, D.C., as tribes continue to deal with political challenges.

Hundreds of tribal leaders are scheduled to hear from top Trump administration officials and key lawmakers at the winter session next month. NCAI President Jefferson Keel will kick off the week by delivering the State of Indian Nations on February 12.

The speech will be Keel's first since winning a close election last October. But it's a familiar setting for the lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation, who previously served two terms as NCAI's president during the earlier years of the Obama administration.

Still, the political landscape has shifted significantly since then. Republicans are in control of both chambers of Congress. There's also a Republican in the White House, of course, with President Donald Trump entering his second year in office.

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NCAI and its member tribes have criticized a number of the Trump administration's decisions, including the approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The organization is fighting changes to the land-into-trust process that tribes say will make it harder to restore their homelands and is also opposing the dismantling of the Bears Ears National Monument.

But NCAI and its leaders are quick to point out that Indian issues should be non-partisan. The agenda for the upcoming meeting reflects that philosophy, with scheduled appearances from Secretary Ryan Zinke of the Department of the Interior; Secretary David Shulkin of the Department of Veteran Affairs, who previously served in the Obama administration; and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein of the Department of Justice.

In announcing Zinke's commitment to appear last week, Keel stressed the need to work with the new administration in order to "address the needs of tribes" and "strengthen Indian Country’s relationship" with the executive department. But largely, tribes have seen more successes in the past year on the legislative front.

Last month, Congress finally passed a bill to make a key tribal employment program permanent. Another bill to help tribes in Oregon with issues affecting their homelands became law this month.

A historic measure to recognize six tribes in Virginia cleared its last hurdle on Capitol Hill just a couple of weeks ago. And a slew of tribal homelands bills are on the cusp of passage.

So it's little surprise that NCAI is due to hear from lawmakers from both parties. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-California), the Democratic leader in the House; Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs; Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee; Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), a prominent member of the House Committee on Natural Resources; and Rep. Steve Pearce (R-New Mexico) are among those on the agenda.

NCAI's winter session takes place February 12-15. The State of Indian Nations will be held at the Newseum, while the conference will be at the Capital Hilton.

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