Tribes tackle new political environment

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New challenges face Indian Country with the Republican Party in control of the White House and Congress, tribal leaders said on Monday.

At the opening day of the National Congress of American Indians in San Diego, California, the results of last week's election were a hot topic. Tribal leaders applauded the power of the Indian vote and pointed to gaming victories in Arizona and Idaho.

"It is a tremendous show of our unity," NCAI President Tex Hall told the crowd of hundreds.

But tribal leaders expressed concern that their priorities will be shifted under GOP rule. Trust reform, sovereignty protection, federal funding and health care were among the issues mentioned.

"I'm kind of afraid of what they are doing," said Dottie Welch, a Makah Nation of Washington tribal member.

Jennifer Farley, a White House aide within the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, sought to respond to the concerns. "I noticed there's a lot of fear," she said.

Farley urged tribal leaders to contact the White House directly before arriving at conclusions on new Bush administration policies. "We are here," she said. "We are approachable and we are accessible.'

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) addressed the gathering and reaffirmed his support for tribal self-determination. "We can't let them go back and start back-pedaling from the progress that we made," he said, referring to recent Supreme Court decisions.

When Congress resumes next session, Campbell will return as chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. He encouraged tribes to cultivate relationships with lawmakers on a continual basis.

"You've got friends on both sides of the aisle," he said, "but they're not getting any younger."

Congress returns for a lame-duck session today. Paul Moorehead, Campbell's chief aide on the Indian committee, said homeland security, terrorism insurance, the federal budget and energy policy were top on the Senate agenda.

Judicial nominees, a prescription drug benefit, tax issues and development of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will become new priorities when lawmakers convene for a new session next year, he added. For Indian affairs, he said trust reform, housing, education, federal recognition and an "omnibus" catch-all bill were pending.

NCAI returns today with a large focus on recent trust developments. Tribal leaders will be provided with an update on the Cobell litigation and other efforts to correct more than a century of Indian asset mismanagement.

The session will conclude on Friday.

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