By the end of the 70th annual National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) convention October 13-18 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a new president will be elected to lead the organization.
Four respected and well-known tribal leaders have been campaigning for the position, they are Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Tribe; Juana Majel-Dixon, Pauma Band of Mission Indians council member and NCAI first vice president; Joe A. Garcia, Ohkay Owingeh council member and former NCAI president (2006-09); and George Tiger, principal chief of the Muscogee Creek Nation.
NCAI’s president serves a two-year term and is not salaried. But the job has a lot of clout in Indian country and on the Hill. Since 1944, NCAI has served as the unified voice for American Indian and Alaska Native issues. Headquartered at the Embassy of Tribal Nations in Washington, D.C., NCAI brings government, private sector and public sector partners together to take on some of Indian country’s greatest challenges.
The president helps guide the organization in its role as “a forum for unified policy development among tribal governments in order to: (1) protect and advance tribal governance and treaty rights; (2) promote economic development and health and welfare in Indian and Alaska Native communities; and (3) educate the public toward a better understanding of Indian and Alaska Native tribes.” That includes educating government leaders and the general public about the powerful place tribal governments have within the United States family of governments. Among the candidates, promotion and protection of sovereignty – the inherent authority and right of America’s First Governments to govern themselves – is a common priority.
In this Q&A, the presidential candidates share with Indian Country Today Media Network their vision for NCAI, and what each hopes to accomplish at the helm.
What compelled you to run for NCAI president?
Garcia: Our identity is our Spirit and our spirit provides us with a vision of compassion as tribal nations. The spirit of the people requires nourishment, rejuvenation and strength and our existence as citizens of nations requires quality of life and full address of health and well being. I recognize that my traditional upbringing strengthens my sense of duty to public service and NCAI has a central role in providing leadership to tribal issues.
My leadership, steeped in traditional teaching, is needed as we contend with issues such as self-governance, Indian Child Welfare, language revitalization, environmental protection and seeking economic solvency in the midst of a faltering economy. In order to maintain our identity but make progress with quality of life issues that our people deserve, we must hold a strong line of defense in the protection of our traditions while strengthening our sovereignty through deliberate thoughtful and strategic action carried by the prayers coming from the past leading us into a better tomorrow.
Tiger: I chose to run for this position because I believe that my upbringing in our Indian community combined with a career in public service both in and out of tribal elective office will allow me to meet the challenges facing Indian country and specifically NCAI.
Cladoosby: I am only able to consider putting myself forward to lead an organization like NCAI because of the guidance of the Creator. My choices in life are guided by my faith, a commitment to our people and a drive to uphold the values and teachings that have been passed down from generation to generation.
I felt in my heart that it was time to run for president of NCAI. That's a humbling feeling, but it just seemed like the right time to expand my service to all of Indian country through supporting this tremendous organization. We have so many challenges in Indian country today and among all the great tribal organizations, NCAI is the one where we all come together. I would be honored to serve all tribes across our country through NCAI.
I've been in tribal politics over half of my adult life. I've had the privilege of serving on the Swinomish Senate for 29 years and as our tribe’s chairman for 17 years. … Before deciding to become a candidate for this important position, I received backing from the most important person in my life, my wife of 34 years, Nina. I also received support from 100 percent of my fellow senators. I know that I would not be God's gift to NCAI. If NCAI members select me to lead, NCAI would be the Creator's gift to me.
Majel-Dixon: Due to my passion and my commitment to Indian country, prior NCAI presidents and many tribal leaders have requested that I run for NCAI president for several years.
My mother, Lorena Majel Dixon, was a member of NCAI long before me. It was extremely gratifying to me that, as a long-standing member, she was able to witness her daughter serve on the NCAI board. She has asked that I walk in her steps in order to uphold a sacred trust to protect the sovereignty and safety of all our Native people.
It is our belief, as traditionalists, that if it is good for the people, then it is good for you. Additionally, we were raised with the belief that if you give breath to the words, they no longer belong to you, they belong to the people. Lastly, I have been asked as a Strong Hearted Woman [a member of the Strong Hearted Native Women's Coalition] to step forward, and I have wholeheartedly committed myself to this task.
What would be the top priorities of your presidency?
Tiger: In one word – Unity. We need to bring our tribal nations together to support one another in crisis, to speak with a unified voice either to the President, Congress, and the courts or to the media. We can’t let ourselves get marginalized politically because of divisions in our community.
Garcia: As sovereign nations working in a collaborative effort with the Federal Government, there are nation-to-nation relationships founded upon legal premises that work in our favor. Understanding the systems and agencies within the legal contexts with the greatest impact upon tribal activity is key to strengthening sovereignty and designing tools to increase our leveraging capacity.
The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), for instance, sets funding priorities. It is clear that a policy and legislative agenda addressing this administrative office to make it more responsive to Tribal needs would be a strategic pursuit. In addition to addressing the Federal Government and its influence over tribal issues, I would pursue economic development through self-governance and bring the two issues together via NCAI policy development and continued training opportunities.
We have a responsibility to assure accountability forthcoming by the Federal Government as we adapt to social programs like the Affordable Care Act, wherein benefits to tribal citizens in the form of better health care does not diminish the provision of services that are part of treaty obligations. The balance to uphold treaty obligations while advancing social issues must be a conscientious part of deliberations with all policy agendas facing Indian country.
I would enhance policy development training for Tribes and Alaska Natives, increase capacity for Tribal legislative development, and provide technical assistance training in order to improve the ability of tribes to enhance and leverage policy.
Majel-Dixon: Sovereignty, including all aspects of health, education and welfare. We, as tribal leaders, need to support education and health that incorporate our culture and traditions, which will benefit the community and will keep the environment alive.
Diversify tribal economy. We need to have the ability to develop and diversify our tribal economy and build sustainable prosperity for generations to come, without prejudice or interference.
Supreme Court and Sovereignty Initiative [a project of NCAI].
Our natural resources. Our culture and traditions, as well as our songs and stories, tell us that we are responsible for and protectors of this land. Imagine, if you will, your ancestors, grandparents and parents enduring decades of violence, terror, repression and genocide because they are the indigenous people of this land who want to keep their lands to practice their beliefs of the Creator and all things are related. That is our sacred trust. Tribal leaders need to stand up for you and your children. They need to stand up and challenge the federal and state laws that took our lands and all natural resources.
Public safety. Imagine having to endure tremendous abuse because there is nowhere to turn.
What emerging or existing issues do you see as being of most concern to Indian country?
Tiger: We need to make sure the trust relationship between the federal government and the tribes is intact for future generations. With the ongoing fight over federal spending in Washington D.C. It’s going to be real easy to justify Indian country to accept even more cuts. That has to change! It is a quiet crisis and has gone on for too long.
Cladoosby: The range of issues coming to Indian country and Alaska Native villages never seem to diminish. And, while there are unique regional and cultural issues that must be respected and supported, a few common issues that come to mind include: returning Indian land to Indian ownership and placing it into trust, dealing with taxation and economic development issues, health care, education, natural resource protection and keeping an eye on election abuses in Indian country because of the recent Supreme Court decision watering down the Voting Rights Act.
On which issues should NCAI flex more muscle?
Tiger: Better control over tribal lands and natural resources is something people tend to overlook on a national level.
Garcia: NCAI oversees numerous issues that are ever expanding. Their expertise and dedication to the tribes and their citizens is invaluable. We are often sorting out overwhelming issues and keeping a rigorous pace, so it is possible that we don’t always connect issues that would reinforce effectiveness.
Energy development is an area of focus that I would invite the tribes to join with me to explore and advance a collaborative agenda.
Cladoosby: I don't think tribal leaders have ever been more effective and influential than today. The support we receive from organizations like NCAI is a big part of that effectiveness. NCAI works with all of our inter-tribal regional organizations and tribal governments to remain on top of all the national issues that involve Indian country and Alaska Native villages.
Tribes are never stronger than when we speak with a unified voice.
Majel-Dixon: We need to help integrate Native health systems into multijurisdictional public health systems. We also need to take a stronger stance regarding our tribal sovereignty. Funding across federal departments, including base and parity level funding that works for large land-based tribes and small land-base tribes. Federal policy that fails to recognize governmental parity between tribes and states hurt the American economy by limiting the economic potential of tribal nations.
What are NCAI’s strengths and weaknesses, and how would your presidency make a difference?
Garcia: Strengths: Communications, network of contacts, partnerships, knowledgeable personnel, use of leadership, improved use of technology
Weaknesses: Not reaching out to all of [American Indian and Alaska Native] country for issues, turnover of personnel is high, partnerships with other national Indian organizations, spirituality lost in constant shuffle of issues, not enough time at NCAI assemblies for tribal leader discussions.
Majel-Dixon: How does one create an Interagency Native Policy Council, which will include, but not be limited to, protection of sovereignty, safety, our youth, consultation, tax, law enforcement, education, and data collection? NCAI has in the past made strong allies with our Native national organizations, and it is with this effort we can move forward as this is one of our strengths.
We need a coordinated effort of all federal partners who serve Indian country. Possibly NCAI and a new Native America Affairs Council come close to starting this. I would do my best to ensure that this council is created and we do all we can to support it.
Acknowledging governmental parity in energy policy that would promote tribal economic security and contribute to America’s energy independence is essential to tribes.
I would want to ensure that we have full inclusion of tribes in tax reform, as that is a must in Indian country.
In addition, two specific commitments that we need are (1) support for the full representation of tribal nations at the U.N. in a manner consistent with nation states, and (2) full implementation of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
We also need to create an Associate Director for Native Programs position in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). This position would act to coordinate priorities across the federal government and ensure that OMB budgets and policies provide stable funding for tribal governments.
I am confident that my presidency would not only make a difference in what I see as priorities, but more importantly, what Indian country believes are the priorities to be addressed.
What should be done to ensure greater understanding of sovereignty outside of Indian country?
Tiger: Education about our history, our current state of affairs and our struggle to overcome the historical trauma that continues to plague our people. Tribal leaders are individually doing the best they can with the resources they have to overcome the remnants of years of neglect and abuse of our Native people.
Garcia: We need to identify and target the audiences and educate, but it needs to be a comprehensive and consistent approach. Sovereignty per se is not even taught in law school, even for federal Indian law. We speak about it but we sometimes don’t act it. This is also evident in schools, especially in public schools run under state school district jurisdiction.
Cladoosby: Repetition, repetition, repetition. As tribal leaders we are continually educating others outside Indian country, whether the public at large or local, county, state or federal government officials. We need to continue to tell our story over and over and never get tired of telling it. No one can tell our story better than we can.
Majel-Dixon: One of the most difficult challenges we faced in building a national movement to restore tribal criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians [in VAWA] was the general lack of understanding in the U.S. of tribes as sovereigns. This country has raised its young not to know the history or reality of Indian tribes. We need this country to amend their public school curriculum to include the history and current reality of Indian tribes from K–12.
What is your understanding of tribal governments (a BIA-recognized, or imposed system) and traditional indigenous governments?
Garcia: I have had an opportunity to visit many tribal communities and have met with many tribal leaders, nations, consortiums and tribal members, giving me a better understanding of the forms of government in place.
The types of governments are very diverse, the common thing being that the governments are sovereign and they represent the people. Diversity is important and just as important is commonality – part of the reason why solutions cannot be one shoe fits all.
Tribal governments are justified in changing their role and status as deemed necessary. It is totally their call, not the Federal Government’s or the states’ call.
Cladoosby: I've been involved with tribal government for nearly three decades now. My fellow council members and all the tribal leaders I have served with across the country have given me an education worth a Ph.D. in tribal Government. You cannot get that kind of teaching from any college or institution of higher learning.
I know the Swinomish people, like every other tribal nation, have had a form of self governance since time immemorial. We will continue to be self-governing for the next seven generations and beyond – informed by the teachings we have received from our elders and being mindful of the generations yet to come.
Majel-Dixon: Tribal governments have had a form of government imposed upon them that, traditionally, went against how they have governed themselves for many years.
Fortunately, tribes have the inherent sovereignty to retain their customs and traditions by incorporating the “non-Indian” model into their form of government. Tribes have largely succeeded in retaining their inherent right to govern by custom and tradition by incorporating the workable aspects of the non-Indian governmental model that have been developed throughout the years by tribal policy or partnerships with other tribes or federal programs, for the good of the people.
Most, if not all, treaties were made between the U.S. government and traditional indigenous governments. What is the role, in your mind, of tribal governments?
Cladoosby: The role of a tribal government is to provide the best essential governmental services to its people. Tribal governments are the stewards of the commitments made in our treaties and the future our ancestors gifted to us.
As a result, Tribal governments can never give up on protecting our treaty rights, never give up on protecting our lands, never give up on protecting our natural resources and must continue to focus on producing economic sustainability for our communities.
Tribal governments must make sure that health and education are top priorities because health and education are the keys to prosperous and vibrant communities.
Tiger: I know it sounds cliché, there really is a simple answer – To protect and serve our people. We can only do that when our governments are strong.